Our Gang

Haim Hefer doesn't believe in miracles, just in wonders. At the age of nearly 80, after a high-tech operation allowed him to walk again, he's still got plenty of work to do. And Israel's best-known lyricist is still optimistic.

Every day at 1 P.M., Haim Hefer descends from his seventh-floor apartment to the neighborhood cafe, right below him, eats a hearty sandwich of smoked meat washed down with half a liter of Czech beer. Hefer drinks from a big, personal glass, which the waitress keeps for him. Then his cheeks get pink and his nose reddens. Haim Hefer is alive.

He calls last month "black June." Naomi Shemer and Arik Lavie passed away in the same week. He entertained strange thoughts about a conspiracy against the creators of Hebrew song. "I look around me," he says. "and suddenly many of the gang are smelling the daisies from below, so I wanted to write a petition to the Angel of Death and tell him: All right, you did good work in June, rest a little, let us breathe a little. We're here, we're not traveling to Samarkand, like in the story, we have work to do."

He is 79 years old, and although at the beginning of the last decade he promised that he would commit suicide at the age of 75, he is postponing the move for the time being. "Who has time?" he asks. Hefer is very busy. At the moment he is finishing a book that will tell the story of about 160 of his songs ("I've written about 1,000"), and aside from that, they're making a film about him, and have asked him to write a special maqama (an Arabic term for a story in rhymed prose). "I'm still thinking about it," he says.

The wonders of the shunt

Hefer has an Arab house in Ein Hod, but most of the time for the past 30 years, he has lived on Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv, "with double glass panes," he says, for protection against the street noise. He lives alone. He has been divorced since 1978, after 18 years of marriage to Ruthie , with whom he had a daughter, Mimi. He has two grandchildren. His housekeeper prepares food daily, "something between a diet and good food," and his health is not bad, much better than it was up to a few months ago. In a purple T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals, Hefer is walking. In other words, on his feet and without a cane. "The shunt," he says, has changed his life.

It turns out that he now has a kind of pump ("a kind of shunt") in his head, which channels water in a thin tube from his brain to his stomach. Five years ago, they discovered at Ichilov Hospital that the water in his brain ("apparently the water from the whisky") was what was causing him difficulty in walking. "They told me: Listen, do this shunt. I said: Who's the best surgeon? They said Zvika Ram of Tel Hashomer [the Sheba Medical Center], by chance the son of Elimelech Ram [of Channel 1]. I checked whether it was really necessary, and then he did the operation."

The surgery took half an hour, and the next day, Hefer was really walking. "I'm not religious, and I don't believe in miracles, but I believe in wonders." He is pleased both with the cure and with the wording.

Next year you'll be 80; is it time to sum up?

"What are you talking about? It's not time to sum up, I'm writing. Because I don't have a newspaper, because I was fired from Yedioth Ahronoth, and the reason was, as editor Moshe Vardi told me, that the price of paper had risen by 40 percent and he had to cut back, and I accepted that. I still feel that I'm dying to write.

"I'll tell you a story about writing," he continues. "I once traveled to Germany and I was in Munich. That was a Wednesday, I was sitting in the hotel in front of the television, and I felt bad, kind of depressed. I had a bottle of whisky next to me, I drank and it didn't pass. Suddenly I remembered that every Wednesday I write for the newspaper, and that was like a shot of heroin for me. A drug. And suddenly, when that drug is missing, what do I do? I sat down and started to write something or other, and it passed."

Feiner and Novak

Hefer was born in 1925 in Sosnowice, Poland, "Congress Poland, the real Poland." From there his family moved to Myslowice, "which was a very important town for the Jews, because Bialik lived and wrote there for an entire year." His father, Issaschar Feiner, was a traveling chocolate salesman, and his mother, Rivka (nee Herzberg), was a housewife. He says his father was a Zionist, and when Haim was 9 years old, his father decided that he would be a member of Gordonia, a Zionist movement, and he established the first branch in Myslowice. "I was both the chairman and the only member, and they came to visit me from Katowice to hear what was new in the local branch."

As a child, he studied Hebrew with a private tutor, and every day he would copy a page from a book, with the vowel points, "texts by Frishman." His Hebrew, he says, was like that of a student of the Tarbut high school, and when he immigrated to Israel in 1936, at the age of 11, he would use antiquated Hebrew expressions, and aroused cries of contempt among the children of Ra'anana. "But I got rid of that very fast."

