A Genre Unto Himself

Ehud Banai is not only one of Israel’s leading singer-songwriters. In this semi-fictional memoir, he is a meld of narrator and subject who jumps back and forth through time, infected by a spiritual wanderlust

Nili Landesman
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Nili Landesman

Ze Hamakom (This Is the Place ), by Ehud Banai
Keter Books, Hebrew, 186 pages, NIS 94

Perhaps to counteract any evidence that might be introduced ex post facto, perhaps to dispel any possible doubts, the dust jacket of Ehud Banai’s new book expressly states that the stories within “combine memories and prose, autobiography and fantasy.” Given the circumstances, that’s a somewhat curious blurring of what’s inside, since the author of “This Is the Place” doesn’t try to hide behind his composition. The opposite is the case: The authorial presence of one of Israel’s leading singer-songwriters is tangible, it inspires trust, and it fills the contour lines of the main character’s biography, which appears to closely resemble Banai’s own.

And it is fortunate that this is the case, that it is impossible and even unnecessary to distinguish between author and narrator, in particular for those among us who have cultivated a profound acquaintance of 20 years or more with the artist, his personality and his oeuvre. For Banai’s fans, this book contains a hidden treasure. Concealed within are not only images and references of the sort they may have been hoping to find, but also of the sort they couldn’t even imagine finding.

What’s more, Banai’s biographical and spiritual wanderlust is echoed in everything he writes, so the autobiographical foundations of “This Is the Place” clearly play a critical role. They fill the spaces between the known and the imagined, and provide the handholds and support required to comprehend his devotion and dedication. Along with his own particular perspective, which is always in the background if not the foreground, Banai reports on the here and now, in a voice both familiar and captivating, which possesses a melody, quiet and ponderous, of its own.

It is therefore possible to read the stories of “This Is the Place” as selected episodes in the fascinating legend of Ehud Banai’s life or as an autobiographical novel, and this reading does not take away from the author’s impressive literary achievement, even for a moment. Banai sits down to writing prose the same way he approaches everything else: meticulously. His first book, "Remembering Almost Everything" (Keter 2001), which was a favorite among readers and critics alike, served as the transition through which Banai moved from songwriting to narrative fiction. In this second book, the reader discerns that this literary voice is by now well-formed, and the language of his prose corresponds with his lyrics. One could say that he is inventing as he has done throughout his splendid musical career a genre of his own (or perhaps Ehud Banai is a genre unto himself).

For who else is capable of setting out on the delightful trip described in “Second Aliya Kindergarten?” In this first story in the collection, the author explores the life story of Noah Naftulsky, a real-life hero from the days of the Second Aliya, the wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine preceding World War I, who is shrouded in mystery, having been both revered and forgotten. Like Banai, Naftulsky is attracted to the prospect of being an ascetic monk who isolates himself in the bosom of nature, where he will be able to devotedly work the land as well as write a love poem to a girl with pale skin.

Some say the poem was written to the Hebrew poet Rachel Blauwstein, and Banai reveals that, when Yosef Haim Brenner read it, he here and there muttered, "Nice, nice."

The plotting of the story is a skilled labor of raveling and unraveling that is replicated throughout the book though it is especially interesting here, where it is paired with Banai’s ability to hover over the abyss, employing shifts in tense and a measured pace.

Sparkling through the dust

Banai writes as if his hero is wandering through the depths of the plot, hopping from place to place, from memories to interpretations, invoking invisible contexts that have long been forgotten or that have suddenly become clear after the passage of years. Thus, with simplicity and without having to resort to cheap manipulations, he creates the sensation that if we show some patience and openness, we will be able to see through his eyes and witness, together with him, visions that come together for brief, magical moments. We see these appearances sparkling through the dust of the everyday, instead of seeking fireworks everywhere.

Thus, Banai the grown-up goes back to Banai the youth, who set out 35 years ago in the footsteps of Naftulsky, in the hope of finding himself. The trek that begins in Givatayim leads our hero to wander around the Galilee along paths that lead every which way. He finds employment as a shepherd in some remote corner, makes a connection with detached-from-the-mainstream people who have not forgotten what it means to be human beings, and intermittently reads Shimon Kushnir’s “Men of Nebo” and the philosophy of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the light of an oil lamp.

