Israel’s Banai dynasty – Singing a Persian Jerusalemite tune

THE BANAI family in the 1980s with the man who spawned an artistic dynasty: then-president Yitzhak Navon. Right to left: Haim, Yitzhak Navon, Bechora, Aliza, Ya’akov, Gavri. Back row: Avraham, Yossi
(photo credit: YAD IZHAK BEN-ZVI PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES)

Think The Beatles. Think Charlie Parker. Think Beethoven. All were trailblazers in their respective fields of musical exploit and, more importantly, all left their enduring stamp on the music in their home countries and across numerous cultures around the world.

The Banai family – our very own Banais – may not have quite the international reach of the aforesaid giants, but it is safe to say that Israeli music and other areas of cultural life here would be much the poorer for their absence.
If that wasn’t obvious enough from the landmark achievements of Israel Prize recipient Yossi Banai, to take just one member of the large and gifted clan, then “The Banai Family – A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem” exhibition that recently opened at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City should make the family’s impact on Israeli culture over the past six-plus decades and counting abundantly clear.

The exhibition takes in informative wall texts and, naturally, plenty of video and audio material, as well as evocative photographs that tell the truly remarkable story of what developed into an Israeli musical and cultural dynasty from the most humble and unlikely of beginnings.

AT THE Tower of David (left to right): Museum director Eilat Lieber; Gavri Banai; exhibition curator Tal Kobo; musical adviser Yoav Kutner; Evyatar Banai and his parents Simcha and Judge Yitzhak Banai (Photo Credit:Ricky Rachman)
AT THE Tower of David (left to right): Museum director Eilat Lieber; Gavri Banai; exhibition curator Tal Kobo; musical adviser Yoav Kutner; Evyatar Banai and his parents Simcha and Judge Yitzhak Banai (Photo Credit:Ricky Rachman)

THE YEAR was 1881, and Rachamim and Rachel Bana – they later Hebraicized the family name by adding the letter yod at the end – made aliyah from Persia together with their three sons, neatly and chronologically named Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The journey over here was fraught with danger and they eventually made it to Jerusalem with little in the way of financial collateral. To make matters worse, they weren’t even able to look for a domicile space inside the Old City.

“The residents of the Old City weren’t allowing anyone in,” explains curator Tal Kobo. “It was very packed inside and conditions weren’t too hygienic.”

With no other option available to them, the Banas tried their luck in the incipient extramural quarters of west Jerusalem, and settled in what is now the environs of the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. In fact, the surname adaptation proved to be well chosen. Over time the Banais became pioneers and helped to build – banai means builder – Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, in and around the shuk. They assisted in establishing a school for children who had no previous formal education, and also the Ohavei Zion Synagogue, which prayed in the style of the Persian community.

Later on the family relocated to an upstairs apartment slap bang in the shuk. In 1989, the address – 1 Ha’agas Street – was immortalized in a song of that name in which singer-songwriter Ehud Banai, Yossi’s nephew, deftly conveys the domestic ambiance there and the constant changing of the guard as older generations pass on and the youngsters move up a rung.

THE IDEA for the exhibition, albeit in a roundabout way, was actually sparked by a very different kind of musical endeavor.

“A couple of years or so ago we were in London and we managed to get tickets, at the last minute, to go to the see the Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum],” Kobo recalls. “Afterwards we were sitting outside on the steps and Eilat [Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum] said to me, ‘Do you think we could do something like that in Jerusalem? If we could, what would we do?’”

“We said we have to do something that is strongly connected to Jerusalem,” Lieber continues. “We wanted to tell the story of Jerusalem, but not through history or archeology. We wanted to do it with music.”
There were a couple of thematic candidates.

“We thought we should go for [veteran crooner and Israel Prize laureate] Yehoram Gaon, who is very much a Jerusalemite (even though he now lives elsewhere), or the Banais. Yehoram Gaon is more about the past, Ladino and all that. The Banai family has this multigenerational element and this continuity, which keeps on going into new generations.”

This seems to be a prudent decision. The Banais have been mainstays of Israeli culture since the 1950s, spawning seemingly endless numbers of talented progeny across a broad sweep of artistic sectors.