Hefer managed to slip into the society of native-born Israelis without anyone remembering his Diaspora past, as they always remembered that of Shimon Peres, or as they eventually pried into the life of writer Dahn Ben Amotz. Hefer isn't surprised. "I never denied my origins, but I knew Hebrew. That's the whole deal."

He didn't finish high school nor take the bagrut matriculation exams. At the age of 17 and a half he went into the Palmach, the pre-state military commandos, straight from the Mahanot Haolim youth movement.

During those days he met Novak, a boy of his own age, who, he says, instilled in him his great love of Hebrew. Yehoshua Novak, today attorney Yehoshua Nevo, arrived in Israel from Romania half a year before Hefer, and apparently had beautiful Hebrew. Hefer: "I knew Hebrew, I had to take care of it a little, crush it a little, but when I met him it became something else." Novak introduced him to the writings of Jules Verne and Henrik Sienkiewicz.

Haim and Yehoshua had issues with Epstein, the physical education teacher, who walked around tanned, wearing shorts, who conducted annoying drills. One day Yehoshua climbed onto the roof of the mikveh (ritual bathhouse) that was not far from the school, and when Epstein called out "Right turn," he shouted from up there, "Forward march," and confused the students.

Hefer: "And then Epstein took Yehoshua down from the roof with a pipe, and did some jujitsu exercises on him in front of everyone, and humiliated him." Yehoshua cried, fled to the field, took clods of earth and started to throw clod after clod at the physical education teacher," and with every clod he shouted: `Your head into a nest of ravens, your belly into a den of cats, your wife will become a prostitute and you will sell your daughter for a pair of shoes, your nostrils will become wells of piss and your mouth wells of garbage." Hefer peers above his glasses: "What did you say? He composed that text on the spot, and I was so amazed that I returned home and started to read Jeremiah."

Hefer and Nevo are still good friends, and they speak to each other "in the purest Hebrew."

Old clothes

Hefer wrote his first rhymes when he was 13 years old, for a national competition held by the Shemen company. He didn't win first place, but he received a selection of company products - "toothpaste, Velveta cream, soap."


"Yes. Velveta for the Herzliya beach. Everyone used it at the time."

And everyone was then in the Mahanot Olim Zionist youth group, where he acquired his awareness of everything relating to the country - its heroes, its dreams and the price to be paid for it. "When I came to the Palmach in the winter of 1943, I was reborn." His parents were not partners to his excitement. They would have been happy had he gone to study "stenograma," i.e. stenography. "They lived in Ra'anana, and it was very hard for them. My father came here to work as a halutz [pioneer], when he was about 35, and after three days of working with the hoe he didn't feel well, went through a crisis, and in the end decided to do something else."

Something else was a secondhand clothing store. Hefer: "That's where I came from. From a secondhand clothing store. Many of the customers came from the village of Khirbet al-Azoun, near Ra'anana, not a trace of which remains." The young boy was fascinated by the Palmach, which was Hebrew-speaking, secret and full of promise, and his family suddenly became the "platoon," Platoon 3, Company F. "I arrived there and I said to myself: `I'm not secondhand clothes.'"

They didn't talk about a bagrut certificate there. "Bagrut? Who wanted a bagrut certificate at the time? In 1939 the war broke out, German paratroopers were about to parachute in, and they said, If Rommel comes, what will you do, show him your bagrut certificate?"

Who invented the word "sabra" (the fruit of a cactus, a synonym for native-born Israelis)?

"I don't know. The word was invented in the weekly Davar newspaper. They had a column called `Our sweet and prickly sabras,' which contained children's witticisms. They had to sell the story to Jews from abroad who came to visit. What is a `sabra'? What kind of thing is it? During the Second and Third Aliyah [waves of immigration in the early 20th century] they said "ben ha'aretz" (a son of the land), and the sons of the land didn't call themselves sabras."

Something traumatic

Hefer has written rhymes all his life. In spite of his many years of journalistic writing, he was never tempted to write an ordinary journalistic article. He always wrote a poem, or a maqama, always in small, round, feminine handwriting. He never went over to the computer keyboard, just as he never wrote on a typewriter. He also says that even today, he has no problems of memory when he has to find a rhyming word.

In reply to the question of who invented the term "Arabush" (a derogatory word for an Arab), he begins with an explanation of Palmach politics. "During the period of the Hashomer guard movement [a pre-state defense organization], they respected the Arab, and out of admiration they wore Arab clothing, and used Arabic expressions." He remembers that in the Palmach they had the greatest veneration for the Arab department. "Those were people who went to the Arabs. Although they went in order to spy among them, they were familiar with their way of life."

