Saturday, March 02, 2013

Did you know that a Syrian Jew was at the top of the UK charts in 1968?

I didn't either, I just learned it.

Esther Zaied was born in Safed, Palestine in 1941 to Syrian Jewish parents. She grew up in Haifa. In 1959 she married Abi Ofarim (born Abraham Reichstadt, also born in Safed, in 1937). Singing solo, Esther took 2nd place in the 1963 Eurovision contest, singing "T'en va pas" as an entry for Switzerland. (How she represented that country is unclear.) Esther and Abi then formed a singing duo (Abi played guitar as well), and they began to enjoy some international success in Germany in 1966 with the hit "Noch einen Tanz." (Interesting, no, that an Israeli duo would have a hit in Germany in the 1960s and also that they would sing in German. From Abi's born name, I guess he was from a German family.)

Esther and Abi Ofarim topped the English charts in 1968 for three weeks with the novelty song "Cinderella Rockefella." I do remember the song (though I didn't remember the name of the duo), as I lived in Lebanon at the time and we used to hear all the English hits there. I don't remember it fondly, however, and it belongs in the category of other one-off novelty tracks of the time, like "Winchester Cathedral." (Ester yodels -- ugh -- and it has a 1920s feel.) The song was written by Mason Williams (of "Classical Gas" fame) and Nancy Ames. Incidentally, "Cinderella Rockefella" toppled Manfred Mann's "Mighty Quinn" (written by Bob Dylan) from the #1 slot.

You may have a more favorable impression of Esther and Abi, however, if you check out this track, "Morning of My Life," which was written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, and also recorded by the latter. It was a hit for the Israeli duo in Germany. It's really a great track, done folk-rock style. It shows off Esther's very impressive voice, and it's reminiscent (to me at least) of Ian and Sylvia. I love it. And doesn't the dress that Esther wears for this live TV performance have just a hint of "ethnic" to it? (I prefer this live version to the recorded one. It's impressive that they could turn in such a great live performance.)

Esther split up from her husband but continued her recording career. One of her recent albums (Esther Ofarim in London, 2009) was produced by Bob Johnston, who has worked with Bob Dylan, among other notables. (Johnston produced Highway 61 Revisited and Nashville Skyline, among other masterpieces.) Here's one track, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Esther's English vocals are remarkable for being entirely unaccented. Read more about her here, courtesy Allmusic says "Little information about Ofarim, however, circulates in the English-speaking record collecting community, a situation that will no doubt change in the 21st century as cultists look for something relatively undiscovered to mine."

What about Syrian Jews and Safed? Safed was a "mixed" city with Arabic-speaking Jews and Muslims from at least the Middle Ages. It was famous in the Ottoman period as a center of Kabbalah, a destination for Jews fleeing from Spain after the reconquista. It was common for Jewish Arabs to move around in the region during the Ottoman period. According to Esther Ofarim's website, her ancestors migrated many generations ago from Syria and Lebanon. Likely they were attracted by Safed's spiritual reputation. Safed is located in the Galilee, in northern Palestine, and so is quite close to Syria (it's only 60 miles form Damascus).

Like other "mixed" cities in Palestine during the Mandate period, Safad was a flashpoint, and 20 Jews were massacred there during the so-called "riots" in Palestine in 1929. Fuad Hijazi of Safad was executed by the British for his role in the killings; he is considered a Palestinian national martyr, and he and the other two who were executed by the British, 'Ata al-Zayr and Muhammad Jumjum, are the subject of a famous poem by Nuh Ibrahim, called "Sijn 'Akka" (Acre prison, the site of their execution), which has been set to music. Many nationalist Palestinian music groups have recorded the song, most notably al-'Ashiqin, and the song is very well-known. As I noted in my book, Memories of Revolt, the celebrated Palestinian novelist and Communist Emile Habibi told me that he thought that the Palestinian movement had no business turning men who had murdered Jewish civilians into heroes. I'm not sure many have listened to him.

Safed and its Jewish quarter also came under attack during the 1936-39 revolt, so it would have been a tough time for the families of Esther and Abi. The Jewish community at Safed was also under threat during the 1947-48 war, but eventually the Zionist forces prevailed and the Palestinian Arab population was expelled (some 12-15,000 people). Today their homes serve as a tourist attraction, a quaint-looking artists' colony, and the old mosque is the General Exhibition Hall for local artists. (Or at least it was when I visited there in 1985).

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