Ofra Haza was the Middle Eastern version of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. Once you heard the opening notes of any song containing the sweet honey of Ofra Haza’s mezzo-soprano voice, it was unmistakable. Even now, a decade after her death from AIDS when any other Israeli singer tries to take on any of her signature numbers, they never manage to measure up.
Like these divas, she became a star at a young age — she began singing at age 12 and, by 19, had become a household name. She so popular, so commercial, that she found it hard to get respect among the more elitist and artistic circles in Israel. But she was a pioneer — breaking out of the Tel Aviv slums and the Yemenite Middle Eastern cultural niche to break into mainstream Israeli commercial radio, and one of the very first Israeli artists to truly achieve success in the wider world. Her big breakthrough moments occured when her dance version of the Yemenite song “Im Ninalu” climbed to the top of the European charts, and featured in the role of Yocheved as the mother of Moses in the animated “The Prince of Egypt,” where her voice played a central role on the soundtrack Local pride swelled as their hometown beauty hobnobbed with the glitterati of Hollywood — including a brief stint as a “date” of Michael Jackson.
I interviewed Ofra for a profile for The Jerusalem Post in the mid-90’s at her immaculate townhouse in Yehud, next door to the family of her manager, and according to some, her Svengali, Bezalel Aloni. I remember thinking that she was very possibly the most beautiful person I had ever seen in person. She was sweet, hospitable and friendly; she also seemed lonely. She spoke openly of her desire to settle down and raise a family as she approached her 40th birthday. Sometimes it seemed as if the entire state wanted to fix her up on a date.
When she finally met and married Doron Ashkenazi after a whirlwind romance, the portly businessman with a sketchy past didn’t seem quite the prince to wed the national Cinderella. But Ofra had waited so long, and she seemed to have found love, and Israel was happy for her. They settled into domestic life, she lowered her professional profile, and everyone waited for the pregnancy announcement.
Instead, came the shocking news in early 2000, that she had been rushed to the hospital in critical condition at age 41. For two weeks, her fans kept vigil outside the hospital. Nobody knew exactly what was wrong with her. And then the rumors and whispers began : She had AIDS. There was disbelief. Her family and professional team did their best to keep the news a secret. But in the end, Haaretz broke the taboo and reported the news.
The full story, first in newspaper articles, and later in a television documentary came out with the whole sad tale. While beginning fertility treatments, Haza had discovered she was HIV-positive. She had been obsessive about keeping it a secret — so much so, it appears, that she did not seek medical attention quickly enough when she got sick, and even after she arrived at the emergency room, she did not inform the hospital of her HIV status. One can only speculate how long she might have lived had her determination to fight the disease overcome her shame at having it.
The tragedy was compounded when a grief-stricken Ashkenazi died only a year later of a suspected cocaine overdose. But she left behind a rich legacy of more than 40 albums and years of memories, which her fans around the world keep alive on MySpace and YouTube. Listening to her songs, the beauty and joy with which she performed ultimately helps one to forget the deeply sad circumstances of her untimely death.
Rest in peace, Ofra.