And the contempt?

"The contempt did not begin with us, not with the initial Palmach. I think that even if they used the word `Arabush,' it didn't come from the fighters, but from the so-called `administration.'"

But you were a member of the administration, you were in charge of cultural programs.

"I was a fighter first of all. I was a scout and I helped bring 3,206 olim [immigrants] from Syria and Lebanon, and I'm not ashamed that I was in charge of culture."

If the Arabs of 1948 had been like Hezbollah, the Hamas suicide bombers or the Rafah tunnel diggers, would they have lost?

"There's no question that today their sacrifice is different. They are actually saying in Arabic `It is good to die for our country,' and there are many Trumpeldors among them. [Joseph Trumpeldor was a Zionist hero who is said to have uttered those words before his death in battle in the Galilee]. Once there weren't any. Something happened to the Palestinians and we are responsible for that, but I think that we would have beaten them in any case, because even today, with all their sacrifices, they aren't organized. And I would say another thing - maybe the 1948 War of Independence would have ended with much greater conquests had they been more stubborn. Yitzhak Sadeh [the leader of the Palmach] wanted to capture Ramallah, and Ben-Gurion didn't allow him to do so."

It is important to Hefer that his attitude toward the Arabs be measured in light of texts that he wrote in the early 1960s, expressing opposition to the Israeli military administration. He says that his first program in the Hamam nightclub, with Dahn Ben Amotz, was "Arabian Parables," in which the "Arabs" - Uri Zohar, Arik Einstein, Rachel Atas and Aliza Rosen - were portrayed as pandering to the Jews.

Hefer: "The highlight was when Uri said to Arik: `Look how nice the Jews are, if you have a field with stones, they come and remove the stones, and build a settlement, not like us."

And you live in Ein Hod, in an Arab house.

"Yes. And why do I live there? Simply because they shot at us from that village, so we captured it, and after they shot I said: `If they shot, let them suffer.'"

Hefer bought the house in the early 1950s from sculptor Rudi Lehman ("It was actually a sheep pen"), and he stays there on weekends. He raises olives, grapes, vegetables, makes olive oil, gives it to friends, travels back and forth in a Ford Focus, driving by himself. "Only in Tel Aviv do I take taxis."

On the one hand, you're a cynic, anti-religious; on the other hand, you have written about religious symbols and holy places with great veneration. When do you suddenly turn from one thing to another?

"Places are my geography, and I'm cynical about people's behavior."

How do you explain the maqamas, like "The Paratroopers Cry" [a poem written after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967] and your participation in the Messianic festival surrounding the Western Wall?

"`The Paratroopers Cry' was adopted into the Reform prayer book. What do you want me to tell you?"

How do you explain your poems in praise of the army's behavior during the Six-Day War in 1967? What about your poem glorifying deputy chief of staff Haim Bar Lev?

Hefer laughs: "Of course I wouldn't write and publish that in the newspaper today. Look, Haim Bar Lev was a friend of mine, and in the Mahanot Olim at the time, if someone received a tzalash, a medal for courage and excellence in battle, you had to write something for him. For internal consumption."

But an entire nation was manipulated here. Don't you feel any responsibility, part of the tragedy of that war?

"The war began as something traumatic, and afterward we all made a mistake. We won and we didn't hand over the territories and put an end to it."

And what is your part in that?

"Look, I witnessed several of the battles, and I admired the Israel Defense Forces. I admired the IDF without thinking that the policy [of not returning the territories] would destroy the nation. It was supposed to go the way [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol wanted, that the territories would be bargaining chips."

As a leader and as a shaper of national texts, do you have any regrets?

"Of course I do. There are many places that I would get rid of. Parts of my songs, too. I said `From Mt. Hermon to the Red Sea.' And when Gandhi [the late Rehavam Ze'evi, a right-wing politician] reminded me of that, I told him: `Who said that I pass through Nablus?' But the situation was different."

Some people saw the disaster, and he didn't: He sinks into thought, and seems to agree.

"I remember myself traveling in the Golan, passing through [the Druze village] Masada, there was a feeling of elation of places that you were discovering. You discover places in the Bible that you always wanted to see. When I was a young boy, I was at the Western Wall, a cousin of mine took me when it was still in a narrow alley. It meant something to me, the `Western Wall.'

