How This Jewish Dynasty of Persian Descent Reshaped Jerusalem's Culture

‘Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,’ at the Tower of David Museum, focuses on the clan’s influence on the city

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Members of the Banai family with Israel's President Yitzhak Navon, second from right. This is one of the photos on display at the Tower of David exhibition “Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,” in Jerusalem, July 2020
Members of the Banai family with President Yitzhak Navon, second from right, in a photo featured in the exhibition “Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem.”Credit: Ben-Zvi Institute Archive/From the “Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem” exhibition
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Anyone who has listened over the last year to the new music released by Ehud and Eviatar Banai could hear the two cousins returning to bygone days, somewhere at the end of the 19th century, when the Banai family – or Bana, as they were called then – came to the Land of Israel.

This new music creates the perfect tie-in with “Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,” an exhibition now on at the Tower of David Museum in the capital.

The show’s focus begins in the early 1880s, when the family reached Jerusalem, and ends in the mid-20th century, when its first generation of performers – brothers Ya’akov, Yossi, Haim and Gavri – became actors, singers and entertainers, with the family's center of gravity moving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The Banais became giants of Israeli culture.

But back to that new music. Eviatar Banai released a song called “Rachamim” (“Mercy”) in the summer of 2019. It was named for his great-grandfather, who left the Persian city of Shiraz with his family on a long, exhausting journey to Jerusalem. The song describes their trek, on camelback and boats, with son Jacob and wife Rachel, as well as young Eliyahu and Hannah the neighbor.

Members of the Banai family, on Ha'agas Street in Jerusalem. "When you introduce music into a museum, you can present it as local culture,” curator Eilat Lieber says.Credit: Yad Itzhak Ben Zvi photos archive

A few months later, Ehud Banai rounded off his latest album with a track called “Persian Restaurant,” in which he sings about his maternal grandfather, Avram. In it, he describes the grandfather with his top hat, satchel and cane, a Charlie Chaplin lost in the tenements of this country, not understanding what he was singing about as they traveled from Persia, walking by night and hiding by day.

The proximity of the two songs dealing with their family’s history may have been a coincidence, but the two singer-cousins’ reflections about their past and its Persia-Jerusalem axis may have been triggered by “Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem.”

The exhibition, which took two years to prepare, was created in collaboration with members of the Banai family. It shows the deep reciprocal relations between the story of the family and the story of Jerusalem, telling how the city where the family lived for generations was reflected in their work.

The David Bowie model

Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator at the Tower of David Museum, says the idea for this exhibition was born at the V&A Museum in London, at a 2018 exhibition called “David Bowie Is.”

“One of the ideas that grew out of this exhibition was that when you introduce music into a museum, you can present it as local culture,” Lieber says.

“Another thing that attracted me was seeing people there who were not your typical museum visitors. Museums are constantly searching for their way, especially in this period. They want to find ways of remaining relevant, not stuck behind in the old world. They search for the right language for doing this.”

Singer-actor Yossi Banai. One of the photos featured in the Banai family exhibition now on in Jerusalem recalls his well-known song about Simon and little Moise.Credit: Nino Hanania Harman

Lieber adds: “When we were thinking about creating a musical exhibition associated with Jerusalem, it was obvious that the choice must involve the Banai family. At first, the family had some reservations. They didn’t understand what we were trying to do.

“When we explained that the story that interested us was a broader one, with local and historical contexts, and that our purpose wasn’t to examine the impact of the Banai family on Israeli music, their approach changed and they gave their support to the project.”

“Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,” curated by Tal Kovo, features modern audiovisual language, and its attraction lies largely in the great popularity enjoyed by contemporary family members. In terms of content, it does seem “stuck” in the old world.

At the entrance one expects to see the Banais’ family tree. This is already an Israeli expectation, memorialized and scoffed at in a skit by comedienne Orna Banai, which can be heard at one of the exhibition’s stops. The family tree is not on display anywhere.

Comedienne Orna Banai. One of her famous skits can be heard in the exhibition showcasing her family, now on at the Tower of David in Jerusalem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The spreading branches of this family’s recent generations are of secondary interest in this show. The main interest is the common roots in Jerusalem. By means of photographs, texts and artifacts, the visitor moves between key locations in the family’s Jerusalem history.

One memorable photo is of the first garden playground in Jerusalem, built in 1925. It’s not known if this is the one Yossi Banai played in with his friends Simon and Moise (as described in one of his most famous songs), but from now on, every time that song is played we’ll be able to envision this wonderful photograph, showing that large garden with its children squealing with joy.

Transition to a secular life

In contrast, the short movie about the house on Ha’agas Street will soon be forgotten, not adding much to the wonderful song about the same house.

A better movie is one showing several family members – Ehud, Uri, Elisha and Amira – taking turns telling one of the stories told by Elihu Bana – Yossi, Gavri and Ya’akov’s grandfather, who was a construction worker by day and an enchanting storyteller by night.

“Grandfather stroked his white beard and, strumming the oud, told story after story in his quiet voice,” the narrator says.

The exhibition doesn’t have any pretensions to explain how so many family members turned out to be first-rate performing artists, but the stories Elihu Bana used to tell his children and grandchildren in the Jerusalem of the 1920s and ‘30s undoubtedly played an important role in forming those tendencies.

The show is concentrated in one hall at the Tower of David Museum. It begins with an ancient Persian instrument called a tar (which features in Ehud Banai’s song about David and Saul), moving through all the Jerusalem way stations and ending with a clip from a show by Yossi Banai.

From left, Ehud, Gavri and Yuval Banai performing together in Tel Aviv in 2015. The focus of their family exhibition begins in the early 1880s, when the family reached Jerusalem.Credit: David Bachar

But there is another room, off the main hall, that holds a short photographic summary of the careers of Yossi, Ehud, Meir, Yuval and Eviatar.

There is something symbolic about having this room separated from the main exhibition. The artistic paths and creative personalities of all these sons was shaped in one way or another by their Jerusalem history, but other than Yossi, none of them grew up or lived in Jerusalem. Yossi Banai is also identified with Tel Aviv (and with Paris, in his heart), no less than with Jerusalem.

The complex transition from a traditional religious life (symbolized by Jerusalem) to a secular one (symbolized by Tel Aviv) is poignantly present in “Rachamim,” Eviatar Banai’s song that can be heard at the exhibition. Eviatar writes not only about his great-grandfather’s journey, but about his father who, in contrast to his brothers, did not choose an artistic career. (He was a judge.)

Eviatar sings of his father Yitzhak studying law with his kippa in his pocket. That’s a loaded image: To blend into Israel’s secular society in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Yitzhak Banai needed to hide his background. (He may have chosen to do so – the song doesn’t say.)

In any case, Yitzhak’s sons Eviatar and Meir, as well as nephew Ehud, took the kippa out of their pockets at some point and put it back on their heads, wearing them as their ancestors did in late-19th and early-20th century Jerusalem.

“Banai – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,” Tower of David Museum, Jerusalem; Mondays to Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Fridays 10 A.M. to 2 P.M.

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