This article originally appeared in Haaretz and was reprinted here with permission.
Gefilte fish-loving gangsters who trade in horseradish meet in a parking lot for a deal that goes awry. That’s the plot of the new video by pop duo Vibers, updating the old Yiddish classic “Chiribim, Chiribom” to 2021.
Vibers (“women” in Yiddish, usually in the sense of chatterboxes or gossips) is Michal Karmi and Yael Tal, who formed their musical act last year in order to get back to their roots. They’ve just released their second single, which recounts a humorous Yiddish tale about a mother who cooks noodle soup and a rabbi who shouts at the heavens to stop drenching him.
The American Barry Sisters released the best-known version of “Chiribim” in the 1960s. But the song has also been covered by Dudu Fisher and legendary Israeli comedy trio Hagashash Hahiver, and is a staple in popular Yiddish medleys.
The stylish video was posted on YouTube less than a month ago and has already had over 40,000 views (a groyse metsie for a song in Yiddish).
The idea of “Ashkenazi-style entertainment” came to the folklore-loving Tal as she was listening to the A-Wa band (a female trio performing traditional Yemenite music mixed with hip-hop and electronic music). She was also inspired by the cultural flourishing of Yiddish in recent years, which is especially felt in America’s Jewish community. For instance, Yiddish has a starring role in the Netflix hit “Unorthodox,” starring Shira Haas, and of course in the Israeli TV series “Shtisel.”
The duo released their first video last year, a cover of the classic “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (featuring Michael Moshonov), which has been watched almost 90,000 times on YouTube. “It started as a personal song that connects both of us with our grandmothers, and it took off in a way we couldn’t have imagined,” Tal recounts.
In both videos, the styling is retro in a world that revolves around two semi-legendary divas who are elegant and hungry for life.
If the women look like they’re playing parts, that’s probably because the two Vibers are first and foremost actors/comedians. Karmi, who studied at Ramat Gan’s Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts, has appeared in numerous TV series and ads. Tal, meanwhile, is a graduate of Yoram Loewenstein’s Performing Arts Studio in Tel Aviv, and is best known for playing Nechama in the second season of TV comedy “Shababnikim” (she also had a minor role in the award-winning “Fill the Void”).
The two met about three years ago while appearing in a play together, “and since then we haven’t shut our mouths, right up to this interview,” Tal says.
They won’t reveal their ages – at least not at first.
“You can ask; you won’t necessarily get an answer,” Tal says. “Age is irrelevant, in the same way that it’s irrelevant to ask a person their ethnicity. It’s what it seems, that’s all. There’s ageism: the moment people know, it immediately affects the way they see you. In our profession, it’s very easy to label people, especially women. You’re not allowed to ask that at auditions in the United States.” She ends by declaring, “I’m as old as I look.”
The Vibers’ characters exchange rapid-fire witticisms in the best Yiddish tradition, reflecting Tal and Karmi’s own rat-a-tat dynamic.
“Each of them contains something of our grandmothers – there’s a guiding hand from grandmother from above,” Tal says. Karmi adds with a chuckle, “It’s very mystical!”
“Vibers” or not, both women talk incessantly and at a certain point Tal sighs in Polish: “Even so, I feel like I’m not expressing myself in this interview.”
Their act was born out of impatience with the acting profession and the constant sense of waiting around for roles.
“When you finish acting school, your job is presumably to go to auditions and wait for them to hire you,” Tal says. “But the media has opened up now and you can upload content on your own. That’s how Udi Kagan and Tom Yaar succeeded,” she adds, referring to two popular Israeli comedians.
“It almost always begins from a silly idea on the balcony that keeps developing,” Tal continues, explaining their working method. “There are comedians who work on characters; we work on content with comic potential. That also reduces pressure professionally, because like in a couple relationship, the less eager you seem, the more they want you. We don’t issue a declaration that we’re musicians, we won’t go and record an album of original songs tomorrow. But it’s work that can be expressed in many ways,” she says.
Speaking of couples, Karmi and Taicher were married three years ago in a civil ceremony, after meeting in rather unusual circumstances. They met after she fell in love with his voice on the radio, and decided that she had to find him.
“Many years ago I heard ‘Taicher and Zarahovitsh” on the radio [on 102 FM],” she recounts. “I listened to the program again and again, and said to myself: ‘That voice! I have to meet that man.’ But I was in a relationship, so didn’t anything about it. When the relationship ended, I dispatched several of my people in order to get Sharon to talk to me on Facebook.
“The thing is that I was sure he didn’t know it was a ploy, but under the chuppah [at the wedding ceremony] he told me he knew everything. I was sure that I was so clever and suddenly, in front of everyone and all the guests…” she laughs.