"Listen to a story," he says, regaining his composure. "A month or two before the Six Day War, I'm sitting with [right-wing politician] Geula Cohen at the Cafe Cassit, and I say to her: `How many are you willing to sacrifice in order to capture the Western Wall?' And she says, `Not a single one.'"

On women

He says that in the Palmach training camps, among the 7,000 draftees there were 1,400 women, and in their platoon there were two squads of men and one of women, "but even back then I wrote a little musical, about half an hour long, which was entirely feminist." The story went like this: The women rebel against the platoon commander and go up to the Crusader fortress of Kalat al-Namrud and live by armed robbery. "And in the end, whatever, they are sorry and they come back, something like that. But only girls acted in it." In short, feminism.

You wrote "He'll come to you, little girl." And: "The soldiers throw you a flower, and in front of your house burst into song." And: "The ambulance rushed on the way to Be'er Sheva, and she waited, waited for him in a white uniform." And: "Who knows, sister, if we'll return to you again - maybe the final battle."

In short, they're always at home, they're always waiting, and we men always return tired, in need of consolation. Why? Right next to you were woman fighters, and you don't give them credit.

"Yes, that was the fashion in those days, for everyone. Everyone wrote about the woman who waits at home. Both Alterman and I. There are worse things. I recently wrote a song that they don't want to sing because it's called `Harassment.' And I write a refrain: `Just don't say that I'm harassing you sexually.' I asked a few women: `Tell me, is this an anti-feminist song?' And they said to me: `It's not clear.' Why not? Because in it I badmouthed myself, too. I wrote: `Women say that I'm an ass and they hate me forever, and I have no darkness I have no light, I have a mark of fucking [rhymes with Cain in Hebrew] on my forehead.' And at the end I say: `And after all, I love you.'"

But that's a joke. You said that there were women around you who fought.

"I don't know any poets who wrote about female heroism, except perhaps for Hannah Senesh. That was a period when men fought. One could count the women who fought on the fingers of two hands."

Gandhi, Peres and Golda

Rehavam Ze'evi was a friend of his, a soulmate already back in `46. But Hefer says that their friendship ended. "I didn't want to come with him to the homeland, nor to what he called `Greater Israel.' When he took me to see manhunts in the Jordan Valley, he would apologize. I made him feel uncomfortable. Once Matan Vilnai [today a Labor MK, then a batallion commander in the Paratroops Corps] placed a siege on some cave, and Gandhi shouted: "Don't kill, take prisoners' and I saw that he was doing it because of me. He never mentioned the word `transfer' to me, and the moment he did so, that was that, I didn't speak to him again. He was more of an adventurer than an ideologue, an exceptional intelligence officer and sometimes a terrible person."

There's a passage, he says, that he's sorry he wrote because of Gandhi. "Topol [actor Haim Topol] called me and told me that Yael [Ze'evi] looked like a rag because Silvi Keshet had written something against him, and after that I wrote something in Yedioth Aharonoth, and Silvi Keshet hasn't spoken to me since. There are things that you have to write, but shouldn't publish."

In the late 1950s, you wrote the song, "How the flea rose," which is said to be about Shimon Peres. Is that description still valid?

"Look, he has been prime minister since then, and that's something else, but that's how he was at the beginning. He wasn't a fighter in the war, although he was a young man. Many young men his age went to war, and he didn't. He only meddled and plotted. I have an antipathy toward him. Look, now he's again saying: `It's not a personal thing, I want peace.'"

Do you think that we once had straitlaced leaders, or simply that "the bastards changed the rules"?

"I think that Eshkol was straitlaced. He didn't want anything for himself. Rabin was straitlaced, so was Begin. I didn't know Shamir."

Golda Meir?

"Golda, I'll tell you when she was straitlaced. A few of us writers came to her to Jerusalem to talk about Ikrit and Biram [two Arab villages that were evacuated with the promise that the residents could return later; the promise wasn't kept], and the meeting was taking a little too long, so someone hinted, I think it was me, whether we could have a drink, so he brought those little Johnny Walker bottles that they give out on flights. That's being straitlaced. She didn't bring us a large Chivas Regal that she had received as a gift from someone important. And on this issue she was a tzadeket [a righteous woman]."

In his opinion, the greatest entertainer since the founding of the state was Shaike Ophir, "in first place." After him, without hesitation, Uri Zohar.

And whom do you miss the most?

"Dahn Ben Amotz. We worked together, we understood one another with a glance, we could say to one another `That's shit' without getting insulted. I haven't found another friend like that."

