How This Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Student Became a Star In the Arab Music World by the Forward

How This Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Student Became a Star In the Arab Music World

Image by Ziv Yehezkel

Ziv Yehezkel is a man full of contradictions. He is at once a deeply religious Jewish man, but also a zealous lover of Arabic music.

The soloist of Arab Orchestra of Nazareth, the 31 year-old was born in Kiryat Ono, a town in central of Israel, in an area called “Little Baghdad.”

But Yehezkel did not grow up speaking Arabic. “Part of Israeli culture is leaving your former identity behind,” he tells Channel 10 News, for his parents, that meant not teaching their children their mother tongue. They spoke Iraqi at home when they didn’t want the children to understand, he says.

When still he was young, his parents became deeply religious. And he too, excelled in his biblical studies, and was sent to Yeshiva in the Ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, and later in Jerusalem.

It was during those years that Yehezkel says he fell in love with Arab music. He fell under the spell of the Oud, that string instrument so deeply emblematic of Arab music. He started playing the instrument. He would go to Yaffo in the evenings and buy tapes of classic Arab singers, the biggest names in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. And he would imitate them.

Yehezkel was always a good singer. He used to be the neighborhood “songbird,” he says. The neighbors and schoolmate would ask him to regale them with music. But he always felt self-conscious about his Iraqi accent. Especially when he was singing his Torah portion during his Bar Mitzvah.

That might have been the reason that he found his passion and vocation in Arab song.

When he gets up on stage, “he sings better than any Arab,” an audience member at a Daliyat al-Karmel show, a Druze town close to Haifa, tells Channel 10, “the audience didn’t want to go home.”

His Arabic is precise and flowing. He sings Um-Kultum with conviction, feeling and a perfect diction.

“I live on the borderline,” says Yehezkel, “I’m a Jew, I grew up in Haredi neighborhood… In a Likkudnik neighborhood. As a kid, you grow up believing what the system tells you to believe. When you grow up, you change you mind.”

Ziv does not shy away from interacting Muslim and Christian Arabs. He works with Nazareth’s orchestra and much of his audience is non-Jewish.

He was even interviewed in Ramallah for the Palestinian Broadcast Authority. In Hebrew. He had a translator. When the news caster asks him if he has a message for Palestinian people he tells him: “You’re a newsperson, but I’m telling you, don’t listen to the media.”

On the one hand, Yehezkeli is very critical of the Palestinian leadership and media, but, he says, he feels very similarly about the Israeli government.

“…No gets along with me. Not Jews and not Arabs,” Yehezkel exclaims, after the interview, “it’s because I bust everyone’s back. I don’t take it easy on anyone.”

He says that while he is still deeply religious, music has given him a love for his fellow men that is “a hundred times greater than [that] any yeshiva student studying the mishna.”

“A lot of people ask me why he doesn’t sing in Hebrew,” said Ziv’s father, “I don’t have an answer.”

But for Ziv Yehezkel, the answer is very clear. When he’s asked by the channel 10 reporter what he wants to be when he grows up, he doesn’t hesitate.

“with my music, I want to start a little revolution in everyone’s heart,” he says, “Jews and Arabs, Jewish and Muslim, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi… Everyone.”


Lior Zaltzman

Lior Zaltzman

Lior Zaltzman was the Forward’s Digital Fellow. Follow her on twitter @liorca.

How This Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Student Became a Star In the Arab Music World

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