A Rare Interview With 'The Greatest Israeli Singer of All Time'

At 80, Esther Ofarim still doesn’t like to give interviews, is embarrassed when dubbed ‘the greatest singer’ (though she agrees it’s true), and prefers to stay at her home in Germany. Ahead of three special performances in Israel, she relents and speaks with Haaretz

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Ofarim signs autographs in 1966.
Ofarim signs autographs backstage in Germany, in 1966.Credit: Slartibartfass
Nitzan Pincu
Nitzan Pincu
Nitzan Pincu
Nitzan Pincu

Esther Ofarim loves to be at home. Home is in Hamburg, Germany, where she moved in the late 1970s. She is less fond of giving interviews. Throughout her long career, she has rarely spoken with the press, nor does she see the need this time around. “Why? What for?... I have time but why should I expose myself? Talk about myself? It’s a little… weird.”

Why is it weird? You’re a public figure.

“That’s not what I do. Look, if I perform – which I don’t do very often as you know – I stand on stage and give myself wholly to the people who came to see and hear. I don’t hide. Through the songs, through the voice, my truth comes out, my personality. That’s fine, and it’s enough. But okay, we’re talking now!”

With her unique voice and enigmatic, regal image, Ofarim is a diva we have become used to admiring from afar.

The “nightingale from Haifa,” born Esther Zaied in Safed, rose to stardom alongside Abi Reichstadt, performing as Esther & Abi Ofarim in the 1960s. They were the first Israeli pop stars to reach global stardom, performing their breakout hit, “Cinderella Rockafella,” which reached no. 1 on the United Kingdom's singles chart in 1968, at the Royal Albert Hall in front of Queen Elizabeth II. Then in the 1970s, after the pair broke up, she embarked on an equally successful solo career. In the 1980s, she sang songs from the Vilna Ghetto on stage in Berlin in Yehoshua Sobol’s play “Ghetto.” And although she has released exactly three songs and no more since then, now at age 80, she does not rule out recording new music.

Esther Ofarim on stage. 'I ask myself – Why am I performing now?'Credit: Emil Salman

Next month, Ofarim will be performing with Yehoram Gaon and the Gevatron folk singers troupe at three shows at Heichal HaTarbut (formerly known as the Mann Auditorium) in Tel Aviv, August 2-4. The last time she performed in Israel was at the 2014 Israel Festival in Jerusalem.

Her Hebrew is poetic and precise; her voice is delicate. She tends to sum up her comments forcefully and shifts naturally between statements featuring both recognition of her self-worth and total modesty. About the upcoming show, she is matter-of-fact but also excited.

“I’ll be singing the songs that I’m usually asked to sing, the songs that people love in Israel, in Hebrew. Two days before I come to Israel, I have two concerts here in Germany at a festival and they are quite full – more than 20 songs. The material is a bit different. In Israel, it will be ‘Hayu Leilot,’ of course. Anyway, I think the plan is to do ‘Layla Layla’ together with Yehoram.”

It’s interesting that you have three shows in a row, when you don’t usually perform very often.

“That’s true. I ask myself – Why am I performing now? What happened?”

Why are you performing now?

“Because it’s good. It keeps me alive.”

Abi and Esther OfarimCredit: AP

There is a recurrent dichotomy in Ofarim’s image, between her tremendous achievements as a solo artist and as part of the singing duo – winning song festivals, a slew of major prizes, appearing on the world’s most important stages, and more – and her anti-ambitious approach, that is strongly opposed to constantly chasing after recognition and prefers the quieter, and perhaps the easier, way.

“I remember you as a real lazybones. Someone always had to ask you for something,” Rivka Michaeli told her in an interview on the “Siba Lamesiba” television show in 1988. “Yes, I am pretty lazy,” Ofarim admitted. “I do have ambitions, however. But my dream is to achieve as much perfection as possible in that moment. It’s because I have so much ambition that I do so little.”