Were you jealous of him?

"I wasn't jealous of Dahn Ben Amotz. He had strong urges that I didn't have. In relation to women, food, money. Always obsessive. Listen to an example. When he was lying on his deathbed, his washing machine broke, and perhaps his last words were: `Batya, take an IOU.'"

One last story

Hefer is optimistic. He's sure that other times will come, as he wrote in one of his famous songs. Just to be on the safe side, he bought himself a burial plot, and in quite a nice place.

Hefer: "Natan Zach, a friend, turned to me and said: Let's go to some kibbutz and find a burial plot, so that the Hevra Kadisha [the religious burial society] won't touch us. We called Kibbutz Shefayim, but it was expensive, they wanted $5,000. So we heard about Kibbutz Einat and said, let's go and see. We walked around and found several friends there, like Halfi [Avraham], and we liked it very much. We went to the man in charge, introduced ourselves, he liked the idea and we went to choose a place. In Halfi's area he told us that everything was taken, it was the old cemetery, so he took us to the new cemetery, but we saw that there weren't any trees there and everything is new, it's only beginning there, and the guys haven't arrived yet, so we told him: `We want the old cemetery, where there are trees and bushes and flowers.' In the end he found two places for us.

"We said okay, these are the places, now the price. He told us NIS 14,000. After negotiations, he went down to NIS 10,000, in two installments. And then we wanted to know what they offer. So it's like this: Each of us gets a wooden coffin, not Finnish pine, and on the bottom there's plywood with holes. Natan was surprised at that. I told him: So the maggots can get in more easily.

"Then we thought about the type of funeral. I wanted to do what is called a `Mexican funeral,' with trumpets and music, and when I'm still present. Natan said okay, and that he would eulogize in Yiddish. So we came to film the Mexican funeral, it was a cloudy day and I had intended to read a maqama about myself and then I see the grave of David Perlov. And I stopped. Perlov was a man that I loved. I actually took him in when he arrived in the country, and he always said that because of me he felt `like a ma'apil on a ship of ma'apilim.' [ma'apalim were the illegal Jewish immigrants during the British Mandate period].

"So I forgot about the trumpets and I just read Natan Zach's words, `To Haim Hefer, my neighbor in dust and ashes,' and then a poem that I wrote: `There were seven years of drought, said the prophet, seven years he felt the need to bring rain,' and the refrain: `There has to be a lot of rain, noisy, angry, so the deaf land will awake from the sound of the thunder.' That's my protest over the deaf country that doesn't hear, not the sick and not the disabled and not the elderly and not the pensioners. Nobody here cares any more."

That's it. Meanwhile, Zach is already taking care of a proper statue to be placed on the grave "of the two of us." To Hefer one thing is important - the symbol of the Palmach. "I'll go with it beyond the blue, and in the background they should be singing `Hen Efshar' [It's Possible]. He is silent. Wonders if that's the right choice. Afterward he remembers. "Recently I received a Polish translation of the song."n

Hefer speaks out Yossi Sarid - "I consider him a narcissist, self-centered. But he had some good poems. I mean real poetry."

Yigal Tumarkin - "Knowledgeable, an intellectual, an expert, a wild man, a friend."

Uri Zohar - "In the battle between hashish and God, God won. He isn't a rabbi, and I think the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] know that too."

Haim Topol - "I didn't click with him. Maybe because of our opinions, we're wary of each other."

Nissim Aloni - "A human being. I would fall in love with him for his Hebrew alone."

Naomi Shemer - "She'll enter the prayer books, maybe even the Orthodox ones. She's much more in the consensus that I am. I hurt people. She didn't."

Eli Yatzpan - "He makes me laugh."

Orna Banai - "She's creative. I like her very much."

Tzvika Hadar - "He doesn't make me fall off the couch."

Erez Tal - "Sophisticated, knows about television. He was better when he was hungry."

Doron Rosenblum - "Graceful writing, not high pressure, you can take it to bed and you don't fall asleep. Meir Shalev is like that too."

Yossi Banai - "Like the great singers of chansons."

The Gashashim - "A phenomenon."

Arik Lavie - "He was the Israeli Yves Montand."

Amos Oz - "I don't care for him."

A.B. Yehoshua - "I'm too old to read long books."

Alterman - `The greatest, and so was [Yehuda] Amihai."

Ariel Sharon - "If he had different opinions, and would also tell the truth, I would have liked to be a friend of his. After all, we're from the same village, almost."