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Ofra Haza twenty years on…”Od Chai” (Still alive!)

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 9, 2020

 

“The voice of an angel”…and is this more than a metaphor?

This month will mark the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Ofra Haza (1957-2000) a true artist and inspiration, and dare I say, a pure soul as well.  I wish I could say, without controversy, of Ofra what has been said of Simon Weil, that while her works were impressive the depths of her soul were unfathomable.  Yet who knows?  The human soul is a mystery, even to one’s intimates, yea, even to oneself, and not something that outsiders can easily ponder.  In regards to Ofra Haza, I remain the quintessential outsider, since I never knew her or her music during that span of life when we were contemporaries.  However upon belated discovery it quickly dawned on me that she was unique in the world, at least in the world of music, and deserving of special remembrance.

Who was Ofra Haza? In her day she was loved by millions world-wide, the pride of her nation, a breath of hope wafting indiscriminately across the battle charred desert of national enmities, and thus feted by the international media, even when they misunderstood her, as, for instance, a “rock star”, an “Arab princess” (she was Yemenite Jewish) or perchance as a beautiful ornament lent to adorn the fickle and failed diplomacy of her time.   Thus was Ofra Haza, the late Israeli singer soon reduced to caricature as “The Madonna of the East.”  Lamentably, the wrong Madonna was intended.  None the less, someone seeking an incarnation of the Eternal Feminine might do far worse than to meditate on Ofra’s life and works, bearing in mind that, as with all claims to divinity, vehement objections are sure to be raised.  Yet unlike her North American contemporary, Madonna Louise Ciccione, Ofra Haza never wished to mock, but only to glorify God, although doing this through the media of popular music was guaranteed to evoke dangerous ambiguities.  With Ofra, one begins by searching for the Goddess and winds up finding a sister.  In the end one is forced to recognize that she was human, only too human, and this is fitting, since it’s exactly how Ofra, being a devout monotheist, would want you to think of her.

Indeed, Ofra’s legacy is almost too much to deal with critically, which is one of the reasons why her memory is endangered.  She is easy to listen to but difficult to think about.  After all, what is a singer, any singer, let alone one as enigmatic as Ofra Haza?  It could be argued that, unless they are lyricists, such creatures are but conduits between the pens of the poets and the ears of the listeners.  In Ofra’s case, someone might venture that she was little more than a tragicomic mask through which certain Hebrew writers were able to translate their messages to the world.  If so, she at least had the benefit of excellent poetry behind her voice, beginning with the Bible itself, ranging through the traditional songs of Yemenite Jewry, to the best of the modern Israeli lyricists, and finally to the holder of the mask himself, a mercurial genius named Bezazel Aloni who mentored her throughout her career.  From this vantage point, Ofra ceases to be a person, and becomes a project, albeit a well-intended one.  Where we sought the One Woman, there is now only a dazzeling variety of works.

Lest we consent to this smashing of Ofra’s soul into a thousand incandescent points, let’s observe how in her art there was a rare confluence of sound and meaning, which is barely described by the word “interpretation.”  One might take the impact of a song like Yerusalaem shel zahav as a kind of witness to the power of the “Ofra effect.”  This difficult song was originally composed by the highly respected Naomi Shemer, who was wise enough to realize that she couldn’t render it adequately with her own voice.  Instead, she found a competent surrogate and the song gained popular acclaim, fatefully, on the eve of the Six Day War of 1967.  Thus when the Israeli army entered Jerusalem, nearly two millennia after the destruction of the temple, the soldiers had Yerusalaem shel zehav, if not on their lips, at least in their minds.  To some, it seemed that the song possessed a talismanic quality which somehow facilitated the conquest of the holy city.  Surely, this would have been sufficient grist for the mills of legend, yet the uncanny career of Yerusalaem shel zehav was not finished.  Thirty years later, Ofra Haza would sing it on the anniversary of the capital’s redemption.  She would not just sing the song, she would own it, for it was clear to anyone with ears to hear, that the song was being sung, as it was intended to be sung, for the very first time.  This was something beyond virtuosity, it was an eruption of the holy, of the numinous, into the world of sense.  The holy song was being sung to the holy city from within the holy city.