Karmi says the casting of her husband in the video, playing a mobster with a love of horseradish, was not a cynical move to get more viewers. “It simply fit perfectly,” she says. “He’s a great actor, versatile, not your typical gangster. We wrote an entirely different character and there was supposed to be a different actor. Two days before filming, we were touched by God’s hand and realized that Sharon could do it more accurately. And he’s also my husband, so I could impose as many tasks as I wanted on him.”
Tal’s husband also helped out as a production assistant on the video, even though he’s actually a musician: Guitarist Ido “Ziggo” Ofek, who is one of the founding members of Hadorbanim, a pop-rock band that enjoyed hits with the likes of “Lo Ba Li Lishmoa” and “Shuv Hadisco Kan.”
Tal’s story is suspiciously similar to that of Karmi’s: ”I had my eye on [Ofek] at Hadorbanim performances when I was 19. We’ve been together for 450 years. Write that: 450 years.”
Casting some doubt on that statement is the fact that Tal’s father is Shabtai Tal, a photojournalist who is responsible for the iconic 1971 photo of David Ben-Gurion folding his hands under his chin.
You’re an independent actor and he’s an independent musician. How’s your financial situation?
Tal: “There’s no money, but it’s OK. We do what we can with great love, and we manage. I wish I didn’t have aspirations and dreams and ambition – I could have lived a very simple life. It’s liberating not to want things; it’s very tiring to pursue. That’s the internal conflict between the diva who wants to achieve and make it, and the girl who wants to live in a village with an outdoor shower. Deep down, I’m a diva. I always need more than that.”
The problem, they explain, is their choice to create independently.
“When you start, you’re alone and the financing is also independent,” Tal says. “We got a lot of favors from friends who worked for a reduced price, and whom I also helped in the past. If you don’t look out for yourself and are dependent on whether they’ll accept you for an audition, you’ll go nowhere. I’m not in favor of sitting and waiting for anything.”
The video was directed by a friend of theirs, Tamar Keinan, and everyone – from the makeup team to the camera operators – chipped in. “It’s a guerrilla video that looks like a million dollars,” Tal says. “You get up early in the morning with a minor anxiety attack,” adds Karmi. “You go out for 12 hours of filming, during which you’re in charge of making sure everything goes according to plan. And then you finish, pat yourself on the shoulder and return home and remove the makeup. Unless you’re Karin from [the latest season of reality TV show] ‘Married at First Sight.’”
What’s in a name
When Avigdor Lieberman wanted to humiliate Tzipi Livni during the 2013 election campaign, he called her one of the “three vibers,” along with Zehava Galon and Shelly Yacimovich. However, Tal and Karmi are more than happy to lean in to the name. “My husband’s mother has a group of friends, moshav women, who sit together at the pool, and their husbands call them vibers – in other words, chatterboxes,” Tal says. “There are all kinds of interpretations for this word. A lot of Yiddish is derogatory, barbed expressions. It’s hard to find anything that has only one meaning, there’s always another spiel. Something about this language doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
It’s impossible to doubt these two women’s affection for the old language. “The importance of our project is to make this language accessible, to make it relevant, to create pop songs, rap. It can open up to so many things, but it has to be contemporary,” Karmi explains.
In order to pronounce the words properly, they use the guidelines of the Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv.
“Our vibers are strong women,” Karmi says. “They’re contemporary but they’re embracing the nostalgia, singing in a language that isn’t common, that’s considered somewhat unsexy, old, annoying. But they’re colorful and aren’t afraid of being like that.
“Yael and I are also colorful, but not like them,” Karmi adds. “We’re both kind of ugly ducklings from childhood. I was cross-eyed and had short hair.”
“And I was skinny and flat-chested with steel-wool hair,” Tal adds. “The Vibers are our alter ego – the bullied girls who want to be women of the world.”
Their affection for Yiddish shouldn’t be mistaken for sentimentality, though, with the language having a deeper cultural meaning for both women.
“My grandfather and grandmother tried very hard not to speak Yiddish. Anything that brought you back to the Holocaust was an open wound that shouldn’t be touched,” Tal says. “They kept up a façade and dignity. There was a time when I didn’t understand why; today I admire it. There was no sense of victimization about what was taken. My grandmother didn’t like to talk about it; only at the end of her life did we talk about it. These were people without pleasure – I always felt there was some kind of storm raging inside them.”
For Karmi, singing in Yiddish also represents a kind of victory over the Nazis. “I want to sing ‘Chiribim’ on Polish soil. To jump around for them, in the town of my grandmother who was expelled from there. Even though she was a restrained woman, I believe it would have moved her. It’s a victory – especially now when there’s a law against saying the Polish people participated in this thing.”
Finally, how do they respond to claims that their use of Yiddish is just a gimmick? “That everything is a gimmick,” Tal shrugs. “Anyone who wants to criticize me is invited to do so – and if they can, please can they do it when I’m having my period.”
This article originally appeared in Haaretz and was reprinted here with permission.