The narrator’s moment of truth occurs in the mid-1970s at the now-deserted Kinneret Farm by the Sea of Galilee. “All at once, I was beset by sadness and fatigue, and asked myself what exactly I was looking for in this burning-hot and gloomy ghost location,” Banai writes. “Young people my age are building careers and going to university or are getting married and buying apartments and having children. Whereas I am wandering through a place that no longer exists, in the wake of a story that was or that wasn’t.”

How it ultimately ends, everyone knows, as one of Banai’s songs goes. The lost young man with the wild curly hair from the start of the book who searched for the purpose of his existence in all sorts of abandoned arenas of the past, becomes a family man and a mitzvah-observant Jew. This is not a turning point in the plot not only because these are prosaic facts, but because the observance of the commandments of Judaism is integral to the plot, and it at times seems the motive for the writing of this book.

It’s as if he wants to say: This is how it is, everything remains as it was, even after the upheaval. Nevertheless, something deep down is different. Like his protagonist, who guides us through the book’s six stories, in which he carefully examines the ways in which he has changed over the years the author too remains similar to the way he was, despite all the upheaval.

“Am I the same person?” the narrator asks himself in “Galilee Out at Sea,” which opens with an e-mail he received in 2006 from a pair of his partners-in-wandering, who have located him through the Internet and want to know if the famous singer on the website to which their search engine led them is in fact the same fellow who was with them on Crete in the summer of 1977. “In many senses, yes,” Banai answers to himself as he ponders the question, “and even if I am not, something of that man still lives within me.”

The man who lives within him brings him to Tiberias two years later, partly in order to be thrown back in time to Banai’s pre-enlistment trip in August 1971, which he documented in the form of a Kerouac-type journal. The story “Tiberias” offers an experience of moving through time. Banai sits in a hotel looking out the window at the Kinneret with the rain pouring down on it and reads his journal from 37 years earlier. The beatnik experience of freedom, set to a terrific, nostalgia-inspiring soundtrack that erupts from the radio at all sorts of way-stations, merges into hymns of prayer and the thoughts that occupy him on his way from the hotel to the synagogue, as he walks through the empty streets of the city.

From the well of lost time, it is worth drawing forth another delightful treasure, “The Shed,” in which the narrator weaves, in refined prose, a heartbreaking chronicle of emotional breakdown during military service, in a kibbutznik/psychedelic atmosphere set in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War. Employing a hypnotic capacity to describe events, the narrator reverts to the traumatic episode with a matter-of-factness that cuts out excessive drama. By taking the distance that he needs to reflect on that period of time, when everything went crazy, the author shows the reader that even though he is still the outsider in this story (and in basically every story), it is a story about all of us.

Most of the time, “This Is the Place” wears the thin, conciliatory, bastard smile of someone who is not a stranger to anything that human beings do or have done. To put it mildly, a healthy Jewish skepticism flickers through the book; this is the essence of the humor with which the author of the book was, thank God, graced. A reading of “The Assistant Sexton,” which tells the story of the relationship between Banai and the gabbai of the neighborhood synagogue, who designated him to inherit the position following his retirement, gave me a genuine desire to join the synagogue in which Banai does indeed serve as sexton. He clearly does a superb service to Judaism, just as he did to the hippie revolution, to romance and to Hebrew rock ‘n roll.

As compared with that, the story “Call Up Notice” is melancholy. It documents a stint in the army reserves in the winter of 1988 of a singer who is beginning to become well-known, and who is forced to make the rounds of a series of military posts along the northern border. You will never catch Banai making a fuss about himself. Here, it is a pleasure to peer - from his perspective - at the Ehud Banai of 1988, the guy who is breaking into our consciousness, whom people are starting to hear about, a bit from the rock opera “Mami” and a bit from his band “The Refugees.” A guy who listens to Michal Niv on Army Radio. With tiny, seemingly incidental touches, he describes something of his contradictory emotions, some of which are bursting forth, as they relate to the pursuit of the audience’s elusive affections.

Ehud Banai, as he himself excels at describing it, keeps moving. His book has a natural place in the sum total of his creative oeuvre but stands entirely on its own. As a retrospective observation, one of the states of consciousness he likes best, “This Is the Place” is right on target. It is integral to Banai’s dialogue with himself, which develops, progresses and advances, as does he. This dialogue subordinates itself to tradition, never takes for granted the precious time of whoever is listening to it, and understands all that one needs to about its hero.

Nili Landesman’s most recent novel, “For Better or Worse,” was published by Am Oved/Xargol in Hebrew.

Ehud Banai in concert.Credit: Moti Milrod



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