While there were, apparently, some musical leanings in earlier generations – Yossi Banai’s grandfather, Meir Elyahu, is said to have been a dab hand on the oud, and Shabbat meals were accompanied by merry musical sessions – basically, there was little inkling that Yossi and some of his seven siblings would turn out to have such prodigious artistic gifts, and that the DNA chain would carry on producing leading members of the Israeli showbiz community. Yossi was an acclaimed theater and cinema actor, singer, songwriter, comedian and director who also worked with seminal Israeli comedic threesome HaGashash HaHiver. His younger brother Haim was an actor and media personality, older sibling Yaakov was a theater and film actor, while now 80-year-old Gavri, the baby of the family, is a singer, actor and comedian and was a member of HaGashash HaHiver.

The next generation, and the one after that, continue to yield stellar performers in rock, pop and ethnic music, cinema and theater, including Yossi’s son Yuval, singer in the iconic Israeli rock band Mashina; Yaakov’s son Ehud; and Meir, singer and actor who was the first of the next generation to make his mark on the entertainment scene here. Meir’s siblings, singer Evyatar and actress-comedienne Orna, are also leaders in their fields, and the list goes on and on. There must have been some special ingredient in the water of the Banais’ modest home in the shuk back in the day.

YOSSI BANAI was an acclaimed theater and cinema actor, singer, songwriter, comedian and director. (Photo Credit: Nino Hananiah Herman)
YOSSI BANAI was an acclaimed theater and cinema actor, singer, songwriter, comedian and director. (Photo Credit: Nino Hananiah Herman)

THE EXHIBITION is very much the story of pre-state Palestine and the annals of the various waves of aliyah and how the Yishuv – and particularly Jerusalem – evolved in the lead-up to independence and in the early years of the state. But with one very fundamental difference.

“The Bana family came here in 1881, which is also the year in which the First Aliyah began,” Kobo notes. “The history books talk about the waves of aliyah from Eastern Europe, from Russia and from Germany, but what about the eastern [Mizrahi] side? The Banas came from Persia. I feel we need to do that justice. We need to balance out that picture, and I hope this exhibition can help to do that.”

The textual layout at the museum opens with a quote from recently deceased Jewish French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, which helps to define the ongoing pantheonic place of the Banai family in Israeli culture.

“Human beings have short memories – most last less than a century. A century feels like a long time, but in fact, it’s not enough perspective. Culture is long-term collective memory.”

That, Kobo feels, may be the secret to fathoming the place of the Banais in the history of Israeli culture.
“What does ‘culture is long-term collective memory’ mean? What is Memmi trying to convey with that? And how does it provide us with a base point for telling our story, the story of Israeli culture?”

Kobo says the Memmi musing needs digging into.

“As culture professionals we research, we look into what we can see and also what we can’t see. When we think of the Banai family, we see they came from Shiraz, Persia, to Jerusalem. But why do they come here? And how? And what cultural baggage did they bring with them?”

The latter question seems to be most pertinent.

While Yossi Banai and his siblings may not have witnessed much polished musicianship and artistry among their immediate forebears, Kobo believes the Israeli-born generations fed off a rich cultural heritage.

“What was the Shiraz culture about? What cultural baggage did the Banai family bring with them to Eretz Israel?”

Plenty, it appears.

“The Jewish community in Shiraz was a community of singers and poets and actors.”

That, Kobo explains, is partly down to religious-political developments that took place several centuries earlier. With the advent of the Safavid dynasty in the early 16th century, the Muslim rulers established the Twelver school of Shia Islam as the official religion of their empire. That also had implications for non-Muslims.

“When the Shia took over in Persia, they were so devoutly religious that some of the prohibitions they introduced for Muslims included not singing, not acting, not dancing, not playing musical instruments.”

Cue the Jewish community.

“The Jews, who were not bound by those prohibitions, naturally took on those roles,” Kovo notes.

There are references in the exhibition to the depth of history of the Jewish community in Persia, and its musical and artistic pedigree.

