On a bright, beautiful Sunday evening in September, the plane bringing Israeli superstar Sarit Hadad to Philadelphia from her most recent appearance in Canada was inexplicably delayed. Sharona Durry, a key organizer of PhillyIsraelim, which sponsored the event, was nervous.
"This is our biggest program ever," she fretted, concerned that the capacity crowd waiting impatiently at Center City's Trocadero Theater for the show to begin would be disappointed.
She needn't have worried. When the opening strains from the singer's newest CD, "Chagiga" ("Celebration") finally began, the party started in earnest, and for the next 90 minutes never let up. Hadad gave an electrifying performance, backed up by six (male) instrumentalists on accordion, bass, guitar, keyboards, percussion and darbouka; a lone female vocalist; and the enthusiastic accompaniment of her audience, who happily sang along to virtually every lyric.
Two weeks shy of her 27th birthday, Hadad is a world-renowned phenomenon. The youngest of nine children in her musical family (though she is the only professional), Hadad taught herself to play the piano, guitar, accordion and darbouka, among other instruments. She joined her hometown Hadera Youth Band at the age of 15 and was discovered there by Avi Gueta, who has managed her meteoric career ever since.
Hadad's 10 albums have all gone gold or platinum in Israel, and she was named "Woman of the Year in Israeli Music" three times in a row.
Her local performance provided a wonderful overview of the versatility that has marked her career. She came to prominence in the mid-1990s; her largely up-tempo repertoire draws liberally from the distinctive Middle Eastern sounds that became popular then.
Hadad has borrowed familiar tunes from the past, including "Hayom, Hayom" and Naomi Shemer's "Lu Yehi," both of which she has given unique covers on her recent recordings, as well as in her live performances.
The crowd begged her for songs from the Yemenite, Persian, Georgian, Moroccan and Kurdish traditions – all of which she has performed at one time or another. On this evening, she responded with an offering from the Arabic recording she made in Jordan shortly after that country completed its peace treaty with Israel.
The evening also provided a glimpse of Hadad's impressive instrumental skills. The first sign came when the singer took over the darbouka during an interlude of a Mediterranean pop medley. During her lengthy drum solo she not only wowed the audience, but seemed to be having at least as much fun playing as she had singing – and that's saying a lot.
Another apparently unscripted moment occurred later in the same medley, when Hadad's vocal mike failed, and she simply took over playing the keyboard until a new microphone arrived on stage a few moments later.
A high point came as the singer offered two moving ballads with special meaning: "K'she HaLev Bocheh" ("When the Heart Cries") was written in response to the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah early in the recent intifada. As the singer completed the first chorus ("Hear Israel, My God, You Are the Omnipotent … ") an Israeli flag was passed to the stage, and the crowd cheered appreciatively as she draped it over her shoulders for the remainder of the song.
The flag became a skirt during the next song, "Light a Candle," sung by Hadad as Israel's handpicked entry in the Eurovision Festival in 2002, at the height of that same intifada. The producers had distributed neon glow sticks at the beginning of the concert, and now those sticks were waved throughout the room – and by the beautiful singer on stage as well.
The refrain of that song (composed by veteran Tzvika Pik, with lyrics by Yoav Ginai) was written in English, and those were the only English words to be heard in the theater for the entire evening.
With support from several local merchants, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, the PhillyIsraelim had met their goal – to provide a meeting place and a "taste of home" for the Israeli and Hebrew-speaking community in the Delaware Valley. u
Marsha Bryan Edelman, Ed.D., is a professor of Jewish music and education at Gratz College.