“IT BREAKS MY HEART,” israeli singer Noa said in Israel overnight after being told that social media attacks by sections of the Melbourne Jewish community had falsely accused her of being a BDS supporter.
The controversy surrounding the singer’s upcoming tour, which begins in Melbourne next week, prompted the senior Rabbi at Temple beth Israel, Gersh Lazarow, to write a letter to the Israeli ambassador, urging him to attend her concerts as a gesture of solidarity for the outspoken singer. Noa’s outspoken pro-peace advocacy has seen her chronically smeared as a BDS supporter, even though she has repeatedly articulated her opposition to the movement.
“The rabbi’s letter left me (emotionally) speechless,” Noa told Plus61J. “I want to thank Rabbi Lazarow and the community from the bottom of my heart – the part that didn’t break – for their support.”
READ: Achinoam Nini’s song of peace (SMH)
Even before the controversy arose, Noa’s musical reputation was huge. Chance are you know Noa, even if you think you don’t. A French friend who lives in Seoul, instantly messaged me back when I told him about our meeting. “Of course I know Noa!”, he wrote. “She did Notre-Dame de Paris!” I shouldn’t have been surprised. The singer has recorded songs in several languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, German, Italian, French, and English, and has a huge following outside of Israel.
She co-wrote the magical lyrics to the theme song of Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award-winning Life is Beautiful. And, as my friend correctly pointed out, she recorded the part of Esméralda in the hit 90s musical Notre Dame.
Noa, real name Achinoam Nini, may also be one of Israel’s most famous Yemeni Jews. Her dark, wild curls are the first thing you notice about her, and, carrying a drum as she comes to meet me in a bland Tel Aviv business suburb, she’s hard to miss.
As a girl, the musician- whose great-grandparents moved to Palestine in 1892- was brought up on traditional Yemeni Jewish songs, classic Israeli hits from the 50s and 60s, and her mother’s beloved classical music.
Together with people like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, “all those things… went through the filter of my life, and created this repertoire”, she expounds to me over coffee with long-time collaborator, guitarist Gil Dor.
In interviews, Noa has spoken of the softly-spoken Dor as her “half-brain”, and you can easily see why: during the course of our conversation he often – and seamlessly – continues Noa’s train of thought.
This will be Noa’s first tour Down Under, although she has performed with Australians in the past, notably Aboriginal group Yothu Yindi ten years ago in Germany. More recently, Australian double bass player, Simon Starr- “a super duper talent” who will also be playing in November- briefly joined the band, and was instrumental in bringing about the tour.
“Here the audience has no idea what to expect, it’s lovely! It’s a carte blanche”, exclaims Noa, revealing that Sydney and Melbourne will see her sing not just in English but Hebrew, and even Yemeni Arabic. For an audience who may not be familiar with her work, her aim is simply to “tell a story” in song.
One of the pieces that catapulted Noa to fame was her and Dor’s reinterpretation of Bach’s Ave Maria, performed in 1994 at the Vatican in the presence of Pope John Paul II. In Noa’s rendition, the aria is stripped of its operatic context, the Latin replaced by English lyrics, “and basically turned into a folk song”.
“That was a very defining moment for us”, says Noa. But one that she has not returned to, until now.
The next album once again re-arranges classical music, like Bach’s Badinerie. Pieces which “are not meant to be sung- but I sing them”, declares Noa. “It’s writing lyrics, arranging and performing these songs in a non-operatic way… It brings it to a totally different place.”
Spending even a short time with Noa, it is apparent that, for all her immense popularity abroad, she feels a deep connection with Israel. Conscripted to the army at 18, she spent two years in a military entertainment unit. Ooccasionally she would sing her own songs, mostly late at night “[when] begged”, but for the most part stuck to a set program.
“Basically we were there to follow orders and keep morale high. That’s what you would say is a mitzvah, so I felt very happy doing that, and also it’s really a rite of passage, between you and me.” Her son, she tells me, will also be enlisted in two years’ time.
After the death last September of former Israeli president, Shimon Peres, the singer wrote about feeling “the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, more clearly than ever”.
The two had been friends, with Noa deeply involved in left-wing peace activism. Famously, she performed at the peace rally in Tel Aviv the night of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and just moments before the ill-fated prime minister himself took to the stage.
