• Mike Leibsohn

Israel’s Performing Arts Dynasty

If your last name is Kennedy, then you’re probably involved somehow in US politics; if your last name is Banai, chances are you’re an Israeli singer, musician, composer, actor, radio presenter, comedian, dramatist, or some combination of the above, who may or may not be self-produced to boot. In a country as small as Israel, the massive concentration of brain power and talent simply never ceases to amaze; over the last century we have made major, disproportionate contributions to the global fields of science, medicine, agriculture, the arts, and more. Therefore it comes as little surprise that a single family would emerge from the same modest roots as all other Israeli families and rise to dominate any given field. The Bana family, with their four children, left Shiraz in modern-day Iran and made aliyah to Jerusalem sometime in the 19th century; later generations of the Jerusalem-born family members Hebraized the name to Banai, as is still very common among the multitude of immigrants from all over the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, etc. that make up Israel’s cultural tapestry as we know it today.

Nobody really knows exactly how, when, or why the Banai family’s cultural dominance came to unfold, but it is an unarguable and ubiquitously known fact in Israel today. Yossi Banai (z”l 1932-2006) remembered his paternal grandfather as being the one who planted the seed of creativity in the family garden; Yossi was a well-known performer, singer, actor, and dramatist whose mother’s encouragement greatly influenced his art. Several of his siblings also became entertainers in their own right: Ya’akov, Yitzhak, Haim, and Gavri. Most of them were multitalented and well-known for their ability to cross between various spheres of the entertainment industry, such as radio, television, film, music, comedy, and theater. Of course the tale does not end here, with one sole generation of unprecedented familial domination of a field, because as tends to happen in nature, this successful family continued to flourish. The subsequent generation produced no less than seven successful performers, musicians, actors, producers, as well as one highly renowned cardiologist (Shmuel, b.1955). With your permission, in the interest of time, and with all due respect to Orna, Eviyatar, Meir (z”l), Boaz, Uri, Yuval, Elisha, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, and the many others whose names and familial connections escape me, I would like to say a few words about my personal favorite, the one for whom I developed an instant and deep appreciation: Ehud Banai.

Ehud’s father Ya’akov was born in the Mahane Yehuda area of Jerusalem in 1919, the second of eight children, and the first one in the family to pursue a career in entertainment. He was a successful theater and film actor, and served in the IDF’s entertainment troupe during the War of Independence. Ehud was born in 1953 in the same neighborhood as his father; although the family moved to the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim in 1957, the picturesque alleys and ancient traditions of the Jerusalem shuk are surely embedded deep in the Banai genes. Throughout his 20s Ehud struggled to break into the music industry; he even self-financed a single in the hopes that it would receive enough radio play to help him get his foot in the door. But it was only in 1985, when Ehud wrote the lyrics to the hit song “Rakevet Laila” (Night Train) for the popular Israeli rock band Mashina, that he finally got his break. The following year, along with his new band HaPlitim (The Refugees), he released two singles that garnered widespread attention in Israel; in 1987, at the age of 34, he released his first full-length studio album, Ehud Banai and the Refugees, largely considered to be one of the most important pieces of the modern Israeli rock canon. Throughout the following decades, Ehud continued releasing studio albums, performing live shows all around Israel, Europe, and North America, and collaborating with various artists, both Israeli and foreign, on numerous songs, albums, shows, and other projects.

His music is characterized heavily by inspiration from the world of rock, blues, and folk of the 60s and 70s, as well as more traditional music from the Arab world, India, and the Mediterranean region. One of my personal favorites is a traditional Irish folk song, “Star of the County Down”, that Ehud translated and adapted to Hebrew (HaKochav Shel Machoz Gush Dan). His songs are credited with insightful social commentary and strong undertones of an anti-establishment counterculture; his lyrics often touch upon themes such as corruption in politics and society, the discrimination against Israelis of Ethiopian descent and other racial minorities, and the never-ending cultural conflicts both within Israel and with her neighboring populations. Many people compare his career to that of Bob Dylan with regard to the almost mythical proportions of his contribution to the national dialogue and artistic identity. Despite his sometimes dark and lamenting mood, Ehud always manages to express a deep love and appreciation for the land of Israel, a strong awareness of the ancient connection between the people and the land, a subtle tinge of nostalgia, and cautious yet hopeful optimism for the future. Add to all of that the fact that he’s simply a class-act, a universally loved cultural icon in a young and volatile country where we can’t afford to be without one.


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