One way of salvaging a connected life and narrative from the rich diversity of Ofra’s productions is to analyse her life as an entelechy, a holographic pattern in which the final phase recapitulates the beginning.  I think it is possible, without doing too much violence to the details, to say that Ofra began with the sacred, made an excursus into the profane, and then returned to the sacred.  This is a familiar archetypal pattern, often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey.”  Alternatively, and closer to home from Ofra’s point of view, it could be likened to the tikun process which the Kabbalists discuss, a process by which the righteous redeem the shattered sparks of divinity out of the dark world into which they have fallen.  The career of the hero, or heroine in this case, is parabolic in shape.  It is not the world of “progress” i.e., the world where in every way and on every day things are getting better and better.  Rather, it is a process of redemption and return.  This process entails suffering, but it is a magical property of art, at least according to Schopenhauer, to turn suffering into beauty.  Ofra’s mature songs, songs such as  Latet, Orech Hayam, Mangalat Halev, not to mention the others, are typically works of spiritual alchemy in which the sufferings of the heart are made excruciatingly beautiful.

It is impossible to speak of Ofra’s mature songs without mentioning the singular fact that there seemed to be no immature songs.  Her career began and ended in perfection, with some lapses in the middle, and while there was transformation, there was no development in the excellence of her voice, as if the same singer, singing outside of time, were summoned anew at every stage of her life.  Of course this was an illusion, since even Ofra was not created ex nihilo like some primordial Eve.  In fact, the excellent tonal qualities were a result of her unorthodox background, being the daughter of one who was herself a Yemmenite singer.  Mrs. Haza never pacified little Ofra, her youngest daughter, on the principle that constant crying would build up her lungs and vocal chords.  Yet if we date the inception of her career from the first moment that Bezazel Aloni heard her voice, from that point on we can only speak of perfection begetting perfection.

Often, as when Ofra Haza sang “…sometimes I wonder…” in the lyrics to Sixth Sense, (no connection to the movie of the same title) she seemed to be talking more like a philosopher than a balladeer, since, romantic though she was, the relationship she wondered at was not a romantic one, but that between the visible and the unseen world.  For global audiences, Ofra Haza was herself a cause of wonder.  In previous ages this double entendre would have been used to disguise a scandalous erotic message behind a facade of piety.  The remarkable thing about Ofra is how, in a secular age, the energies are made flow in the opposite direction, and the listener is introduced to the ultimate scandal, which is none other than the sovereignty of God.  At the zenith of her career, adorned as the Queen of Sheba and speaking in the ancient language of the prophets, she seemed to be beckoning the world’s peoples to a Holy Jerusalem which, if not literally heavenly, was certainly pitched at a higher and more harmonious octave.  Then suddenly she was gone, and the cries of joy turned to lamentation.

That a person of Ofra’s stature could be dropped down the memory hole so quickly is an enigma in itself.  In the closing decades of the last century she was riding the crest of a new genre, world music, which if history had played out differently (before Sept. 11, 2001) might have consolidated the aesthetic sensibilities of a gentler and kinder millennium than the one we actually got.  Outside of Israel she rarely topped the charts, but she was a ubiquitous runner-up in Europe, the Middle East and Japan, giving her more breadth of exposure than any other artist of her time.  She was feted by talk shows in every developed nation, always surprising them with the beauty of her voice and her personality.   She was proposed to by royalty, and even awed the famous Michael Jackson.  Was this magic?  Was it studio props and the support team provided by her backers in the entertainment industry?  Naturally, in part that had to be the case.  However when the talk show hosts demanded authenticity she would call their bluff and sing in acapella.  Unaccompanied by anything other than her gentile fingers taping on a petrol tin, haunting melodies would usher forth from her mouth.  There was something here besides just “show biz.”  Something uncanny was breaking out through the vehicle of a woman’s voice, something or perchance Someone.

Kaddish

Ofra’s death is a subject in itself.   Suffice to say that within the wonderful mystery of her life, there are dark mysteries associated with her death.  After her passing on February 23, 2000, everyone has held one or another theory about it, and I am no exception.  Perhaps, after some prayer and reflection, I will even put forth some ideas of my own on the subject.  However, speculations on the topic should never upstage the significance of Ofra’s living work and career.  When all is said and done, the most important thing to remember is that she still here among us, not just from the heavens but on Earth, where her legacy is preserved on audio and visual media by countless fans.  For just as Ofra sang so loudly and clearly at the 1983 Eurovision songfest,  “Yes, I’m still alive… Od Chai…ani od chai! 

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