Unsung Heroine

'I want to be loved'She was born in 1969 in Tel Aviv and lived in New York with her parents from the age of two. At 17, she returned to Israel on her own, "for love," as it says in the official bio on her Internet site. There is not a trace of American in her Hebrew accent, although her first and formative language is English.

It is only in English that she reads books, and from time to time phrases such as "You're only as good as the last thing you did" slip in most naturally. Her Hebrew is laced with the latest slang, but surprisingly, she didn't know the meaning of the Hebrew equivalent of hobnailed boots, a word to refer to Nazi-like soldiers. Perhaps she picked up her incessant talk of love over there, in the Bronx.

"Is there so much love in her, in this Ahinoam?" cynically asked critic Avi Efrati, who was quoted in an extensive article about her that appeared in Haaretz seven years ago. The article was called "Who believes Ahinoam Nini?" and wounded her to the depths of her soul. "I don't believe Ahinoam Nini. Period," Efrati pronounced. "You see the effort she is making, and that effort embodies everything that is missing in her singing." Critics in Israel have never liked Nini.

The turning point in her professional life is named Gil Dor. He is the man at her side at every performance, his shirttails hanging loosely over his trousers. Everything about him says humility, generosity and love. He looks at her softly and gives her all the space there is, accompanying her softly on the guitar. Dor is the one that discovered Nini at the Rimon Music School in Ramat Hasharon. Since then, 15 years now, they have been together. Not a duo but Dor is always there at her side, a little to the back, definitely in her shadow. They wrote most of her songs together; they get together almost every day. Dor even reads the newspapers for her, she being a media celibate who doesn't allow any newspapers into her home.

Nevertheless, her politics are no secret. In conversation, she said that she would not appear in the settlements, but would agree to appear before settlers. In Gemona, she spoke of the cruelty of the occupation, but in the same breath, also about the cruelty of the terror. Everyone is to blame. She is more political than most of our singers, but no means a "political animal." An interview she once gave to Yedioth Ahronoth, with a nude picture of her on the front cover of the magazine and political statements in her answers, caused her damage for years, she says. In Gemona, she told the students that she sang at the demonstration where prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Most artists refused to appear there. Her PR sheet says that her appearance was "in the context of her support for the peace process."

Her home is located in a new area between Kibbutz Shefayim and the beach. All the houses look the same, one fashionable cream-colored cube after another. Two ancient olive trees, Ikea furniture in the designed spaces of the home. This is where Nini's family moved a few weeks ago, and soon there will be a state-of-the-art recording studio in the basement. The house has already been broken into once; Nini's husband scared the burglars off. There are a lot of books, most of them best-sellers in English alongside which are children's cassettes. No sign of any personality cult of Nini in the living room; golden and platinum records lie in a pile on the staircase going down to the basement, and she says that she will soon put them away. The ring tone on her cellular phone is an oldie by the Beatles.

Uvsara Ayelin, the children's pretty Ethiopian nanny, lives in. She also accompanies Ahinoam and her children on her concert tours around the world.

"A world in which people don't believe is a very sad world," she says in response to her critics. "If I were to turn into a singer of melancholy songs, that would be a complete lie. She lands in the living room, springing from the second floor, light of foot and this time, with no makeup, despite the photographer. "I love to love and to give love," she continues in the same vein. Everyone around has been with her for many years, not only Gil Dor and her husband, but also her manager Ofer Pesenzon, producer Galia Beit-Or and Zohar Fresco, the oh-so-special percussionist. When she goes abroad, her crowded, family-like entourage includes 12 people and they stay in four-star hotels. Dor says that Nini is now an artist of halls that seat 2,000 people. If she does even better and moves up to halls that seat 4,000, they will be able to move up too, to five-star hotels.

"I don't think people begrudge me my success in Israel too. Why not? In terms of success what happened to me on the weekend is success 100,000 people in two concerts in the park and good vibrations from everyone I met in the street the next day that isn't success? When I am invited by Teva and paid, that isn't success? For me, that is a huge success. I don't need any more than that. Not that it's always easy. Don't forget that in every individual country abroad, my success is less than in Israel. But it can never be in your country of origin like in other countries. Here you always have to start from nothing and everything is examined under a microscope. "I recorded a really mean song with Mira Awad to die for. I was sure we were on a roll. It was sexy and great. But the radio didn't go for it. There aren't any rules, only miracles.

"I want to be loved at home, and my home is here. The people here are important to me. This is why I take my car to be fixed here, license it, go to the post office, to the Interior Ministry and the bank, and I encounter a lot of love. I didn't choose this career. It chose me. With the weight of the talent I was given, I managed to carry off that magic trick of standing on the stage. If I ignored that talent, I would be miserable.

"When it's good, it's the best there is, and when it's bad, it's the worst. No drug could give me that, and I am of course speaking from experience. The time on the stage is incredible. The mechanic that replaced my car keys yesterday was so happy and moved by the performance in the park. When I was younger, I was more judgmental than today. While it's true that there is a lot of cynicism in rock, it is mainly in the people that surround the artists than among the artists themselves.

"Let's get to the subject of Gil Dor. I was lucky to meet him at a young age. I could have gotten involved with someone what would tell me that he only wants what's best for me, but without real caring. The fact that I have Gili at my side is really fortunate. Look what happened to Zahava Ben because of the manipulations of the people around her. An artist comes from a very vulnerable place. If I had to manage my career on my own, I would never have gotten to where I am."

There is a debate about whether or not you are pretty.

"I didn't know that it was a subject for discussion. I have never felt connected to my own beauty; only in recent years have I become a little more connected. I get all kinds of responses. If I don't connect, then I'll bet there are a lot of people that don't connect, and there are also those that think I look fabulous."

Why do you trigger such extreme reactions?

"To trigger a reaction is already a compliment. I know that I trigger strong reactions. There are those who don't believe me. Why? I don't know. There are people who don't like my professionalism, as if the more offhand you are the better. I can't connect with superficiality, it's something very American about me. Americanness trapped in a Yemenite body is something very confusing. Who are you? What do you want from us?"

How is it that you have hardly any hits?

"Everyone knows Bob Dylan, but you can't recall more than five of his songs. The name is known and we know that he has something special. To tell you that I don't envy those artists whose audiences sing their songs by heart? But you can't have everything. Outside Israel, people hum my Hebrew songs more than in Israel. I apparently don't know how to write hits. It always interested me more to write my own songs. And I didn't have the luck, I didn't have my share."

In November, the wonderful Solis String Quartet will be coming to Israel for a few performances and will join Nini too. In December, she is leaving for a concert tour in Italy with a collection of Neapolitan songs. On a bush next to the entrance to her house hangs a sign: "Green stars drip slowly, like the beating of the heart." Lea Goldberg. And what is the name of that bush? Morning glory.