Striking a Different Tune

The life of national 'wartime singer' Yaffa Yarkoni, who died this week, reflects the pangs of identity of a changing society.

Yaffa Yarkoni lived from war to war, like many Israelis, and before she turned 20 she was already a war widow. Her first husband, Yossi Gustin, enlisted in the British Army's Jewish Brigade immediately after the two wed in 1944, and less than two months later, he was killed in Italy.

Yarkoni did not like the epithet of "wartime singer" that stuck to her, but the title is fitting. Not only because she frequently performed for soldiers at the front, but mainly because her songs conveyed total identification with the declared goals of Israel's wars, starting with 1948: "The battle has a point," she sang - the words were written by Rafael Klachkin - "so that a day will come sometime, we will be able to breathe here and live."

Yafa Yarkoni
Eldan David

For his part, poet Haim Hefer put nostalgia in her mouth: "We fought and we loved," she sang, as though the war had been a youthful, fun experience. Hefer also wrote a "ballad" about the Six-Day War that Yarkoni sang: In the final verse, one of the war's fatalities arrives in heaven and the angels stand to attention in his honor: "And a great light rises up to him above, from the Six-Day road."

One song by Yoram Taharlev that Yarkoni sang was written in honor of Shlomo Goren, then-chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces ("When the people was called to the mast, then the rabbi, our rabbi Goren ..." ). All of this radiated a sugary, obedient patriotism. In this respect, Yarkoni was a very national and political singer.

But at different periods in her life, Yarkoni's story was one of other wars. In fact her persona could be seen to embody "a different history" of Israel - an almost subversive one.

One day, probably in November 1947, Yarkoni came to Kibbutz Sdot Yam to perform for members of the Palyam, the naval arm of the elite Palmach strike force.

"There was an old grand piano there," writer Yoram Kaniuk recalled this week, "and the pretty woman Yaffa sat herself down on the piano, crossed one leg over the other and sang ... 'War is a dream, dipped in a sea of tears.'"

The guys were hypnotized, Kaniuk wrote this week, mainly by the words: "War is a dream" were not words found in poems by Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman, which Kaniuk himself recited for the Pakyam's members (he had been put in charge of their cultural activities ). Suddenly Benny Marshak, one of the chief ideologues of the Palmach, showed up and ordered Yarkoni to leave. "She sings prayers to a false god," he shouted.

For back then, Yarkoni was a singer of "the golden youth" - the derisive label given to the students at the Gymnasia in Tel Aviv who did not belong to the Labor movement's youth organizations.

"They dressed differently from us," Kaniuk wrote, "a few of them had around their necks a pendant with a picture of the long legs of the actress Betty Grable," likewise a well-known wartime entertainer. This was, in the language of those days, the "salon" culture.

Yarkoni got her start singing in her mother's little "bourgeois" coffee shop, in Givatayim. The lyrics of the songs she sang were inspired by music that was popular in American and European dance clubs, such as the tango; the words were often tearfully sentimental. By contrast, the ideology of the Palmach nurtured an elitist patriotism, toughness and earthy ruggedness, in the spirit of what was dubbed the "working settlement" enterprise - as the kibbutz movement was called. The inspiration for its music frequently came from Stalin's Soviet Union.

Finding herself

This ideological conflict sparked one of the great battles in the culture wars that have accompanied the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel since its inception: The more Yaffa Yarkoni blossomed, the "bourgeoisie" triumphed and the working settlement declined.

In 1955 Yarkoni once again found herself, against her will, embroiled in a conflict relating to the fundamental values of the new state - when her second husband, Shaike Yarkoni, became a major figure in one of the first corruption scandals that shook Israel. Kaniuk remembers him as one of the patrons of Kasit, the legendary Tel Aviv cafe, many of whose clientele, veterans of the War of Independence, longed for the days of war and love that they had left behind - along with their futures. Many exuded disappointment; the state seemed to have slipped through their fingers. Shaike Yarkoni appealed to Kaniuk, who wrote: "I saw in him a daring and wise pirate."

