Unsung Heroine

What is it about Ahinoam Nini, with her aura of international success, that makes it so hard for her to touch Israeli fans?

Her guitarist gives Ahinoam Nini Noa a tender, paternal look and signals her to start. She shuts her eyes. "Don't think sorry's easily said Don't try turning tables instead. / You've taken lots of chances before / But I'm not gonna give anymore. / Don't ask me / That's how it goes. Cause part of me knows what you're thinking. / Don't say words you're gonna regret. / Don't let the fire rush to your head / I've heard the accusation before / And I ain't gonna take any more. / Believe me [...] I am the eye in the sky / Looking at you I can read your mind / I am the maker of rules / Dealing with fools / I can cheat you blind."

This is "Eye in the Sky" by Alan Parsons in a new, moving version, so very different from the original. A bitter chanson about a lover's quarrel has now also become a plaintive love song. With her, almost everything sounds like a love song, even "Come My Bride" [Bo'i Kalah]. Virtually her only Israeli hit, sung by Nini it has for us become an ethnic bridal song. One cannot hear the "How will I close the window with a storm approaching / And the owl has torn my slumber from the heart of the night," that is in its words. She clasps the microphone in both hands. Her eyes remain closed until the end of her rendition of "Eye in the Sky."

She wears a translucent dress with a generous neckline. Four outstanding Italian instrumentalists, the members of the Solis String Quartet, accompany her with remarkable professionalism. There is no doubt about the quality of her voice. Her luxurious curls flow over her shoulders. Singing in Hebrew, English, Italian and Spanish, she gives a meticulous, stylized and polished performance, available now on a new CD, recorded in the Holon Theater, a place as remote as one can imagine from the halls she has become accustomed to in Europe, with the Pope and Bill Clinton or without them.

"It was spring and the laughter was concealed in every bursting blossom, and a covenant of blood and wine is sealed / And for everyone that sent me a glance filled with desire and yearning, I believed it was you." "The Look in Your Eyes" by Lea Goldberg to a lovely melody by Nini and her perpetual accompanist, Gil Dor. This song was not a hit in Israel either, and it is difficult to understand why. Even if she has sold 300,000 albums here, as her PR sheet reports, Nini has been unable to repeat her European success, which may even be a disadvantage, in Israel.

What is it about Ahinoam Nini, with her aura of international success, that makes it so hard for her to touch us? And what is it about us that makes us prefer Ninette Taib and Shiri Maimon to the most successful star Israel has ever had abroad? No one else has had gigantic posters of the kind I saw 10 years ago in the streets of Paris, screaming out Noa's name (the name Nini uses outside Israel) in honor of the release of her new album. And the endless concert tours in Europe, like the one she has just completed 30 appearances in a row in Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Poland and Romania.

I met her for the first time about two months ago in Gemona. She came to this picturesque village in the Alps, which was completely destroyed in an earthquake about 30 years ago, to win yet another prize, something connected to love and peace, of course. I tried at the time to recall a single song of hers besides "Come My Bride," but I was unable to. It was during the time when the organizers of the ceremony were waiting anxiously for Noa to arrive. They stood in line, like an honor guard waiting to welcome a high-ranking dignitary. From time to time they glanced at their watches nervously. When she finally emerged from the modest car, they pounced on her, surrounding her on all sides as if she were Madonna.

Afterward, she spoke with some young students in the village hall in a torrent of polished American English, and charmed the audience. Motherhood, singing, love and occupation, the Israeli occupation, too. At they end, they stood in line for autographs. She signed for everyone, scattering her captivating smiles, and then disappeared on the way to yet another concert, in nearby Venice, leaving behind a glittering trail of international stardom.

"As soon as I leave Israel, I gain four kilos in admiration and esteem," she says almost in apology.

'I have to look goodSix weeks later, Yarkon Park, the palace of glory of Israeli music. Splendor in the withering grass: family-size bottles of cola and burekas unfit for human consumption backstage at the mammoth show, sponsored by a credit card company. Burekas and cola instead of drugs and alcohol. Aviv Gefen, Rami Kleinstein, Ninette Taib, Ahinoam Nini and Rita with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on a single free ticket. Ahinoam between Ninette and Rita. The two divas, Ninette and Rita are surrounded by strapping security guards, the ultimate Israeli status symbol. Only Ahinoam walks around, holding her little long-haired son's hand, alone.

"If I had a son, I would call him Uri," she will sing to the crowd, but to her own personal son she gave an Indian name, Ayehli, brother to Enea, her younger daughter. She has one star-like mannerism, though she asks to be photographed only after fixing her makeup.

"You're nuts," she will scream afterward. "Stop annoying me and listen for a moment. That's a mannerism? I care how I look. I have to look good. I also prefer to be photographed from my right side. It's my better side. From the left I look like shit. You can call that a mannerism, but I call it professionalism and experience. I also have a list of demands before every performance, and everything has a reason, but you would call it 'mannerisms.' Hot water for tea and a clean dressing room so that my dress doesn't get dirty, and fruit, because there are no restaurants after the show. And there is one thing that is not 'necessary,' flowers. But that I don't ask for."

The technicians in the mobile broadcast unit transmitting the concert to the huge video screens in the park are absorbed in the football game being shown at the same time. The concert's emcee, Zvika Hadar, between one number and the next "Here's Ninette, our very own sweetheart!" also hurries back to the football game, which interests him much more now than the masses in the park.

Hadar's cigar is the only thing that gives off an air of luxury here. Everything else speaks of petty provincialism. A man wearing a black skullcap and white shirt, who works for the Philharmonic, opens his laptop and works on the "work timetable for the woodwinds" for the following month. For a dressing room, each star has a trailer displaying a piece of paper bearing his or her name. On the Philharmonic tent, two death notices have been hung in memory of two members of the orchestra who passed away recently.

"An ocean of tears," wails Ninette in a song that is not hers, to the screams of the teeny boppers. Ninette is the really big star here this evening. Five girls ask her for her autograph. Sharon of The Brothers' Garage in Herzliya is in charge of security for the artists backstage; he's moonlighting. There are no paparazzi around, and the photographer from the PR firm employed by the credit card company is the only one clicking away. There are about 80,000 people in the audience and no aura, not even when Ninette leans on her boyfriend and steps down like a bride from the stage, on very high heels, threatening to lose her balance.

"Our best ambassador abroad, Ahinoam Nini," announces Hadar in a forced break from the football game. Hadar's introduction unwittingly sums up the entire story: Nini, just like diplomats, even the most successful among them, is showered with stardust abroad and sand dust at home. The voice of Zion in the Diaspora has never had much status here.

"Come My Bride," gets loud applause. But when her extraordinary performance of a song from Candide, Leonard Bernstein's forgotten opera, begins, the masses send an ungrateful, blank look in her direction. Afterward, her tiara gets caught in her hair and refuses to come free. Nini does not lose her cool even for a second, covering her confusion with graceful charm, departing with the tiara suspended from the back of her hair as Rita mounts the stage.

There is no wild partying after the performance, no white night filled with alcohol in a dimly lit bar, and of course, no one-night stands. Nini rushes home to 18-month old Enea, who remained with her mother and her husband, Dr. Asher Barak, a pediatrician at Sheba Hospital. He and Nini have been together for 20 years and she is still very careful to pronounce his name with the emphasis on the second syllable: Asher. Dr. Barak is a specialist in pulmonary diseases, and Nina can't pass up the opportunity: "He's in charge of the respiration and I'm in charge of the inspiration."