December 6, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsReadingRemembrancesUncategorizedWriting

Uri Ur (Wake Up): On Aviv Geffen and Impossible Homelands


Ha’eymah ha’eyvah
shirim shel milchamah
vesin’at achim
sheb’chol yom goveret.

(The terror, the hostility
the songs of war
and brotherly hate
that gets stronger each day.)

Aviv Geffen, “Uri Ur”
(Lyrics and translation here)

There is a somewhat subterranean wine bar in downtown Jerusalem you’d frequent, walking past the more welcoming (and usually packed) open-air patio seating at the entrance, as you descend into its cavernous, vacant quarters: the perfect entrance for someone wanting to be left alone. The lighting is always dim, throwing shadows on the walls; a small, blue vase with a single plastic flower adorns every table. Inside it’s always night, with a funerary air of ashes and dry leaves. The staff plays a mixture of Israeli music, Europop and American Top 40, always faintly, over old twin speakers mounted in either back corner. This is a not place you come to hang out with friends, or read a book over a simple dinner of grilled fish and wine. This is a not a place you speak at all.

This is a place where you sip the cheapest wine at a table in the furthest reaches of the cavern, absentmindedly picking up the dusty plastic flower and inhaling deeply, as a waitress stands up against the wall smoking, her jeans threatening to fall off her hips as she stares off into the distance and the bartender scrolls through screen after screen on his phone. This is a place where you end up because you want to forget a problem, only to have it unfold before your eyes, against those shadows on the walls, like a wick sprung from flame-devoured tallow. And yet you end up here, knowingly, each and every time because this place has become a part of you, although you can’t recall exactly when this came to be. You end up here because Aviv Geffen’s “Uri Ur plays at least once and most often just as you are ready to leave, thinking you’d sorted it all out, which is to say at a later date, which is to say not at all and you probably never will, and you look to the door as if waiting for someone at the very place you’d never think to bring anyone.

This is when no one appears.

Tomorrow, you will take your morning walk in Jerusalem, when so early it’s still night because you can’t sleep, you can’t ever sleep, the pink-breasted doves perched genteel and swollen on their fences, under a cloudless sky and the staccato beat of a helicopter and your hangover, a pang of the perfect hint and pinch, memory easing into soft-focus.

But in this place, tomorrow never comes. And this place is not the wine bar itself, but the entrapment of a reverie which is neither dream nor nightmare, which one cannot never emerge from completely once having entered.

For you, this is what it is like to live in the State of Israel.

* * *


“My songs are reflecting the state of Israel…I consider myself like a mirror to the Israeli situation, every year.”

Aviv Geffen 

Pacing like a restless, weary tiger, Aviv Geffen’s 2012 performance of “Uri Ur in the town of Caesarea is very telling of “the Israeli situation.”

Lanky and thin, kohl-eyed and bare-chested with a necklace of layered chains, I suppose to some Geffen might appear a mixture of David Bowie, The Cure’s Robert Smith, and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, but to me he is undeniably the symbol of the Candle Children movement. Only moments before Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, Geffen had taken to the stage to sing at the same Tel Aviv peace tally in 1995. He is the symbol of my post-Rabin-assassination, post-Oslo-Accords, post-Jews-killing-Jews-for-Jews youth, the hope and betrayal of a dream of Jewish unity, of pan-Levantine peace, of proving the histories of our blood and bloodied brothers wrong.

There is Rabin: the sabra, native son, Palmach soldier, general, ambassador, the first native-born Israeli prime minster, the first to recognize the PLO, that historic handshake with Arafat, murdered by his own people, leaving this earth to some a martyr, to others a traitor. And then there is Geffen, also a sabra and from a political and military family—Moshe Dayan was his uncle but more on that laterbut he refused to serve in the IDF (though how he was discharged remains controversial). A pop cultural icon as much as peace activist, Geffen wears makeup and dresses in women’s clothing on stage, and has served as a judge and mentor on the Israeli version of The Voice.

I looked up to him when I was trying to figure out where I belonged in the multiple landscapes of Jewish Identity, but especially Geffen, who for my mixed race self, for my mother’s Mexican Catholic heritage, for my bisexual self, when I was searching for my place in a culture which cannot escape the acknowledgement of itself as a political statement. In a critical, candid interview with Geffen in Ha’aretz, Ben Shalev reflects of the singer’s early songs: “The songs of the young Geffen spoke in a language which Israeli pop had not previously used: the emotional and pained, naive and hyperbolic, superficial and authentic language of adolescence. Geffen spoke that language without inhibitions and without shame, and was able to do so not least because he himself, like his audience, was that age: experiencing a period in which every love is eternal, every hate is infinite and every crisis is total.”