Veteran radio and TV presenter Yoav Kutner served as musical consultant for the project. He feels that the emergence of the Banais as a local cultural superpower was nothing short of miraculous.

BACHORA AND Meir Banai, grandparents of the first generation of the Banai stars, with their eldest son Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1915 (Photo Credit: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Photographic Archives)
BACHORA AND Meir Banai, grandparents of the first generation of the Banai stars, with their eldest son Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1915 (Photo Credit: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Photographic Archives)

“The Banai family came here from a disadvantaged socioeconomic class. They didn’t have much in the way of cultural education. They weren’t the Russian pioneers and all that. They were complete underdogs. But then the generation of Yossi Banai and his brothers starts creating a new Israeli culture that incorporates their own tradition, primarily storytelling, not from a musical standpoint or in terms of religious aspects.”
Kutner says that the Banais started leaving their indelible stamp on culture in this country more than 60 years ago.

“It began in the late 1950s with Yaakov, Yossi’s older brother. And Yossi became a star from the word go.”

Once they were up and running, the Banai conveyor belt just kept on churning ’em out.

Yossi Banai’s meteoric rise to youthful stardom notwithstanding, Kutner notes that it still took a little while before the family became a major force on the Israeli showbiz scene.

“They were on the fringes of the scene for a few years, but gradually, by the late 1960s, they were right in the mainstream of culture here. Yossi Banai, in theater, in entertainment, as a singer, as a director of HaGashash – although that was a little later – became a star. Gavri became a star.”

It wasn’t just about the various Banais earning a pretty penny and enthused plaudits from the cultural sector. Kutner believes that the family members infused Israeli culture with some fresh artistic input.

“They offered art with something new. It was nothing like anything else that existed. It brought the spirit of life in Jerusalem, Mizrahi, but it wasn’t cheap or derisory, you know, like comedians who make fun of people with different accents. Yossi Banai, for instance, didn’t have an accent. It wasn’t Russian or Yemenite. It was a sort of new Israeli.”

Yossi Banai also introduced Israelis to quality French chanson style, in Hebrew.

“French music had been popular here since the 1950s, but Yossi did it in his own way. When he sings “La chanson des vieux amants,” you know it is [Jacques] Brel’s song, but Yossi sings it in Hebrew and he helps to bring it into the Israeli mainstream.”

IT IS the next stratum of the family tree, says Kutner, that takes the Banais to the next level.

“Yossi and Gavri and that lot were among the most successful artists in the country. HaGashash was a smash hit. And then the next generation comes along – Ehud and Meir and Yuval Banai with Mashina and after that, Evyatar Banai. They change Israeli music. They really have an impact on the sound of Israeli music in general.”

As happens in many families – one only needs to think of internationally acclaimed Iraqi-rooted violinist and oud player Yair Dalal – the younger generation of Banais rediscovers its cultural origins and begins to put out ethnically seasoned material. Ehud Banai was certainly a leader of that pack.

“That was from the early 1980s,” Kutner adds. “I don’t know if you can call it a religious element, but certainly there was something a little ethnic that came into new Israeli rock. Ehud and Meir search for their roots. They dig into Persia and Persian melodies and also the liturgical material, and at some stage they become religious.”

But perhaps it wasn’t all down to genes or the water. Gavri says a certain other Mizrahi Jerusalemite helped to light the fire of artistic endeavor for the Banais. In an interview he gave to Maariv in 2017, cited in the exhibition, Gavri notes that late Israeli president Yitzhak Navon, who was also a playwright and author, opened the door for him and his siblings to tread into uncharted creative waters.

“We became a family of singers and actors thanks to Yitzhak Navon. If not for him, I don’t know if any one of us – a traditional family – would have gone onto the stage. One day, the man who went on to become our fifth president came over and told my big brother Yaakov about a drama class that was starting in Jerusalem. The teacher was Rafael Zvi, an actor from Habima [Theater]. Yaakov went to the class and became an actor, and we all followed in his footsteps.”

And the rest is groundbreaking Jerusalem and Israeli history – all lovingly researched, documented and displayed over at the Tower of David Museum right now.

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