The next time you are shopping at the Carmel Shuk on a Friday afternoon, do yourself a favor and follow the rich and melodic voice coming from the entrance to the shuk. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a free plastic stool and have a front-row seat at one of Miri Aloni’s regular street concerts.
Amid a motley crew of listeners sits Miri Aloni with a guitar, always brightly dressed, her long platinum hair tied back. A rainbow-colored Hawaiian luau adorns the music stand that holds her songbook. Some may pass and simply see an aging hippie singing old songs, a relic of another time, but I see a living history. This is the woman who famously sang “Shir HaShalom” (“Song For Peace”) at the rally where former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. I am not sure why this famous Israeli singer performs on the street rather than at formal concerts, and whether her association with that horrific tragedy has anything to do with it.
Yet whatever Miri’s reasons for spending her recent years performing at the Carmel Shuk, there is nothing sad or pitiful about her presence there. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A reliably decent-sized crowd gathers around her, a crowd as interesting as Miri herself. Israeli women of her generation are her mainstay; they always clap along, singing with her loudly and enthusiastically—and when they don’t know the words, they simply “la-la-la” just as loudly. They identify with her, and her music, more than anybody else in the crowd. Then there are the families, whose children are sometimes invited to sit on Miri’s lap and sing “Mak’helah Alizah” with her while their proud parents videotape, all smiles. Alcoholics can be counted on to dance wildly and unstably (usually shirtless) in front of Miri, at least until she shoos them away. There are a couple of teenage girls, most likely on their Birthright trip or part of some Zionist youth organization, who seamlessly break into a circle dance when she sings, “Od Lo Ahavti Dai.” An unashamed gray-haired lady with fiery eyes moves her hips and dances with a young, tanned blonde girl wearing trendy overalls. Miri sings “Happy Birthday” to a Slavic-looking woman, named Ilana, who stands beside her husband, and after the song Miri addresses her saying, “I hope your husband remembered your birthday—and if not, I hope this song reminded him. Your husband should remember your birthday, your anniversary; he needs to remember, it’s important…” she urges, with no particular outside provocation. She sounds as if she has perhaps had some experience with a forgetful mate.
There is something incredibly real and organic about Miri’s unique performances. Each audience is like a microcosm of Israeli society, amplified by the emotion of the music and the constant bustle of activity from the shuk. The sun is shining, people are smiling, and everything feels just…right. With no offense to Justin Timberlake fans, I can’t really understand why people are so eager to dish out hundreds of shekels just to have a spot at his upcoming mass-produced, overhyped concert in Israel. The intimacy and spontaneity that make Miri Aloni’s shuk performances so special are entirely absent from such mega-concerts, where everything must be perfectly orchestrated for people paying top-dollar. I guess it’s a little boring, at least to my taste.
I, myself, prefer Miri’s simple guitar-and-pre-recorded-instrumentation ensemble. I prefer tossing a 10-shekel coin into her guitar case. I prefer my backdrop of haredi Jews wrapping tefillin at a table next to the entrance to the shuk on a Friday afternoon. I prefer songs about falafel and Eretz Israel. I prefer connecting with strangers, because actually we aren’t strangers: we are fellow Israelis, bonded by a shared culture and frames of reference and an openness of spirit. I prefer living in an Israel that looks, feels, and smells like Israel, and not like a poor imitation of America. Perhaps most of all, I prefer living in an Israel that is not ashamed to be Israeli, that is not overly preoccupied with comparing life here to life beh’chool, that is not so self-critical that she ends up overlooking all of her wonderful and unique qualities that are worth holding onto.
May they live on yet. May we live on yet.