My father, who was still observant in those days, had no problem with me listening to Geffen’s recusant music at home, especially after Rabin’s assassination. Over and over I’d play his song “Livkot Lecha” (Cry for You), which he’d played at that 1995 Peace Rally, the song forever now linked to the assassination of Rabin and the untimely death of young Israeli soldiers, especially those who died in Lebanon in the 1990s.

One morning, as I was getting ready for school and listening to “Livkot Lecha” for the umpteenth time, my father reminded me that Rabin himself had a conflicted history, that he once was known “The Bone Breaker” who’d deported Palestinians during the First Intifada, that violence and murder in any form are wrong, and yet they will continue because of one simple truth.

I looked at my father in surprise. This was very unlike him. Usually he answered my questions with questions, or gave me multiple answers, which all contradicted one another and yet were all true: Yes, Israel was the Jewish homeland. Yes, Palestinians also have a right to their own statehood. Yes, Israel exists in part because of the Jewish Holocaust, the centuries of expulsion of Jews from Europe, the pogroms. Yes, there are many ideas of what the two states would look like together, and no one agrees. Yes, the situation cannot go on forever. Yes, it has gone for some times. Yes, there is only so much land. Yes, one people’s defense is another’s retaliation. Yes… but no…. but also it’s true…and yet….

It seemed, at last, there would be none of that. At last, he was offering me one simple truth.

What’s that? I asked, too quickly.

My father smiled and closed his eyes, folding his hands behind his back. I knew he was very tired. In those days he sold insurance during the day and worked three to four nights as a hotel night auditor. I would try to stay awake during those nights he worked, reading in my bed with a flashlight, as if trying to pay back some impossible cosmic debt.

Young people, my father said finally, opening his eyes, that is to say, young people like Aviv Geffen, are usually doves. They are very liberal and idealistic, and they believe that if only others would not be greedy or sneaky, then all that this world would need for peace and harmony is love. How easy, no? Now…this is a good thing.

It is? I asked, not expecting his acceptance of such an easy thing.

Yes, my father said, because this is the hope of our species. But—

Oh, now here it comes, I muttered under my breath.

But inevitably those who start out as doves have encounters with hawks from different flocks. They then understand why there are hawks in their own flocks. And then they discover the hawk part of themselves. Now, this is not limited to Israel. This has been happening for a long time, and all over the world with all kinds of people.

That didn’t make me feel any better, but I remained silent.

Now, he continued, you must understand this newfound loyalty of the former doves to their own flocks isn’t the real reason they become hawks. No, it’s for a different reason, even if they can’t see it.

What is that reason? I asked.

My father didn’t answer me right away. He closed his eyes, and rocked to the song he now heard in his head. I waited patiently.

The reason, my father said after a while, opening his eyes, yes…. the reason is this: despite the flock’s particular shared beliefs and habits, despite their agreed-on ways to live and prosper… I mean, when one is stripped of particular custom, culture and their god… one finds that every life is of the same matter…that everyone is equal.

That’s your answer? I asked, slightly agitated.

No, that is not an answer, he said. It is the reason why one becomes a hawk, even if one does not recognize that as a reason.

WHAT? I asked, now greatly agitated.

From the kitchen, my mother called out my full name— and she only called out my full name when I was in the wrong— and to leave your father alone, he is tired and should get some sleep. Get your stuff ready for school.

My father smiled, and stifled a yawn.

Look, he said, it is the reason that is simple. All else is not.

But, I said, I’ve already heard everyone is equal.

Where did you hear this? He asked.

I thought about it. You, I said finally. And Mama. And my teachers.

So we say that and you hear that, my father countered, but does one really know the consequences of this truth? Because while it sounds nice—that we are all indeed equal, that is all life counts—the particulars around the truth are not. Because around that single truth lies multiple truths seeking to replace it. So people unknowingly try to disprove the truth that we are all of the same matter, that the differences among us are worth the cost of one life– or many.

Now I was really confused. And sorry. I was sorry I’d ever brought up Aviv Geffen with my father who was indeed too overworked and exhausted in our present reality to discover the particulars of this one universal truth. And yet I was my father’s daughter; I could not stop asking questions: shouldn’t it be that if all life counts, there would be no wars?

