Brakha Tzefira was born in Jerusalem in 1910. Her father emmigrated from Yemen in 1887, and settled in the then Yemenite neighborhood of Nahalat Tsvi, in Jerusalem, and married Na'ama Amrani, Brakha Tzefira's mother. Tzefira's mother died while giving birth to her, and her father died from typhus when she was three years old. After the death of her parents, she was brought to live with her uncle in Jerusalem, but fled from his house at the age of five and was placed with a family in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem. This area of the city was inhabited by immigrants from Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand, and Brakha's neighbors were from Persia. After three years, her adopted family left the city, and Brakha was placed with a widow in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, where most of the residents were Sephardic Jews from Salonika. Tzefira had unpleasant memories from her time there, as she was put to work washing clothes to help sustain the house.
As she moved from one neighborhhod to the next, Brakha was attracted to the songs she heard. The synagogue played a central role in the lives of the families she grew up with, and in them, she was exposed to the melodies of the liturgy, absorbing piyutim and more. Like many girls of Sephardic families, Tzefira attended a school in the old city, and later the Lemel School. On her walks through the old city of Jerusalem, she and her friends were exposed to Arabic songs and melodies. They used to challenge themselves by attempting to suit the words of Hebrew poems, especially those of Bialik, to the Arabic or Sephardic melodies that they liked. Later on in her life, Brakha employed this technique of text replacement extensively.
In 1924, Tzefira was sent to study in the Me’ir Shefeyah educational village near Zikhron Ya’akov, directed at the time by Moshe Calwary. His wife Hadassah, Brakha's beloved teacher, encouraged her musical talents, and proposed that Tzefira should sing Zemirot Shabat on Sabbath eves (Friday nights), in front of all of the students. Her performances were a success. Tzefira noticed the special interest expressed by the girls with Sephardic origins, as well as that of the Ashkenazi teachers who came from a Western European background, to the oriental melodies. Jehoash Hirshberg, in his article about Tzefira, emphasizes this point, and writes about the ideological role of Tzefira singing her songs, in that it helped expose the traditions of different ethnic groups to each other, something that was encouraged by Hadassah. He notes that the excitement of the Sephardic girls was connected to the recognition of the acceptance of their own music among Western teachers.
Her success in Shefeyah motivated her teachers to send Tzefira to additional music studies. She moved to Jerusalem in order to study at the Kedma School, directed at the time by Sidney Siel. After several months, she left the school, as her teachers at Kedma recommended that she should study acting instead. She moved to Tel Aviv and was accepted to the Palestine Theater, founded by Menehem Gnessin, as well as to his acting school. The theater was closed the same year, in 1927, and Tzefira joined the satirical theater Hakumkum, where she performed until 1929. While performing with Hakumkum, she also appeared as a solo singer and as a choir conductor on various occasions. The Russian director Alexander Diki saw her in one of Hakumkum's shows and recommended her to go study in Berlin. Eventually she went there, with the help of Meir Dizzengof, among others, and studied acting and music at the studio of Max Reinhardt.
Brakha Tzefira and Nahum Nardi
It was in Berlin, in 1929, where Tzefira had perhaps the most important encounter of her musical career, when she met pianist and composer Nahum Nardi. In regards to their meeting, she relates, "That very evening … I begged him to sit at the piano and play the songs I would sing to him, and try to improvise an accompaniment. I sang Bialik’s “Yesh Li Gan” and “Bein Nahar Prat” for him, and Sephardic piyyutim … and other songs that I was used to singing from Shefeyah. He was a quick learner, had an excellent ear and a light touch at the piano, and was familiar with Hebrew lyrics, although from a traditional galut (Diaspora) perspective. His playing and the simple harmonies electrified me. I felt that the song had taken on new sounds …”
That same year, Tzefira and Nardi began a series of concerts in Germany and other parts of Europe, and Tzefira left her acting career to dedicated herself to singing. Their tour's program included songs of different oriental ethnic groups that Tzefira knew from her childhood including Sephardic songs, Jewish songs from Yemen, Persia, and Bukhara, as well as songs of Bedouins and Palestinian Arabs, all arranged by Nardi. Tzefira added theatrical gestures to their performances, which were favorably commented upon by critics. She performed in front of some important figures, such as Albert Einstein and Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.
