The Ofra Haza enigma: How Israel’s greatest pop star is remembered

What does it say about Israeli society when 13 years after her death, Ofra Haza is best remembered for succumbing to AIDS and for a Mizrahi accent that Israelis just can’t help but mock?

By Adi Keissar

The Ofra Haza enigma: How Israel's greatest pop star is remembered
Ofra Haza at a ceremony in Jerusalem, April 30, 1998 (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Some time in the 1980s, the world became divided into two camps. Either you loved Yardena Arazi or you loved Ofra Haza. In 1983, Haza defeated Arazi in a competition to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition by just one point – an outcome that further inflamed both camps. As a member of the Yemenite community, I am embarrassed to say that I belonged to the Arazi camp, instead of supporting the representative of my own ethnic group. But perhaps I am worthy of forgiveness. In my youth, like every young girl who has yet to totally connect to her own identity, I was controlled by a girl who was both slightly older than me and whom I viewed as the ultimate authority – this girl was my cousin. She was older by only a few years, but she was the one who decided which hairdo was cool enough to walk around with, which guy from the Tel Aviv Youth band was worthy of my crush, or which camp we would belong to when it came to Yardena or Ofra.

Last month, on February 13, it was the 13th anniversary of Ofra Haza’s death. It must be mentioned that long before she died, I understood the mistake I made, quickly defecting to the Ofra Haza camp retroactively. Perhaps I made the move after eventually realizing my own identity. Perhaps I did it after realizing that I loved Haza’s songs more than Arazi’s. Perhaps I did it since my Yemenite side finally took over and I wanted to show solidarity with my people. I think that what happened was that I felt bad. I felt bad because the exceptional story of a girl who came from a large family in Tel Aviv’s working-class Hatikva neighborhood and turned into an international success story can be summarized with a poor joke that is told whenever her name comes up – “She’s finished.”

Looking back at Haza’s career, as well as at her remarkable life story, makes me wonder why Israeli society cannot deal with a success  story that ends in tragedy. Maybe Israel is really a small country that cannot deal with the tales of larger-than-life figures that end in tragedy. And maybe it is hard for us to deal with the fact that Haza died of AIDS. It doesn’t matter how liberal our society pretends it is, even today, the word “AIDS” is associated with dubious sexual practices. Our puritanical society does not really know how to talk about or remember someone whose image was so clean, but eventually died of AIDS. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that Ofra Haza was a Mizrahi Jew? In a famous film that came out in the wake of her death, we see the women of her family sitting and talking openly, somberly about her final days. And one of them, who speaks with a glottal “khet” and an “ayin” in her Hebrew, with tears in her eyes, says “you are crazy for waiting so long – now she is already finished.”

And suddenly, it becomes clear that the memory of Ofra Haza becomes encapsulated in one sentence that has become a fun and acceptable way to mock a Mizrahi accent. We have forgotten Haza’s international career, but we have turned the women who appear in the film into objects of mockery. I ask myself “would a non-Mizrahi man be similarly mocked had he uttered the exact same sentence? “We’ve decided to stick to that one sentence, laughing even as we say it today. And if this is our way of dealing with our memory of Haza, it says much more about us than it does about her or the women in the film. Here are some of the most significant events in the life of Ofra Haza, who we would do well to remember 13 years after her death.

Ofra Haza was born in 1957 to a traditional Yemenite family of nine children that lived in Hatikva. In her childhood, she joined the school choir and began to perform and act in the local neighborhood theater. In 1974, she took third place in a nationwide Mizrahi music festival, but her big breakthrough came in 1979 when she was cast in Asi Dayan’s film “Shlager,” alongside the “HaGashash HaHiver” comedy trio, in which she sang the song that turned the film into a hit:

After the release of her first solo album “Al Ahavot Shelanu” (“Our Love”) in 1980, Haza’s popularity began to skyrocket. She continued to release successful albums and singles that won her fame and several prizes. In 1983, after defeating Arazi, Haza flew to Munich to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition, performing a song written for Ehud Manor:

In that same year, Haza released “Shirei Moledet” (“Songs of the Homeland”), which included new interpretations of classic Hebrew songs. Although most of her professional career did not emphasize her Yemenite roots, her 1984 album “Songs of Yemen” included Yemenite songs from different eras. This was the first time that a new Ofra Haza album was not played on popular radio stations, as most of the stations found Yemenite music too difficult, and was only played on radio shows that featured Mizrahi music. On the other hand, the song “Galbi” (“My Heart”), written by Aharon Amram, became very popular in England.

The success of Galbi heralded Haza’s international breakthrough into the European market. Her song “Im Nin’alu,” (“If The Doors Are Locked”) which was written by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and was released as a remix including singing in both Arabic and English won her fame across the globe.

At the height of Haza’s career, she was performing in European and American festivals, winning countless awards, appearing on the cover of magazines and even appeared on the Tonight Show featuring Johnny Carson. Her 13th studio album, “Shaday,” sold over a million copies across the world.

In 1993, Haza became the first Israeli singer to be nominated for a Grammy in the category of “World Music” for her album “Kirya,” which topped Billboard’s World Music chart. In 1994, Haza performed in Oslo during the ceremony to award Nobel Peace Prizes to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, and in 1998 she took part in the Prince of Egypt soundtrack. In 2000, Haza passed away at age 41 from complications caused by AIDS. Not many Israeli artists (if any) have made it to CNN’s headlines upon passing away:

One can say many things about Ofra Haza. One can say that she is an inspirational success story, especially today when many artists are attempting to break through to an English-speaking audience, while she managed to do so using her Yemenite origins. On the other hand, one can say that she fit into the cultural framework of the West, making the Yemenite sounds more accessible and thus became famous. One can say many things. But let’s be real: 13 years after her death, after the Hatikva neighborhood theater, the worldwide tours and the stint at Dreamworks Studios in Los Angeles, we can finally stop with our mocking. Ofra Haza was able to get out of Hatikva and become a superstar. But sometimes, it seems, that underneath the seemingly innocent mockery, it might be more comfortable for Israeli society to leave her there, in Hatikva, where we make fun of the way in which people speak.

Adi Keissar is a journalist, screenwriter and poet based in Tel Aviv. This piece was first published in Hebrew in Café Gibraltar.