Because of the particulars, my father yawned. That’s where we fail. But the failure is also good.

My mother appeared, hands on her hips.

Just one more question—

She shook her head at me.

My father rumpled my hair, and said: go ahead. One more question.

How is it we fail and why is it also good?

That’s two questions, my mother said.

My father laughed quietly. Listen, he said. This is the price of diversity. This is the price of free thinking and free will and culture. And I don’t want you to think there’s anything wrong with being proud of the cultures in which you belong. You should be proud of your Mexican heritage and your Jewish one, and that Israel itself, like the States, contains many different kinds of people. But with multiplicity comes disagreement and from disagreement comes wars, and not always ones we label as wars. All of this distorts the truth that we are all equal because one has to believe his or her particular belief is right, or that he or she belongs in a certain place, building up a certain framework. That what he or she thinks is right conflicts with the truth that all life counts. Do you understand?

No, I admitted. It seems too simple.

It is on the page, my father said, but like Gefen says “with the rocks/with real life:” our actions, our histories, our wins and our losses, everything looks different when it’s experienced in person. So the one truth is simple, and yet it provides no easy answers.

One more thing—I promise, I pleaded with my mother— but I don’t think Aviv Geffen will ever turn into a hawk. He’s the only real dove.

My father smiled. You have school, he said, I have to sleep now.

He kissed my cheek, leaning on my mother as I gathered my things for school, knowing my father would have to be awake again before lunchtime. I knew we were struggling financially, and that my father wished he could have been a better provider. But I couldn’t help feeling that morning, as he limped away without a sound, that that had he born into better circumstances and to a family as distinguished as Geffen’s, my father would have been the perfect prime minister for an impossible homeland, one in which would realize Geffen’s dream of peace across the Middle East. In part because my father would have everyone so confused they’d rather just tolerate and accept others’ “particulars.” In part because even in his most exhausted hours, my father was a man who eternally lived in the present as much as he was rooted in the past.

I didn’t know then, as in early 1996, that Geffen would one day reveal the hawk within him. It was during the war with Hezbollah in 2006, and he had to leave Tel Aviv for bomb shelters in Northern Israel. His vented his anger and frustration in an interview: “It wasn’t our fault. They did it, they opened fire, they were kidnapping the soldiers in Israel. I’m a peacemaker. I don’t think war is good, but I don’t think we could just shut up and stay home while they were kidnapping our soldiers.”

There it was: us versus they. They started it. It wasn’t our fault. That war wasn’t the answer, but. But. But… The eternal conditional. The contingent of one’s particulars versus those of another.

There is where I was in the mid-aughts, in the viscera of that dark place where tomorrow never came, haunted by these various rights to exist, these rights that tried to usurp one another, stuck in some tragic sibling rivalry that could not, would not, admit once we were all came from one place, one mother, one simple truth. That is to say when Aviv Geffen admitted the “us versus them” that dwelled darkly in his own viscera, the homeland I once imagined having a new language of languages, new borders more softly etched, more malleable definitions of citizen and selfhood… all of this grew even more distant and less possible, this imaginary homeland not the future of a land where discussion seemingly must end if one has the right to exist at all. Because I discovered Geffen did not have the answers. Because Aviv Geffen is human and very much, to use his own words, “a mirror to the Israeli situation, every year.” Because to understand him is to understand Israel. And to do that, one must also consider his family.

* * *


“I’m the radical who wants to do the opposite of everything he did. He conquered Jerusalem, I want to give it away. He was macho, I want to be gentle.”

Aviv Geffen on him and (his uncle) Moshe Dayan


For secular Jews, the agricultural is the spiritual. There are numerous images of generals and politicians like Ariel Sharon plowing the fields, tending to vineyards, in times of their youth, in the times they’ve fallen from grace. Return to the land and heal, that sort of thing. Geffen’s uncle Moshe Dayan spent his formative years on the famous moshav Nahalal, which actually was a drained swamp, its soils having been divested of rock by young Zionists, men who’d left their wives and families in nearby Nazareth to subsist in tents and then in wooden houses with branches for roofs until they built their farms and cultivated their orchards and raised their chickens and complacent cows that were said to sob right before their slaughter, which they didn’t have to see coming but sensed, having roused some disturbance deep inside so that they stopped chewing their cud and bellowed to each other like children cornered by a bully, numerous and stronger as they were.