The absence of new material (not including live albums) from Ofarim since the 1980s seems to justify Rivka Michaeli’s assertion. So it was a surprise to discover a new rendition of hers to the song “Tzipor Shniya,” to the words of Natan Zach, which came out last year as part of the Tzav Hasha’a project. The song was created in collaboration with Yoni Rechter, her musical partner since 1977.

Ofarim and Rechter recorded separately during the pandemic, in their studios in Germany and Israel. Their styles are very different, but somehow Ofarim’s melancholy meshes naturally with Rechter’s storyteller manner.

Esther Ofarim, Tom Jones & Cher (live, 1969)
Esther & Abi Ofarim "Cinderella Rockefella" - No. 1 on the UK singles chart in 1968

Ofarim admits that the choice of the Zach poem derived from practical rather than artistic considerations. “To tell you the truth? Yoni sent me four songs for me to choose from. I chose this one because I thought I could do it the fastest, the easiest. It’s not nice to say. Don’t tell anyone!” she laughs. “But I think it actually came out well.”

Which leads us to obvious question, the one people have been asking you for decades: Do you have any desire to record a new album?

“Maybe There are a lot of things that I like. Things I’ve done already that didn’t come out on any album or recordings. Maybe, yes. I’ll speak with Yoni when I see him. Yoni always comes to my concerts here. We have a close relationship through the songs. We don’t need to chat and talk a lot, we understand and feel each other. And it’s good.”

Have you gotten to hear other songs from the project?

T'en va pasCredit: YouTube

“I’m not that into music in general. I read what I read and I enjoy learning and reading, but I don’t see movies or play records. There are no records anymore, anyway, but it doesn’t matter.”

Ofarim says the coronavirus did not change her life significantly. She got vaccinated. But in Germany, recovery from the pandemic has been harder than in Israel, she says. “They know that they lagged, that they didn’t succeed as well as Israel. People were always talking about how in Israel everyone is vaccinated and they obtained millions of vaccines. Now it may be possible to go into a restaurant again. Until a few days ago, you could only sit outside.”

Were you afraid of getting sick?

“I’m afraid everyday as it is. Not just of the coronavirus. I’m also afraid of… cockroaches! But the truth is, I don’t do a whole lot. I don’t perform that much usually, not just because of the coronavirus. I don’t go to the movies. Maybe to the theater once in a while. My life didn’t change much. What changed is that my son couldn’t come to visit me. He’ll come soon because he was vaccinated in New York.”

Esther Ofarim. Her Hebrew is poetic and precise; her voice is delicate.Credit: P. Piel/ullstein bild via Getty

Do you miss him?

“We’re not talking about private and intimate things,” she laughs. But then she says that yes, she does miss him, and it’s good that he is coming.

Her only son, musician David von Sell, is from her second marriage to Philipp von Sell. They divorced in the early 1990s. “Philipp was my husband and he is the father of my son and we are a family and we love each other,” she says, adding that she and Philipp like to watch “Shtisel” together. “Of course, he is not Israeli and doesn’t know Hebrew. If you ask him in Hebrew, ‘How are you?,’ he answers, ‘Baruch Hashem! (‘Thank God!’).”

Although her relationship with Israel has had its ups and downs, including a radio boycott of the duo’s songs following some controversial statements (which was only resolved with the intervention of Haim Topol), Ofarim loves Israel and visits frequently. She keeps up with events in Israel from her home in Germany, and also visits Israel a lot. “I know what’s going on. I read Haaretz in English on my iPad,” she remarks.

Esther Ofarim, Hallelujah
Tzipor ShniyaCredit: YouTube

She also kept track of the news during the recent clashes with Gaza, and followed the formation of the new government. She applauds change: “If it’s really for the best, and if it lasts, I can’t say and neither can you. But just having change is already a good thing.”

