Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Yehonatan (Jonathan) Geffen

When I emigrated to Israel in 1978, Yehonatan Geffen was the writer who in my eyes had replaced Amos Oz as the Israeli author to read. Geffen seemed to be multi-talented as he was publishing in at least three different fields, namely song lyrics, children's stories and a weekly column in the newspaper. I don't think that he had published any novels at the time, but he would shortly do so.

[Digression - a few stories about Amos Oz]
Oz though had only published novels, although they were very good; the most famous (at the time) being 'My Michael', which is about two students falling in love in pre-67 Jerusalem. As it happens, Oz was until 1986 a member of the kibbutz neighbouring mine; we used to use their swimming pool as at the time, my (old) kibbutz didn't have one.  It was maybe a week after I had emigrated, and I had gone with friends to use this pool; while I was resting at the deep end of the pool, I saw Amos Oz accompanying Jane Fonda.

Fast forwarding a few years, this neighbouring kibbutz hosted a get-together with my kibbutz, so my wife and I went over there (we presumably reciprocated at a later stage). We were shown a few houses, including one which was furnished in a style not normally seen in kibbutz houses (which tended to be small and furnished simply). My wife didn't catch on until we left the house, our hostess calling out 'Thank you, Amos' to the person whose house we had just visited.

A probably apocryphal story about Oz relates to the kibbutz accountant telling Oz that he is the most profitable branch in the kibbutz, and in order to increase his output (and thus profit), the kibbutz is assigning a few older members no longer fit for manual labour to help Oz. Someone obviously didn't learn enough economics.
[End of disgression - back to Yehonatan Geffen]

In 1978, Geffen had two records in current circulation. One was a satirical show called something like 'Small talk' (sichot salon), for which I didn't really have enough Hebrew at the time to appreciate. This show had been touring the country and the record was a recording of a show (I don't remember whether it was a live recording or a recording of the show being performed in a studio). The other record was a series of children's stories, some of which had been set to music: this was called 'The sixteenth sheep' and its musical director was Yoni Rechter, about whom I have written before. I didn't have so much of a problem understanding the lyrics, but I was much more interested in the music.

I have been given to understand that this was the first children's record which didn't talk down to its audience. The songs were performed by some of the top musicians in Israel at the time (Rechter, Yehudit Ravitz, Gidi Gov and David Broza) and were (mostly) written and arranged with great taste by Rechter. It is still as vibrant today as it was 35 years ago.

Here's someone else's take on the record, including a comment which I really love: The 'sixtieth [sic] sheep' is the best! I grew up listening to it, and so did my kids. The kindergarten song doesn't make you feel sad. In Hebrew its more like the kindergarten is in 'suspended animation', waiting for the kids to come back. The disc does have some *really* sad songs like the one about the beggar.

The record was turned into a musical show for which a few performances were held at the time. I remember taking the children from my kibbutz to Jerusalem in the spring of 1979 in order to see the show; I probably enjoyed it more than them. It seems like every ten years or so, a new production of the show is made: the cast may change, but the songs stay the same. 

At the time, I was involved with the cultural life of the kibbutz (mainly booking acts that I was interested in), so I jumped at the chance to book David Broza, who came in September 1979. After performing, he and his manageress (soon to be his wife) came to one of our rooms; we sat around, playing guitars and singing, and having a wonderful evening. At some stage, he signed the cover of my copy of 'The sixteenth lamb', making a pun on my name (which in English means something like delightful or pleasant - well, I did choose it for myself) and writing how delightful it was to play on the kibbutz.

In 1982, Geffen had three books published under the title "All my stains" (this was a Hebrew pun on the title "All my writings" which people frequently used): a book of song lyrics with music, a book of his collected newspaper columns and a book of various items from his satirical shows (including the skits from 'small talk' which I could now understand). I snapped this collection up.

Over the years, he has published novels, including one which I very much like, "The stone chair", which is a loose fictionalised autobiography, having sections which take place in Highgate, London. I continued to follow his life via his weekly columns (including a lengthy sequence about his life when he was in America for a few years) but it seemed that his performing days were over. Maybe the economics weren't suitable for the kind of show that he used to put on, maybe the climate had changed and people weren't prepared to listen to his satire anymore, maybe he wasn't in the country or maybe he was simply tired of performing (his columns over the past few years hint at medical problems; he is now in his sixties). Unfortunately, the newspaper which used to publish him nearly closed and in doing so, lost many of its reporters and writers, so we no longer have his weekly columns (and I had to switch to a new equivalent of a Sunday paper).

It was with great pleasure upon returning from holiday that I noticed a poster announcing a performance by Geffen on the kibbutz on Friday, 11 July. As this was a performance for children and not for adults, the show would start at 4pm. I instructed my wife to buy tickets. It transpires that Geffen is running a new version of the 'Sixteenth lamb' show along with new musicians who probably hadn't been born when the original record was released. The show itself was enjoyable (how could it not be with such good material) but the sound wasn't too clear, and the audience - mainly pre-school children - were rather loud.

One great advantage of going to a show on the kibbutz is that normally there is no problem in going backstage and meeting the artist(s). I had decided on a few items which I would take with me to get signed: the cover of 'The sixteenth lamb' (along with its Broza dedication), 'The stone chair' and one of the volumes of 'All my stains'. After the show, we went up onto the stage and asked one of the stagehand whether it would be possible to meet Mr Geffen. It would be no problem, we were told, but Mr Geffen is very tired and needs some time after the show to unwind. 

As we were at home (and I had the Sabbath evening meal in the slow cooker), we weren't in any rush and waited. At some stage, another stagehand told me that someone had brought their vinyl copy of 'The sixteenth lamb' to be signed; when Geffen wrote on the sleeve, the record cracked. I had already thought of this possibility and had prudently removed the record from the sleeve, leaving the former at home. 

Eventually Geffen appeared but he didn't seem to be very interested in us, despite my making all the sycophantic noises that one does in such situations. He momentarily perked up when I mentioned our mutual admiration for Randy Newman, but that was all I could get out of him. Obviously I wouldn't be successful in inviting him home for a cup of tea as he left the hall and went straight into a waiting taxi. Before doing so, he signed my items although it's hard to read his writing (I think that he wrote something like 'Thank you for the admiration, from all the herd, Y. Geffen' on the album cover). I belong to the generation that collected autographs, whereas these days, people collect selfies. Fortunately, the hall manager - a friend of ours - was present so he took the required photo. He hasn't sent it to me yet so I can't post it here.

I was disappointed at this outcome, but as my children pointed out a few hours later, I had no reason to expect more.

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