In 1930 they returned to Palestine as recognized musicians. There, Tzefira continued collecting songs and melodies from oriental Jewish communities, Bedouins, and Arabs, which were then arranged by Nardi. Their performances were successful, and their shows included songs of Jewish oriental communities (Yemenite, Sephardic, and more) which Tzefira often sang in the original language; the Arab and Bedouin songs, arranged by Nardi and sung with Hebrew words; and compositions of Nardi, especially children's songs.
In order to find musical material, Brakha returned to the neighborhoods she grew up in. She asked old women to sing her their songs, and she participated in local festivities. She was also helped by experts such as Yehiel 'Adaki (1905-1980, who was the husband of her cousin, Mazal) who taught her songs of the Yemenite tradition, and Yitzhak Eliyahu Navon, who taught her songs from his wide Sephardic repertoire, in return for her accompanying him on his walks. According to Emanuel Yerimi, their success in Palestine was also due to the demand for Hebrew singing, and to the relatively small amount of artists working in the field.
Following two years of collaboration, Tzefira and Nardi were married, and in 1931 their daughter Na'ama, who became an opera singer, was born (d. 1989). The duo kept expanding their repertoire, adding Egyptian songs (after their return from Egypt in 1932), Ethiopian and Turkish songs, spiritual songs from the U.S., and more. In 1931, they went on tour of Alexandria and Cairo, which was critically acclaimed, followed by a similar tour in 1936. One of their most important performances was at the premier broadcast of the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1936, which was the first radio broadcast in Hebrew (see Song of the Month 08/13). In 1937 they embarked on a tour in the U.S., where they recorded three albums for Columbia Records, which according to Natan Shahar, "served as a calling card of sorts for the nascent field of Hebrew song in Palestine" (see sound examples).
A dispute with Nardi erupted when he refused to include other composers' songs in their concert programs, while Tzefira wished to include songs by Admon, Amiran and Shelem. They divorced in 1939, but continued to perform together until July of that year, due to previous engagements, and later separated artistically as well.
After her separation from Nardi, Tzefira turned to other composers to arrange and compose for her. Nardi began to perform as a concert player, and to work with other singers. He sued Tzefira for copyrights of their concerts' repertoire, but the lawsuit was rejected on account of evidence presented by Tzefira showing that she was the one who originally found the songs that she brought to these composers.
Working With Other Composers
After their separation, Tzefira did not turn to another accompanying improvising pianist like Nardi. Instead, as mentioned above, she turned to various composers from the field of Israeli "art music", and asked them to arrange the songs that she brought them, for piano, chamber music ensemble, or orchestral accompaniment. Each of the composers was interested in arranging a different kind of song, and she acquired almost thirty of these arrangements in less than ten years. Paul Ben-Haim (who frequently accompanied her on piano) was interested in Sephardic songs, Oedeon Partos in Yemenite and more complex songs, and Marc Lavry preferred songs with a light and danceable style. Other composers she worked with were Boskovich, Mahler Kelkshtein, and younger composers, like Noam Sheriff, Hanoch Ya'akovi, and Ben-Zion Orgad.
In order to perform on the same big stages in Israel, Tzefira had to continue refreshing her repertoire. She continuously collected new songs from various ethnic groups in Palestine. Although she could read musical notation, she could not write it. Hence, she tried to convince the composers to come with her to hear the source, but they preferred that Tzefira sing the songs for them. Jehoash Hirshberg comments on this issue, saying that these composers, who had broad musical education from Europe, felt the ideological pressure to create Hebrew, or Israeli Music. The pressure came from within them, because of the hardship and humiliation they endured as Jews in Europe, and the will to take pride in their culture. However, it was also external pressure, coming from critics and the general public, that created the expectation to form nationalistic art. The only model they had in mind was to try to combine the European style and form with the musical materials of the orient: of the land of Israel, and the "oriental" Jews. Hirshberg writes that Tzefira acted as the ideal mediator for these composers, connecting them with the familial circles where the material of the oriental traditional songs existed. It was easier for them to connect with Tzefira, who had both access to these circles, and experience in the Western way of understanding music, and she could collaborate with them to arrange the material into concert form. Her work with these composers had a lot of influence on the direction of Israeli art music, as the composers used the materials learnt from this cooperation in their instrumental works as well.
