Walking in Ofra Haza's Steps: A Tour about her Milestones and Gemstones
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem has a captivating temporary exhibition, Jewelry Making: Past and Present. The exhibition, which runs until the middle of November, includes a display of the stunningly beautiful Yemenite pieces of jewelry worn by Ofra Haza when she performed locally and around the world during her successful career as an international icon. She rose to stardom quickly and became an international sensation practically overnight. She came in second place in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1983, and in 1989 she won the New Music Award for the International Album of the year for her album Shaday. She even received a Grammy nomination in 1992. She was a huge celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s, but tragically died too young. Her life was cut short from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 42. Her voice lived on and so did the jewelry she wore.
Ofra Haza's jewelry, made by eighth-generation Yemenite silversmith, Ben-Zion David, were pieces that he lent her in 1988 when she approached him about wearing some of his pieces in her performances and photo shoots. Those same pieces appear in the special display at the Museum for Islamic Art's temporary exhibition.
The exhibition created renewed interest in both Haza's life and the story of her personal silversmith, so the museum organized a few unique and specialized Hebrew tours (in Tel Aviv and Jaffa) as a temporary add-on to the exhibition price and program. The idea was to acquaint the public with both Haza's life in her childhood neighborhood of Hatikvah in Tel Aviv where she rose to stardom, and to visit David's famous Yemenite Art museum, workshop and store in Old Jaffa. (Other specialized tours that are an extension of the exhibition can be found here).
David was born in Israel but his story begins with his parents' journey from Yemen to Israel. Jews in Yemen had a difficult time. They suffered persecution and were forced to leave without any belongings, according to the movie that was shown to the people on the tour. Luckily, David’s father managed to bring the five main tools required in authentic Yemenite jewelry making.
It is with those rare and authentic Yemenite Jewelry making tools that David’s father began teaching him how to make traditional, intricate Yemenite jewelry. Since the age of 10, he worked with his father off and on at his workshop in Kiryat Ekron and enjoyed perfecting his craft. Smiling, David recounted that he used to bring his jewelry to high school to sell to some of the girls. David took a small break to study electrical engineering but later returned to his roots and back to the art of Yemenite jewelry. He later opened his workshop and museum in Old Jaffa (near the visitor's center) where he is training the ninth-generation jewelry maker, his son Yoav.
Yoav is proud to learn the tricks of the trade. He mainly creates sliver pieces at this stage, he said, while he is still learning to perfect his work with gold.
David's workshop and store, both have large photos of Ofra Haza on the wall, which help keep her memory alive since customers glance at the photos as they stroll through and admire the stunning jewelry. His gold and silver jewelry, some with gemstones, as well as his judaica collection are beautifully laid out in the store for purchase.
Tracing Ofra Haza's Steps in her childhood neighborhood with her brother, Yair Haza
As the tour of Yemenite Art by Ben Zion David wrapped up, the group was taken by bus to the Hatikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where Ofra Haza grew up and began her to path to fame. For the first time, people had the opportunity to get a personal glimpse at Ofra Haza's world through the eyes of her brother, Yair.
Ofra Haza was born in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv on November 19, 1957, one of nine from a large Yemenite family. Her parents made aliyah in 1948 to begin their new life in Israel. Yair shared some of his family memories about the house.Their father had a garden where he grew a couple of the Arba'at HaMinim (the four species) used in the holiday of Sukkot. He also told the story of how their home influenced Ofra's culinary choices and why she became a vegetarian. One day she saw chicken on their roof that they kept for the purpose of Kaparot on Yom Kippur (an ancient custom of swinging a chicken over one's head while reciting a prayer as part of the atonement process). "From then on, Ofra couldn't look at chicken on a plate," explained Yair.
“I am touched by everything that they do for Ofra, and I also feel that I am reviving her, that she appears on the map, that she is with us. Her songs accompany us at home, in the car, abroad. Everywhere we go we hear her. There is nothing more touching than that when you feel her close to you.”
Yair and Ofra only four years apart, spent a lot time together and they became very close. Their seven older siblings got married and moved out first, so Ofra and Yair shared a lot of memories at home, just the two of them with their parents. The four of them always looked out for each other, especially since "the neighborhood was full of violence, crime and sounds of screeching tires," explained Yair.
