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Remembering Ofra Haza in song and tears

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The grave of Ofra Haza in Yarkon Cemetery (Wikimedia Commons/Avishai Teicher/Public Domain)

Twenty years ago, the voice of one of Israel’s most remarkable performers was silenced. On Feb. 23, 2000, Ofra Haza died at the age of 42. Haza left a singular legacy for her ability to blend traditional Yemenite and contemporary singing styles which attracted legions of devoted fans in Israel and well beyond its borders. Her untimely death also ignited a debate about the stigma surrounding AIDS.

 

Ofra Haza sings Chai at the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest

Ofra Haza was born into a Yemenite family on Nov. 19, 1957, in the impoverished Hatikvah neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. The youngest of a family of nine, she began singing in a local workshop at the age of 12 and felt fame in early 70s with Ga’agu’im (Yearning). After serving two years in the IDF, she recorded her first solo album and gained international attention when she was voted a close second at the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg with “Chai,” one of several hits written by her manager Bezalel Aloni.

But what happened next set her apart. As described in the article, Ofra Haza: Madonna of the dark soul, “Haza’s next album [Shirei Teiman (“Yemenite songs”)] was conceived as a thank you to her family – an album of devotional poems and secular street songs passed down from her Yemeni forebears. When Haza sang them, she sounded like a woman who was mainlining the hardships of centuries.”

 

Im Nin’Alu – Ofra Haza

The album hit a chord abroad and a follow-up single, Im Nin’Alu (If The Doors Are Locked), topped the Eurochart for two weeks in June 1988. She went on to collaborate with international stars including the English rock band, the Sisters of Mercy, Paula Abdul and Sarah Brightman. She also sang on the soundtrack of several movies including The Prince of Egypt in which she voiced the small role of Yocheved, Moses’ mother. As noted in Haza’s Wikipedia entry, when The Prince of Egypt composer Hans Zimmer introduced her to the artists, “they thought that she was so beautiful that they drew Yocheved to look like the singer.”

 

Ofra Haza as Yocheved singing ‘Deliver Us’ in The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I was quite taken by an article written by The Forward’s Allison Kaplan Sommer a decade after Haza’s death. Sommer had interviewed the singer in the mid 90s. “I remember thinking that she was very possibly the most beautiful person I had ever seen in person. She was sweet, hospitable and friendly; she also seemed lonely. She spoke openly of her desire to settle down and raise a family as she approached her 40th birthday.”

That theme is echoed in the book Mikhtavim l’Ofra (Letters to Ofra), by Haza’s long-time – and eventually, estranged – manager, Bezalel Aloni. As noted in Haaretz, “Aloni introduces a conversation between Haza and one of her brothers, which took place when she was at the height of her career. Her brother tersely expressed his view of her accomplishments: ‘Who the hell are you anyway? You’re just an unmarried woman with no children!’ Haza did not react.”

In July 1997, Haza married businessman Doron Ashkenazi. The couple had no children.

 

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

Through a prolific career, Haza released 16 gold and platinum albums. A discography is available online as are dozens of videos on the Ofrachai (Ofra Alive) YouTube channel. I don’t think I’ve heard a more mesmerizing rendition of Yerushalayim shel Zahav than Haza’s at Israel’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1998.

Less than two years later, a gravely ill Ofra Haza was rushed to a Tel Aviv hospital. Her fans maintained a round-the-clock vigil for 13 days. When she passed away in Feb. 2000, her death was reported as a result of “major organ failure.” That is until Haaretz printed what had only been whispered until then, that Ofra Haza had died of complications of AIDS.

The newspaper defended its decision in order to lift ‘‘the fragile tissue of silence, stretched tenuously over a fervour of rumours.’’ Said Yoel Esteron, the managing editor of Haaretz, ‘‘There is hardly a house in Israel in which the word AIDS did not get spoken in recent days. … We are talking about a human disease like any other, and there is no reason to demonize it.’’

Ironically, some critics said the publicity had the opposite effect. “The refusal by Ms. Haza and her family to reveal that she was infected with HIV ‘magnified the stigma of AIDS and took us back 20 years by demonizing the disease,’ said Professor Zvi Bentwich, head of the AIDS clinic at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot.

Prof. Bentwich said that Ms. Haza, “’literally died from shame.’ Having preferred to take protease inhibitors from a private physician rather than get treatment at a hospital AIDS clinic, Ms. Haza developed complications instead of living with AIDS as a chronic disease.”

There was speculation that she contracted the illness from her husband, Doron Ashkenazi, who died of a drug overdose roughly one year later. Others suggested that it was through a transfusion of infected blood she had received in a hospital following a miscarriage.

Shortly after the death, Suzanne Goldenberg captured the mood in Haza’s Tel Aviv neighbourhood. “In Hatikvah, they will never forgive the press for exposing Haza’s fiercely guarded secret. Her parents live there still, in a modest house on Boaz Street that has been embellished with coach lamps and expensive window shutters that are firmly closed despite a sunny day in early spring that has coaxed most of the neighbours outdoors.”

“‘Please don’t bother us any more,’ said one. ‘She kept herself to herself when she was alive. Why should we know all her private details now that she is gone? Let her rest in peace.’”

Ofra Haza is buried in the artists’ section of Petah Tikva’s Yarkon Cemetery. Her gravestone reads (translated from the Hebrew):

Ofra, the love of our heart

The clear, the pure, the holy

You were blessed with a Godly voice

And you praised the name of Hashem.

The angels on high, you will make pleasant.

And the souls, you will illuminate.

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