Something good is happening to Eviatar Banai, one of our most gifted singers and songwriters. And that’s good news for Israeli culture and, perhaps, a sign of hope for the healing of Israeli society.
Since leaving the secular world to study in a haredi, or ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, Eviatar has had an uneasy relationship with his previous life, unsure of how much to incorporate into his new religious identity. It’s a common phenomenon among the many former secular Jews who have entered the haredi world. The tendency is to suppress rather than integrate, to dismiss the value of all that came before as at best mere prelude.
In recent years Eviatar seemed to be heading toward greater separation from modern Israel. That was expressed, in part, by a rejection of much of his own former work from his secular life – exquisite songs of emotional transparency. His audience, which had once embraced him as the voice of youthful angst, stayed loyal to him, and he continued to write songs of such enduring power that they seemed to have always been with us.
Still, fans couldn’t help worrying: Was mainstream Israel losing Eviatar Banai? Were our most sensitive spiritual seekers destined to disappear into the haredi world? Would we lose the chance to create an indigenous Israeli spirituality?
The answer came at his concert this week in the Jerusalem club, Zappa. Eviatar, in big black kippah and long tzitzit, shifted seamlessly between his more recent songs expressing longing for God and for spiritual purity and his older songs exposing the inner life of an alienated young man searching for love and his place in a deranged world. Eviatar allowed himself to be a rocker again; instead of the uptightness of recent performances, there was exuberance, joy.
At Zappa, Eviatar was reintroducing the severed parts of himself to each other, like a reunion between quarreling brothers. A song from his haunting new album, Yafa Kalevana, Beautiful as the Moon, reveals this new, more mature phase: “It seems that I still don’t believe that I’ve changed/The change was too fast, external/It seems I still don’t believe that You forgive/And now I need to inhale it for real.”
This is not the voice of religious triumphalism. Through all his phases, what made Eviatar unique in Israeli music was his relentless, even brutal self-scrutiny. He has carried that capacity from his secular into his religious life. Now he sings of the emptiness of fame, how the artist’s devouring ego and craving for the stage destroys spiritual growth. “I’ll show them, you, everyone…/ until I’ll exist the most existing in the world.”
Hearing his “secular” songs in the context of his religious life give them renewed meaning and urgency. At Zappa he sang his beloved old ballad, Yesh Li Sikui (I Have a Chance): “Even now I’m less angry/ …I feel something changing/The depletion will pass, the light will rise.” And the stunning definition of madness: “I was always afraid of going mad/that the heart will freeze and empty.”
In affirming the ongoing relevance of those old songs, Eviatar is acknowledging the validity of his past. Eviatar the secular Israeli was not an empty vessel waiting to be filled, but a seeker with profound spiritual insights. Then too he craved authenticity, a meaningful life. When he now sings, “I have a chance to be saved, I think,” he is saying: Each phase of my life has had its spiritual opportunities and dangers; will I be true, as a religious Jew, to my deepest self?
Eviatar Banai reminds us how fluid the secular-religious divide has become in today’s Israel. The audience at Zappa – knitted kippot and shaved heads, kerchiefs and tattoos – embodied the growing ease and mutual influence between Jewish tradition and modern Israel. A new mainstream is being created, where secular and Orthodox and points in between and beyond all categories are sharing the same music, the same vitality. Eviatar’s uncle, the poet balladeer Ehud Banai, who also now wears a kippah, put it this way in his last album: “I don’t belong to a sector, I don’t fit into a drawer… I stand on the Bridge of Halakhah/ searching for the Path of Peace.” (The Bridge of Halakhah and the Path of Peace are names of exits on the Tel Aviv highway.)
Hebrew music, once the carrier of the secular Zionist ethos, is now a central force in re-Judaizing Israeli culture – thanks in large part to the extraordinary musicians of the Banai family. They include Eviatar’s brother, Meir, a major force in Israeli rock in the 1990s and later a pioneer in reviving piyut, the prayer songs of Sephardic Jewry.
Eviatar is writing contemporary prayer, Israeli piyut: “Abba, I need to know that You love me, stam kacha, just because, Good Father.” Eviatar intuits that contemporary prayer must be authentically Jewish but no less authentically Israeli, a meeting between traditional language and Hebrew slang. There were moments, during Eviatar’s concert, of such intense longing for God that I felt I was in a place of prayer – the Zappa Great Synagogue.
Israeli society is in radical flux. The old ideological and cultural identities are blurring. As a people, we have barely begun to confront the multiple Jewish shatterings of the last two centuries. The great work of our generation is to try to make sense of our story. In part that means allowing our fellow Jews the freedom to grapple with their Jewish identities, without judging each other by external uniforms or the absence of uniforms.
Life is dynamic; no one is permanently sealed. Think of Matisyahu: the courage it took for a teenager from Long Island to put on the black hat and the courage it took for the Chabadnik he became to remove it. We are shifting in and out of identities, exploring Jewish possibilities – because we must, because we can.
What is true for individuals is true too for communities. Secular Israel is changing, haredi Israel is changing. There are restless souls in every camp, straining against limits, trying, like Eviatar Banai, to be whole.
Yossi Klein Halevi will appear at the Jerusalem launch of his book, Like Dreamers, on Sunday, January 19, 2014, at 6:30 PM, at Jerusalem’s Tachanah Harishona, the First Train Station. He will be interviewed by Saul Singer, co-author of Start-Up Nation. The event is sponsored by the Jerusalem Village.