A group of students that had initially organized about that time to help new immigrants recreated itself as Shurat Hamitnadvim (literally, the Line of Volunteers ), and undertook to expose evidence of favoritism and corruption in government. Among other things the group alleged that Shaike Yarkoni , with others, had illicitly received funds that originated in the property of Holocaust victims. The students charged that the police closed the case against Yarkoni because he was a childhood friend of the then-deputy police commissioner, Amos Ben-Gurion, who was also the prime minister's son. Amos Ben-Gurion sued the Line of Volunteers for libel and won his case in the Tel Aviv District Court, but the Supreme Court later reduced the fine imposed on the students and essentially overturned the entire verdict. Some wringing of hands ensued: What have we come to, and what has happened to us since our days in the Palmach, people wondered - like the line in one of the songs Yaffa Yarkoni performed.

Amos Ben-Gurion was the most prominent man to be suspected of involvement in a crime until that time, and the libel suit he initiated is considered one of the cornerstones of the conflict in this country between the rule of law and politics. Together with the Kastner trial, this trial created initial cracks in the rule of Mapai. The reality that the libel trial revealed was a far cry from the self-image the state's official institutions nurtured. This in turn may have bolstered nostalgia for the days of "a cart with a mare" - something that Yarkoni also sang about. Either way, she was not involved in the case, but on more than one occasion it was mentioned that her husband was involved; he died in 1983.

In the early 1980s, Israel was quite a distance from the early days that had shaped its image in its own eyes and in the eyes of others. But while Yarkoni still sang "Bab el-Wad, please remember our names forever," as per Haim Gouri's poem, soldiers in Lebanon sang "Airplane, come down to us and we will return in a coffin" - a parody of a popular children's song that Yarkoni also recorded.

It sometimes still seemed back then that Yarkoni was singing the national consensus, along with Shoshana Damari and Naomi Shemer; indeed, television loved to love the three of them. But the consensus was already an optical illusion: Israel's culture wars had nearly turned into civil wars by then. Damari managed to keep her opinions to herself; Shemer identified with the settlers. And one day, to our great surprise, it turned out that Yaffa Yarkoni also listened to the news.

It happened about 10 years ago: Between March and May of 2002, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Defensive Shield to eradicate the second intifada raging in several West Bank cities, including Jenin, scores of whose residents were killed. The operation was covered on television, and among other things images were broadcast of soldiers writing numbers on the hands of wanted Palestinians. Yarkoni was horrified, and when she was approached by reporters from Army Radio, said something like, "What have we come to and what happened to us?" And added: "We are a people that went through the Holocaust, how are we capable of doing things like this?" Within 24 hours she became the most hated woman in the country: "Yaffa Yarkoni compares IDF soldiers to Nazis," the headlines screamed. That was on the eve of Memorial Day.

Yarkoni probably did not think carefully in advance about what she said; had she known what the consequences would be, she might have held back. All her life she had taken care to preserve her status as a national asset.

Since the time that allegations were directed at David Ben-Gurion's son for helping to stop a friend's criminal investigation, public discourse in Israel has grown accustomed to even more terrible words along those same lines: Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who supported the Line of Volunteers at the time, compared Israel to Nazis years before Yarkoni said what she said - and more stridently. And he did not recant, whereas she apologized.

No longer 'ours'

Therefore it would appear that it wasn't Yarkoni's Nazi comparison itself that riled so many, but rather the discovery that "the wartime singer" was no longer "ours," and was instead a woman with political opinions of her own. Hadn't she once sung, "Here we were, one family," as Gouri wrote (in "Bab el-Wad" )? Many felt betrayed and called for boycotting her. An event in her honor, something that was important to her, was cancelled, as were a number of scheduled performances in 2002. Several people paraded past her house with torches.

That was the first time Yarkoni encountered hostility - at any rate the first time since Benny Marshak had demanded she be kicked out for sitting at the piano and singing a tango, contrary to the spirit of the Palmach. A while after her statement on Army Radio, Yarkoni was invited to perform at a peace rally in Rabin Square. On the eve of the demonstration, an anonymous caller telephoned the organizers and threatened that if Yarkoni appeared on stage, she would be assassinated. Had she been murdered that night, in Rabin Square, numerous songs would have been written in her memory. Instead, she was assigned a personal safety detail and returned home.

And so the life of the national "wartime singer" reflects the pangs of identity of a changing society, which has always done a lot of fighting with itself as well. At least "exclusion of women" was almost unknown to Yarkoni. Toward the end of her life she still managed to record a song, which is reminiscent in style of the music of her youth. The key line is "and it is already hard to remember." And then she contracted Alzheimer's and forgot everything, including the fact that she had been a singer.