Of Visions And Eurovisions
FROM TRANSSEXUALITY TO transcendental prophecy, Israel seems to have elected itself as the eccentric poster child of the Eurovision song contest. Last May, Israel sizzled up controversy when its entry in the annual competition, Dana International, captured first prize with her catchy club tune “Diva,” dedicated to history’s most powerful women. But vampish Dana, n_e Yaron Cohen, had once been a man. Her sex-change operation and icon status among Israeli homosexuals had the ultra-Orthodox Shas party demanding Dana not be allowed to represent the Jewish state abroad because she was, in the words of deputy health minister Shlomo Benizri of that party, “an abomination.”
Thanks to Dana’s victory, Israel gets to host this year’s contest in Jerusalem. And although politicians are not screaming perversion this time around, Israel’s nominee for the competition is no less unconventional. Two of the four members of Eden – a male vocal group that sounds something like a Hebrew-speaking cross between Boyz2Men and the Neville Brothers – are from the Black Hebrews of Dimonah, children of African-Americans who moved here in 1969. Some 30 years later, brothers Gabriel and Eddie Butler are stuck in an odd position: Eddie was born here, Gabriel has lived here since age 8, and they’ve been recognized as talented enough to represent Israel in a state-sponsored international contest. But the country they call home still doesn’t recognize them as citizens. (Eden’s other two members are Israel-born Jews Rafael Dahan and Doron Oron.)
Eurovision started out in 1956 with seven countries, but this year, 23 contestants will be competing in a $ 7-million program to be staged May 29 at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Though the name draws a blank for most Americans, Eurovision has been especially popular here since Israel won with the songs “A-bani-bi” and “Hallelujah” in 1978 and 1979. And while the contest has become almost synonymous with kitsch – it takes credit for bringing the world Abba’s “Waterloo” (1976) and the original “Volare” in Italian (1958) – it has introduced Europe to the then-unknown voices of Julio Iglesias, Celine Dion and Ofra Haza. A winning dance track can be sure to wind up playing in clubs across Europe. To add just an extra, final streak of zaniness, the Israeli composer of the half-Hebrew, half-English song Eden will sing, entitled “Happy Birthday,” says he’s had a vision from God that the end of the world is nigh – with the battle of Gog and Magog scheduled to begin in October. Writer Yaakov (Jackie) Oved says that when he wrote “Happy Birthday” six years ago, in his pre-prophetic period, he hadn’t intended to write a tune to ring in the millennium. But if the song wins, it’ll probably be “a deliberate sign from upstairs.”
IN 1966, BEN AMMI HAD A SIGN, too. The Chicagoan founder of the Black Hebrews, who prefer to be known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, had a vision that their slave ancestors from West Africa had actually been some of the dispersed children of Israel. Christianity, he taught a group of followers, was a religion imposed by slave-masters. Even in captivity, slaves had maintained their identity by singing songs about the River Jordan and the land of Canaan – not the land of Africa. The use of the word “ain’t” by black Americans, according to the group’s website, probably comes from the Hebrew “ein,” meaning “none” or “there is not.”
Ben Ammi encouraged his followers to observe the law outlined in the Five Books of Moses, adopt Hebrew names and language skills, and took off for Israel with 350 members of the sect after a two-year stint of cleansing in the Liberian wilderness. Israel never extended a warm welcome, but it didn’t eject them either. What it did do was direct the Hebrews to a compound in the dumpy development town of Dimonah in the Negev, where most of the original families managed to stay and flourish. Since their arrival, their number has multiplied to an overcrowded 2,000 – some living four families to a house – including smaller communities in Mitzpeh Ramon and Arad. The same Shas-run Interior Ministry that has refused to recognize so many Russians and converts as Jews, eagerly deporting foreign workers for fear of increasing Israel’s non-Jewish population, came to the community’s aid in 1990, with some encouragement from the American government and Jewish organizations. After a visit to Dimonah, members still recall fondly, then-minister Aryeh Deri made them temporary residents and afforded them social benefits of citizens – like access to national health care and permission to work – in return for an agreement to cease bringing over new members from the U.S., and a promise to end polygamy.