Career After Nardi
One peak in Tzefira's career was a concert with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1939, conducted by Marc Lavry, where she performed songs of Nardi, Ben-Haim, and Lavry. At the time, there were still local critics decrying orchestral music with oriental origins, speaking against the idea of an oriental singer accompanied by an orchestra. In the following years there were debates and discussions on this subject, and eventually the musical atmosphere became more approving of this new style. In 1939 Tzefira changed the form of her usual musical accompaniment. She organized an instrumental ensemble comprised of members of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra who accompanied her in many concerts; however, she continued to perform while accompanied by piano, usually played by Paul Ben-Haim.
In 1940 Tzefira met Ben-Ami Zilber, a violinist in the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. They were married, and in 1943 had a son, Ariel Zilber, who became an important figure in the Israeli rock scene during the seventies. After a year-long break due to Ariel's birth in 1943, Tzefira continued to perform, giving many concerts until 1947, which were usually acclaimed by critics. In 1948 she went on a successful tour of Europe and the U.S. that lasted two and a half years. During the tour, she performed, among other places, in refugee camps in Germany. A special event on the tour was the visit of Egyptian poet Dr. Ahmad Zaki at one of her shows in New York. He invited friends, and one of them later wrote an article in an Arabic newspaper about her show. Considering the relations between Israel and Egypt at that time, an Arabic article acclaiming an Israel artist was an unusual event.
Tzefira's turn to art music, rather than the Israeli folksong, was acclaimed by some, while criticized by others. While some were impressed by her effort to "elevate" traditional tunes to the level of art music, others were sorry for her leaving the field of Zemer Ivri that arguably suited her more naturally. She herself wrote in her book Kolot Rabim that only a few of the hundred of songs that were arranged for her had become true assets. In 1966 she received the Engel Prize, for "inserting the oriental melody into Israeli music, symphonic and folkloric, through 30 years of her shows in Israel and abroad."
According to Tzefira, her repertoire included over 400 songs, many of which she helped create, either by working with composers on the melodies, or with poets on the lyrics. Her songs based on Arab or Bedouin melodies include Ben Nahar Prat, Yesh Li Gan, Lamidbar, Aley Giv'a, and were arranged by Nardi. She sang Piyyutim of Yemenite and Sephardic Jews with their original words, like S'I Yona, and Hamavdil. For Sephardic Romances she either replaced or translated the Ladino words, like Hitrag'ot with words by Yehuda Karni.
Thanks to Tzefira, melodies of various communities were adapted into Hebrew songs, like Bukharan (Ets Harimon) or Persian (Mahol Parsi). Additionally, Tzefira would sing folk songs in their original language, like Ladino, and songs containing original music by various contemporary composers.
Tzefira was a pioneer of singers from oriental origin who studied the European vocal technique; her followers indluded Naomi Tsuri and Hana Aharoni.
During the 1950s public interest in Tzefira declined. According to Emanuel Yerimi, the Israeli audience had become accustomed to her old style which had once been innovative, while her new, more artistic, style was less favored. Another factor brought up by Yerimi is that the "artistic" arrangements required a higher tone range than she was capable of, making her voice lose its sweetness.
During this period she again went abroad, and returned in 1957. After her return she began to perform in smaller halls. She claimed that, in connection to an accident of her son Ariel in 1959, her vocal cords had become damaged without repair. Nevertheless, she continued to perform occasionally. She also studied drawing, in Israel and later in Paris, and had some exhibitions. During the sixties she continued to perform on occasion, and her last show was in the mid seventies, at the Tel Aviv Museum. In those days the demand for her shows was quite limited.