One of the legends about Ofarim is that she refused to get caught up in the world of glamor and that she deliberately kept her distance from the wild lifestyle of the sixties. Her husband at the time, Abi Ofarim (born Avraham Reichstadt, who died in 2018) enjoyed fame and wild parties, according to the story, but she preferred to stay in the hotel room and preserve her voice. Ofarim now reveals that she couldn’t relate to the whole free-love ideology: “The hippies’ idea was that there are no limits when it comes to morality or the body. I can’t really say that I lived it. I was there, I was around it, but just like it’s not easy for me to give interviews, I also don’t go out a lot. I kept to myself.”

In the 1980s, Ofarim (center left) sang songs from the Vilna Ghetto on stage in Berlin in Yehoshua Sobol’s play “Ghetto.” Credit: Ullstein bild via Getty Images

That reminds me of Groucho Marx’s line “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

“Groucho is very funny. Yes, something like that. But sometimes I want to divorce myself. I’ve lived with myself for so many years – Enough!”

When people say that you are the greatest of all female Israeli singers, how do you feel about that title?

“I don’t have an answer. Never mind! Hey, it’s better than the opposite.”

You don’t like getting compliments.

Esther Ofarim sings The Beatles' 'Yesterday' (1968)

“You know what, I don’t know any better female singers. And not just in Israel. But let’s leave that. Don’t ask me questions like that, you know, that get under the skin.”

No competition

While averse to talking about deeply personal subjects, Ofarim enjoys talking about her favorite albums, such as “Esther in New York,” which had an orchestral arrangement by songwriter and Grammy-winning producer Bobby Scott and came out in 1965.

The cover of 'Complicated Ladies' by Esther Ofarim, Eberhard Schoener, Wolf Wondratschek and Ulf Miehe.

“Those were the first recordings I did after Geneva. I represented Israel in Poland (at the 1962 Sopot Festival), and then I was invited to Geneva, and that’s where what you could call ‘the career’ began. Then I went to New York, where I worked with Scott, who wrote ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’ It was a first try.”

In keeping with her image as preferring substance over style, Ofarim is also happy to revisit one of her less successful and less conventional albums – “Complicated Ladies.” The avant-garde, electronic rock ‘n’ roll and hard-to-classify work from 1982, is a relatively obscure gem in her discography, which shows that Ofarim is not only a virtuosic performer of hits, but an intriguing artist, too. The album sounds like the soundtrack of a science fiction movie and is very different than all of her other work.

Queen Elizabeth II greets the Ofarim, in 1968.Credit: AP

As in many of her songs, here, too, a hidden sadness can be felt in Ofarim’s voice. “I’m still alive,” she sang in English in the title song. “Wake me when I die.”

Another collaborator on that album was esteemed German musician Eberhard Schoener, who also worked with members of The Police. Together, they gave voice to the new technological developments without letting it overwhelm the melodies and while maintaining an acoustic sound. If they would have been given the remix treatment, the songs on the album could have become major hits at the New Wave parties of the era.

“It’s unusual. Not a lot of people know it,” Ofarim says. “The producer who wrote the songs with me is practically a classical musician who writes electronic music, and he is very well-known here in Germany. For me, it was a refreshing and positive experience and I’m very glad I did it. But as far as success? Sometimes we do things not to be on the hit parade. The goal is to do things that interest you. And I had that. I had many wonderful records.”

With Bobby Scott orchestraCredit: YouTUbe

We are having this conversation a few days after the Eurovision Song Contest, which Ofarim participated in in 1963, representing Switzerland (where she lived at the time) with the song “T’en va pas.” She doesn’t watch the contest, which she feels is an insult to art. “I want you to know that when I took part in it, I did it because I’ve done all kinds of things in life that I’m not so thrilled about. I didn’t like the situation there,” she says. “There was a singer from England whom I really liked, and one from France, but in general I don’t like competitions. I think that it’s so… wrong. Why decide who’s the best? In fact, I came in first, and then there was a phone call from one of the Scandinavian countries (Norway), which said it wanted to change its points and then I came in second. But I was very glad that I didn’t have to sing the song again.”

Why didn’t you want to sing it?

“Because it’s not so simple. I told you, I’m divorcing myself. But I like to perform, it’s okay. I have beautiful songs, with quality and substance. So it’s okay.”

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