Some of his cherished memories of Ofra include their times spent after school. They used to walk home together when they attended schools that were located side-by-side on Lehi Street. Ofra studied at Rambam school on Lehi Street until grade 6. They would walk home from school and get their favorite drink from a corner store that is still there and still sells the same drink: a Persian drink called Falooda, made of rice noodles and served with rose-flavored ice chips. Yair loves sharing his nostalgia about his sister and it's apparent that he holds all of his memories of Ofra close to his heart. He beamed with pride when he recalled the happy times they shared and how important it is for him and others to keep her memory alive.
“I am touched by everything that they do for Ofra, and I also feel that I am reviving her, that she appears on the map, that she is with us. Her songs accompany us at home, in the car, abroad. Everywhere we go we hear her. There is nothing more touching than when you feel her close to you," he said. He runs a special Facebook Page in her memory.
According to Yair, before Ofra became a star, during her early school days she was already the soloist in all of her school performances and ceremonies. At the age of 11, while attending Uziel School, Menashe Lev-Ran, a music conductor decided that she would be the soloist for the new school choir, and a soloist in a band that would be performing at a special celebration for the 50th anniversary party of the Israeli Electric Corporation (IEC). According to Yair, Lev-Ran was only supposed to audition children of parents that worked for IEC, but because Ofra's talent was already so apparent from her school performances, he asked Ofra to audition with 50 others, and he decided that she would be the soloist.
"He told me that during the audition he chose Ofra to be the soloist and he published that information the same day. Ofra approached him and said that her father didn't work for IEC so he is not able to include her, but Lev-Ran replied, 'Shhh, don't tell anyone. You will be the soloist,' and from then she began her career as a singer at events and at any neighborhood spots that were connected to the school." At the age of 12 she joined a theater troupe.
Ofra lived in the house until the age of 13 when she moved in with her music manager and producer, Bezalel Aloni, who wanted to groom her for a singing career after spotting her performing around the neighborhood. This was a difficult time for Yair, he said, that at such a young age she was influenced to leave home. The Haza home later became the place where she wed the late Doron Ashkenazi on the roof of their house.
Yair took us by the old, local nightclubs in the area where Ofra performed and also shared his stories of her performances at Hatikvah Garden during their local soccer team's victories. Yair, smiling, explained how he would bring a ladder from home in order see Ofra perform and to photograph her, while her fans surrounded him and asked for a glimpse of their neighborhood star.
"She loved life, she loved the publicity. She was from the local neighborhood and ended up reaching all of Israel and the rest of the world. If she knew about this she would say, 'I am happy. They didn't forget me.'"
As a traditional family, holidays were important to the Haza's, so much so that Ofra's father initiated the idea to build a neighborhood synagogue. He really wanted a neighborhood synagogue, so he spoke to this brother ( Yair’s uncle) Zacharia, about building a synagogue on the roof of his house where he lived at the time.
“He agreed to donate his roof only for the purposes of building a synagogue. He gathered people from the neighborhood, to collect money, some of them worked with concrete," Yair explained. They built the synagogue with their own hands and Yair’s father called it the Association of Brothers. Underneath it reads: "in the name of Shoshana and Zacharia Haza, of blessed memory."
When the synagogue was established, Ofra also played an important role by offering to donate the first Torah scroll. "Ofra wanted to bring joy to my parents with a new Sefer Torah."
The synagogue is sill functioning to this day.
The last stop on the tour was at the plaque dedicated to Ofra in Hatikvah Garden. The plaque reads: "Ofra's hill, dedicated to Ofra Haza, 1957 - 2000, the girl from Hatikvah neighborhood. The singer that made her mark as the international Hebrew singer."
Underneath is the first few words from one of her famous songs that gained international recognition, called Im Nin'Alu . It says: "Even if the gates of the generous are closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed..." (by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi)
When Israel: The Sites & Sights asked Yair what Ofra would say if she knew about this tour and about the display about her that is part of the Museum for Islamic Art's jewelry exhibition, he replied "She would be so happy and proud because all in all she loved life, she loved the publicity. She was from the local neighborhood and ended up reaching all of Israel and the rest of the world. If she knew about this she would say, 'I am happy. They didn't forget me.'"