“After we signed the agreement of principle, we weren’t supposed to have any more multiple marriages,” says Yafa Bat Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the community, “but obviously those that existed before that, exist.” They’ve held fast to most everything else. Members are strictly vegan, eat only raw food for four weeks out of the year, and fast every Shabbat. The community observes major festivals outlined in the Bible, and has added several other holidays foreign to the standard Jewish calendar, such as New World Passover (which marks the exodus from the U.S.). Rosh Hashanah, they call, as the Bible does, Memorial of the Trumpets. Gabriel, 34, and Eddie, 26 and known in Dimonah as Eitan, left that structured world several years ago and decided to make their way in Israeli society. They now live in Herzliyah and Tel Aviv, respectively, but remain in close touch with their family in Dimonah, where they were infused with a love of the land – and fantastic musical training.
“My father says it’s a holy country and if you don’t follow the laws of the land, somewhere along the line, you will be spewed out of this country,” says Gabriel Butler, who is blessed with a touch of Denzel Washington charm and the wholesome attire of a Gap model. After finishing a session for their first CD, during which he chats to his producer through the studio glass in flawless Hebrew, he explains how he turned down an offer three years ago to pursue a recording career in Los Angeles because he didn’t want to leave Israel.
“I live here. I don’t want to live in the States. This is our home and we’ve been here all our lives. I’m as Israeli as its gets,” he says, citing a love of felafel, and regret that he wasn’t allowed to serve in the army. Elisheva Bat-Israel, the community’s head songstress, who once trained and managed Gabriel, Eddie, and three more of their siblings as a childhood group called the Soul Messengers – nicknamed “Israel’s Jackson Five” – says many were sad at first to see the sons leave.
“At one time when we didn’t have any legal status and we weren’t allowed to work, Gabriel’s performances helped feed everyone here,” says Bat-Israel, who directs the community’s two choirs. “Gabriel’s power was so great that he couldn’t be kept in the community. Gabriel was always a real writer and Eddie, a great singer. It was just in their blood.”
AN AIR OF ROYALTY FOLLOWS Karaliah and Gabriel Butler, Sr., around Dimonah – where they were among the community’s original founders, together with Ben Ammi – and their majestic African attire fits the part. Sure, Karaliah used to dance and Gabriel would sometimes sing on street corners with his friends in Chicago, but they never imagined they would see their sons performing on stage in the holy city. “They’re representing Israel in Jerusalem, of all places,” gushes Gabriel, Sr., 62.
The success of Eden (the group is named for Eddie’s 2-year-old daughter) has renewed hope among the Black Hebrews that their appeal for citizenship will return to the public agenda. Many of their temporary residency permits expired at the end of last year, and they’ve been given no indication so far whether they will be renewed. Meanwhile, as the native-born half of their 2,000 grow up, other issues keep surfacing. A track star has been scouted as an Olympic hopeful, but can Israel send an athlete who isn’t actually a citizen to the Games?
The two other members of Eden, plain-old Ashkenazi and Sephardi Israelis with extraordinarily good voices, are far less concerned with matters of religion than with bringing an unprecedented hybrid of Hebrew and American R&B;to Israel. Their first single (the instrumentals are all pre-recorded by studio musicians), the harmonic soul tune “Me’uhav” (translated as “For Your Love”) was a radio hit last year, and the invitations to Israel’s TV celeb circuit keep coming.
“We’re good friends. I don’t see them as any particular color,” says Rafael Dahan, who, at 25, is the group’s youngest member and has perhaps its most spectacular set of vocal cords. “We should succeed because we’ve got a good sound. But if this also shows the world that the people of Israel are black and white,” he adds, “I think that message will be a good one.”
And, after all, at least one country’s entry to Eurovision will be far further off the charts. Singer Nayah, France’s representative, belongs to a sect called “Rael,” which believes that space aliens will land in Israel sometime soon. Rael members aren’t asking for citizenship yet – but they are urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to quickly prepare a landing site for the aliens’ shuttle.