Noa’s politics, however, have created considerable waves. Today she sits on the board of several foundations condemned by conservatives, including Combatants for Peace, set up by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian combatants committed to non-violence, and Parents’ Circle Families Forum, which helps bereaved family members on both sides of the conflict.
Last year, in one of just several controversies to hit Noa in recent years, the right-leaning Jerusalem Post published an article that accused the singer of supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement- a report which although later retracted, caused the Jewish National Fund of Canada to withdraw funding of Vancouver’s Yom Ha’atzmaut event where Noa was performing.
The accusation itself was ironic, not least because the concert itself was celebrating Israel’s Independence Day. “The BDS is against all things Israeli, including me”, Noa tells me. “[It] strive[s] to delegitimise Israel, they do not differentiate between the settlements and Israel within its recognised borders. In this sense, they are very much like the Israeli right!”
This issue has followed Noa to Australia, and she has been vilified by sections of the local Jewish community on social media ahead of her visit, prompting the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, Gersh Lazarow, to write to the Israeli Ambassador, urging him to attend her concerts as a gesture of support.
“I write to you to share my concern about a series of events that seem to be unfolding around the upcoming visit of Achinoam Nini, which we find both challenging and disturbing, ” wrote Rabbi Lazarow in his letter. “There seems to be a vocal and ill-informed minority within the Australian Jewish community, who are choosing to focus on her politics and are putting forward spurious information about her and by extension my congregation being supporters of the BDS movement.
“I ask that you join us in our support of Israeli arts in Australia and I encourage you to show your support by attending the concert[s].”
The fact that fellow Israelis have attacked her has not affected her either. As with any other country, Noa’s view of Israel, she says, is not “defined by its weaknesses, [but] rather by its strengths. Israel in my opinion is not defined by Netanyahu, just as the US is not defined by Trump”. She supports the Two-State Solution, and is vehemently opposed to settlements in the Occupied Territories, refusing to perform there.
My criticism is never towards the military. It is towards the policy-makers who do not do enough to bring Israel peace.
For those who question her decision to continue performing for the IDF, she says: “The IDF stands for ‘Israeli defence forces’. They do not make policy, they carry it out. They are critical to Israel’s survival, so long as we do not have peace. My criticism is never towards the military. It is towards the policy-makers who do not do enough to bring Israel peace.”
Peres had encouraged Noa to enter politics, but her love of music has put a hold on any political ambitions. “Let me put it this way”, she confides.” If there was a Prime Minister and government of people whose thinking was close to mine, and somebody would offer me [the post of] Minister for Culture, I’d say yes. But that’s not exactly going to happen any time soon.”
On Noa’s suggestion, I later watch a video recorded by Peres on the occasion of her and Dor’s 25th musical anniversary. In it, Peres gently presses the singer to “just continue: with your high quality, your internal compass, with the mixed taste of war and resurrection, love and sorrow, a ringing truth, a power to conquer heart and man”.
Her “moral compass” is presumably the acute sense of responsibility that Noa jokingly describes to me as “some kind of a bug in the system”.
I think this is an age of activism. It has to be. Too much is happening for us to let go.
What exactly does she feel responsible for? She quickly ticks off a whole litany of things: as a child, looking after her younger brother, schoolwork, making her parents proud… and finally, “making the world a better place”.
As Noa sees it, civic responsibility falls not on artists per se, but rather, the individual. “I really don’t separate artists from anyone who has influence – and everyone has influence. A mother has influence on her children, a boss has influence over his employees, a bus driver has influence on people riding his bus”, she declares.
“I think this is an age of activism. It has to be. Too much is happening for us to let go.”
Additional reporting by Shahar Burla and Michael Visontay
Photo: Noa performs at a Yom Ha’atzmaut concert in Vancouver in 2016
Noa will perform five concerts on her Australia tour: two at Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda on November 15 and 16, and a concert in Sydney on November 20 at the Camelot lounge in Marrickville. She will also be in “conversation and concert” at the David Williamson Theatre in Melbourne on November 18, and Bondi Pavilion on November 21
DETAILS AND TICKETS
www.nif.org.au/noa (Nov 18 and 21)