I always imagine Aviv’s Uncle Moshe cutting his survivalist teeth on the moshav, as his ex-wife Ruth recounted that when she first met his family: “…there was nothing – not even a lawn chair. A table and chairs and a room only a bed could fit into and a wooden shed. The farmers were very poor. They had no money for anything… It was a very hard life on the moshav.” Even though she divorced Moshe Dayan in 1971 due to his numerous extramarital affairs, Ruth still retains her ties to Nahalal where she claims “there are still Dayan farms on Nahalal, including that of Moshe’s parents, which is still in the family.” Moshe himself is buried in the moshav’s cemetery, passing away “only 66… and he was an old man then,” according to Ruth, who is a well-known peacenik working to bring Jews and Arabs together. Today she is ninety-eight years old, and still going strong in her work, although she has expressed her own frustrations with the peace process.

* * *

This year, songwriter and author Yehonatan Geffen, Aviv’s father, was physically attacked and labeled a traitor for protesting Netanyahu’s reelection, inviting those in the pro-Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname) camp not to “…cry when your children die in the next stupid war… you elected a leader that has promised us death.” Aviv undoubtedly agreed with his father when at a concert in Tel Aviv he called on the audience to “send Bibi to hell!” This sentiment does not only concern Bibi’s reelection; just last year, at a concert in New York with his band Blackfield, Aviv dedicated his song “Go to Hell” to Netanyahu.

Although he passed on many of his left-wing beliefs to his son, the elder Geffen is not always portrayed so generously by Aviv; in fact most of Aviv’s music, especially his earlier work, accuses his father of neglect. Both his parents dabbled freely in drugs and alcohol, leading rather bohemian lives that the young Geffen felt did not make him a priority. Suicide has plagued his family, claiming his father’s sister among others: that subject too  appears in his earlier work, along with songs that are critical of the IDF and Israeli military culture in general.

There are a lot of people, both Israeli and not, who strongly dislike Aviv Geffen, and not only for his political beliefs. Perhaps it is because Aviv airs all the dirty laundry, whether it’s familial or national, sometimes giving it the finger. Perhaps because of his refusal to accept the military state as the only reality possible. I’ve had Israeli friends tell me that if all Israelis thought like Geffen and his father, there would be no Jewish homeland at all, having no one to defend and protect it. But I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that someone like Aviv Geffen does exist, that he carries such a weighty history and yet has his own clear identity, that he understands Israel cannot seal itself off from the world when he stated that reelecting Netanyahu meant “wreck[ing] the relations with America…We are in complete isolation, he put half of Israel under the poverty line, he didn’t leave hope for you, for students, to create a normal life here in Israel.”

And yet perhaps what will one day be normal for Israel and the rest of the Middle East will only be normal for that region only. Perhaps what is needed is something that cannot work elsewhere. Geffen has said that he’s sought an Arab counterpart in the peace process: “I’m always trying to find an Aviv Geffen from Syria or Aviv Geffen from Lebanon. I’m waiting to see someone who will fight with me from the other side.” I remember thinking, upon first reading this, how impossible this would ever be. Perhaps he should not be looking for an Aviv Geffen but someone who has different ideas of what is means to fight. Even the word here– “fight”– carries the inescapable nuance of peace as a violent act, as one of armed struggle, as if we have no other language but the one we inherited because it made us and reminds us every day of our debt to it.

Then again, as my father once stated, perhaps I am getting lost in the particulars, and that’s what I cannot seem to find my own way out of the impossible. Perhaps there is a way for that single truth to exist along side multiple truths, without the latter seeking to replace it. Perhaps we have to all leave the reverie first, and ask ourselves what comes after years of war, of occupations, or intifadas, of conflicting histories. Perhaps one of the first steps is to admit there is both dove and hawk within us all, that we are driven to categorize, to separate, to conquer one another on the basis of fear that we claim is culture. That there must be a way in which this land now called Israel has more than one name, more than one people, that it itself exists in multitudes, that we must find a way to let it exist outside of the limiting Western idea of the nation-state. That we recognize the “but” will inevitable follow each statement, but that we take the plunge anyway. That perhaps the Levant itself is waiting for us to arise, to awaken its next golden age of multiethnic relations in which we advance the human race.

That last statement is of course the young idealist in me reaching. She is still alive, and perhaps because she is mixed, knows more than one flock, and more than one kind of dove and hawk.

Then perhaps it’s merely enough, for now, to say: Put your gun down; I’m listening.

For if Uri ur means “Wake up,” then perhaps in 2016, we might say: “Wake with me.”