An unsuspecting theatre in the Gindi Auditorium at the American Jewish University was filled with a bunch of nostalgic Israelis last week — and it was beautiful.
Yoni Rechter, one of the most notable figures in modern Israeli music, was scheduled to perform, and I had begged my mom to schlep up to Los Angeles from Orange County to take part in the trip down memory lane. As one of Israel’s most successful songwriters, Rechter has composed songs for Israel’s biggest and best musical performers, including Kaveret, Gidi Gov, Yehonatan Geffen and Arik Einstein. On this evening, he certainly did not disappoint.
As is expected of any Israeli musician, the show started late, but as soon as Rechter sat down at his piano and began to play, the audience was consumed by the beauty of his melodies and the natural ease with which he played. His jazzy and soothingly dissonant chords came together well with his upbeat melody. The lyrics matched perfectly, sometimes deep and more serious and other times much more comedic and playful.
As the excitement persisted throughout the whole performance, Rechter’s extremely talented band — composed of vocalist Mika Hary, woodwind instrumentalist Eitan Goffman, guitarist Shahar Mintz, bassist Yonatan Levy, and percussionist Yonadav Halevy — accompanied him well. No matter the stage of the performance, the audience was captivated by every joke, solo, and the simple musical genius present on stage. After witnessing a truly wonderful performance, the whole audience was waiting for Rechter and his band to return to the stage for their encore, for it was obvious that Rechter had omitted some of his most famous songs from his album Ha’Keves Ha’Shisha Asar (“The 16th Sheep”). This particular album is filled with songs that many Israeli children to this day grow up hearing ( and have grown up hearing ever since its debut in 1978). These songs (written by Yehonatan Geffen, and arranged primarily by Rechter himself) are filled with imaginative scenarios, creatively simple stories, and often characterized by the thoughts and thought-processes of children.
As we in the audience eagerly awaited the melodies of our childhood, we were finally welcomed by Rechter’s subtle introduction to the songs of this familiar album. The scene was remarkably unique and could be recreated only by an Israeli audience, I’m sure. A beautiful and talented singer with an amazing band and possibly one of the most talented Israeli musicians of our time stood before us on a remarkable stage, and the audience enthusiastically recited the words of our favorite children’s songs so loud that we could barely hear Hary’s vocals. After she realized our excitement, she simply pointed the microphone toward the audience so as to gesture that we could take over from that point.
This phenomenon is not at all unique to Yoni Rechter’s performances. Israelis living outside of Israel have a certain obsession with all things Israeli that remind us of our homeland. Sometimes, we Israeli-Americans allow our excitement to overtake us when musicians and comedians from the homeland come to perform for us here, leading us to sometimes shout out jokes, lyrics, or comedy sketches at the performers instead of letting them perform their set. As someone with such a personal attachment to the songs from The 16th Sheep album, I was brought to tears by his closing medley that finished with the lullaby song that I had heard throughout my childhood, called “Layla Tov” (“Good Night”).
The next day was a day that had been marked on my calendar since about Week 1. Yoni Rechter had come to give a lecture at the Ostin Music Center at UCLA. He opened with an instrumental piece, followed by an open conversation with Neal Brostoff, Music Programs Coordinator for the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music at UCLA. In his answers to the various questions asked by Brostoff and the audience, as he described influences such as The Beatles, Bill Evans, Bach and Beethoven, his mentors such as Arik Einstein, and styles that he tried to emulate, the answer that struck me the most was regarding the current musicians in Israel. “Music should be done with authentic love and not in order to succeed. There is art music, and there is commercial music,” Rechter explained when summarizing the main difference between good and bad musicians in Israel. He noted that many “mainstream” artists make music for the money rather than for the art, and told the audience that it has always been very obvious to identify which is which.
Following his interview and open Q&A session, UCLA’s only Jewish a cappella group, JEWkbox, performed the iconic 16th Sheep song, “Eich Shir Nolad” (“How A Song is Born”). The song describes the sometimes challenging but very natural and organic process of songwriting and composing. Following JEWkbox’s performance, Rechter and I performed (for the first time ever) a duet to the song “Ha’Yalda Hachi Yafa Ba’Gan” (“The Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten”). This song is sung to every little girl in her preschool days, and I vividly remember singing this song throughout my entire childhood. This performance had been coordinated by Brostoff, but due to a typical miscommunication (is it really an Israeli performance if everything goes as planned?), Rechter and his manager had misunderstood and we were not given any time to practice.
As he began to play the introduction to the song, I became nervous and excited, and simply let my five year old self take control of my body. I was no longer shy, my inhibitions had disappeared, and it was as if I had returned to my bedroom and I was theatrically singing to my mirror about the prettiest girl in my gan. My fellow JEWkboxers and other friends who attended the lecture/performance noticed how my hands continued to shake even hours after the event, and the smile across my face refused to fade days later. I have been trying to think of a comparable American experience, but the lack of cool children’s songs written by famous rock and jazz musicians have left me with no answers for my non-Israeli counterparts. After the performance, I spoke with Rechter and confessed my admiration for his music and my appreciation for his performance from the night before, and wished him well for the rest of his six-city US tour.
Brostoff and Sophia Wilkof, Music Director of JEWkbox, enthusiastically organized and participated in this event. Yoni Rechter’s visit to UCLA could very possibly have been the best thing that has ever happened to me since I transferred here last year, and without them that would not have happened. After being made to feel that my Jewish heritage, and more importantly, that my Israeli upbringing makes me an unwelcome part of the UCLA campus, this concert, lecture and performance showed me that regardless of my location, my culture is an integral part of my being. It made me realize that the dreams of an Israeli-American girl whose identity had always been a huge balagan can still be fulfilled years later.