Her husband Ben Ami Zilber died in 1984, and that deeply affected her, as well as her daughter's death in 1989.
Brakha Tzefira died in 1990. Her death was not mentioned in the news or on the radio, but the weekend newspapers wrote about it. The city of Jerusalem named a street after her.
Attitude from the Zionist establishment
Despite her success in Palestine, Tzefira experienced some difficulties due to racism. One incident occurred upon her first performance in Tel Aviv, which was supposed to be in Ohel Shem hall, but the management refused to let her perform due to her Yemenite origin. Thanks to public criticism, the incident was amended, and Tzefira was allowed to perform there.
Since the start of her shows with Nardi in Palestine, there were discussions involving their new style, with arguments on both sides. The issue of her ethnicity appeared in some of the critic's negative reviews, as some implied a negativity with regards to her origin, or attacked the sources of her songs. Bearing that in mind, Tzefira and Nardi's music was pretty much accepted following the radio broadcast of 1936 (see above).
Another incident unrelated to her ethnicity, but rather to ideological motives of promoting the Hebrew language, occurred in 1939, when the council of Tel Aviv cancelled her concert in Ohel Shem, due to the fact that it contained songs that were not in Hebrew.
Debka Fantasia and Brakha Tzefira
In relation to Tzefira's role as mediator between eastern melodies and the forming "Israeli" music, the recent musical project Debka Fantasia is noteworthy. Beginning in 2008 under the direction of Israeli ethnic musician Israel Borochov, the project included several shows and one live album, comprised of new arrangements of Israeli folksongs (Zemer Ivri). The arrangements emphasize the Arabic and Bedouin roots of the songs. Three of the songs were arranged by Nahum Nardi: Aley Giv'a, Ben Nahar Prat, and Shatu Ha'adrim. Out of these songs, the first two have Bedouin origins, while the third has an urban Arabic origin. On the album, the first two are sung in both Arabic and Hebrew.
These arrangements purposely point to the significance of oriental music in the formation of the Hebrew folksong. Brakha Tzefira stands out as playing an important role in this fusion, which was a basis and a background for the evolvement of an Israeli culture during the twentieth century. Her unique role went beyond that of just a performer, but also that of a mediator, collector, and creator (as mentioned above, she actively participated in arranging the songs she performed). She helped to preserve various cultures, as a collector, and to use this collection to form a new culture.
Interestingly, Borochov describes his realization that the Zemer Ivri songs had Arab roots as a personal revelation, which implies that the Israeli-Zionist collective memory has "forgotten" these roots. The Jewish-Zionist musicians of pre-Israel Palestine were happy to fuse European and Oriental cultures together and thus gain a new understanding of their identity, but through the years, as the songs they created became known as Israeli folksongs, their oriental roots were forgotten. This happened as a result of the segregation of Israeli culture from its neighboring cultures. Debka Fantasia aspires to remember this fusion and to revive it, and this remembrance should include Brakha Tzefira as an important axis.
Furhter reading: Song of the Month August 2013, in which the full story of Tzefira 1936 performance in the first Hebrew radio broadcast in Palestine is told.
- Yerimi, Emanuel. Tzefira, Brakha.
- Shahar, Nathan. "Brachah Zefira." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/zefira-brachah>.
- Tzefira, Brakaha. Kolot Rabim. Ramat-Gan: Massada, 1978.
- הירשברג, יהואש. ברכה צפירה ותהליך השינוי במוסיקה בישראל.
 The expression "art music" is problematic to say the least. It comes to signify what is sometimes called "classical music" or "concert music." It is used here to distinguish between Nahum Nardi, and other musicians who worked in the field of Israeli folksongs (Zemer Ivri), and produced more "popular" music in the form of songs usually with piano accompaniment, and composers who composed concertantic works, for chamber or orchestral ensembles, choirs etc.
Tzefira and Nardi perform Shir Ha-'avoda Ve-ha-melakha