Nurit Hirsh (נורית הירש)

Born: August 13th, 1942, Tel Aviv (Israel)
Nationality: Israeli

Eurovision record
Composer Nurit Hirsh, who is one of only three female conductors ever to have participated in the Eurovision Song Contest, penned two famous Israeli festival entries: ‘Ey sham’ for Ilanit in 1973, which came fourth and was Israel’s first contribution to the contest; and, five years later, ‘Abanibi’, with which Izhar Cohen stormed to victory in the international festival final in Paris. For both songs, Nurit worked with lyricist Ehud Manor.

Tel Aviv, December 2011

Nurit Hirsh is the daughter of a mother and father who immigrated to Israel during the interwar period from Poland and Czechoslovakia respectively. Nurit: “My father was a man who earned his money with many different jobs, but, at heart, he was a musician. In his spare time, he played the violin; what was more, he was an excellent opera singer – actually, he was so good that he could have been a professional singer. Occasionally, he performed at soirées. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father, singing an aria for me. Opera has since been my favourite music genre.”

In a family where music was so important, it comes as no surprise that the daughter became interested in it as well. At five, she first tried her hand at the piano. Nurit: “And, one or two years later, I already accompanied my father on stage. My music teacher at primary school was so enthusiastic about my abilities, that he convinced my parents to send me to a private teacher. At that time, I knew at heart that I was a musician. I never thought about being anything else, although I was a good pupil and a hard worker in all subjects at school. As a young adolescent, I started earning some valuable extra money for the family by providing the piano accompaniment for singers from the Israeli Opera. Little was I to know that my daughter Ruth (Ruth Rosenfeld, BT) was to become a professional opera singer! But I did more during my teenage years… I also played the piano in ballet studios; I improvised in bars and clubs, whilst, moreover, I taught students who were one year below me the first principles of music theory. As for my career plans, I hesitated between composing as a career and accompanying classical singers as a pianist. In the back of my mind, I had this ideal of going to Vienna to accompany opera singers.”

Things were to turn out differently, however. From 1960 to 1963, Nurit performed her military service in the renowned Army Entertainment Group, which has been a career starter for many future Israeli light entertainment artists. “I did not want to spend my obligatory days in the army as a secretary, doing boring administrative work”, Nurit comments. “Therefore, I applied for the army orchestra, a fully-fledged classical orchestra. I started studying the clarinet privately with Jacob Barnea, who was the clarinettist of the Israeli Philharmonic. After an audition, I was accepted to the army orchestra. By that time, however, I had started to have grave doubts about a classical career… all those classical musicians were practicing for at least five hours a day. To me, they were nerds and I thought their lives were utterly boring! Therefore, I submitted an application for the Army Entertainment Group, where I was invited to do an audition. I pulled it off and they decided to have me! In the Entertainment Group, I played the piano and the accordion, I sang, and I composed. I distinctly remember that three of the first songs I ever wrote were arranged by Yitzhak Graziani, who was the conductor of the Israeli Defence Forces Orchestra. He invited me over to his house. He was great both as a musician and as a personality… a man with loads of charisma. Being the young girl that I was, I was very excited that he wanted to work with me. Still in the army, I was taught music theory by a very gifted musician called Yitzhak Sadai. Perhaps more important still, being the jazz freak that he was, he introduced me to jazz. He opened that door for me, so to speak.”

While still performing her military service, Nurit started studying at the Tel Aviv Music Academy, where she majored in piano (1965). At the conservatory, she also took courses in chamber music with Eden Partosh and in composition with Mordechai Seter. Nurit comments: “By now, I knew I wanted to be a composer, but it was important to me to have the theoretical background of an education in classical music. I was very happy that I was allowed to start studying while I was still in the army, because I was keen not to waste any time. I consider myself lucky to have had such able, internationally acclaimed teachers.” Privately, Nurit also studied orchestration with Noam Sheriff and conducting with Laslo Rott. “Laslo Rott had high hopes for me as a conductor”, Nurit laughingly recalls, “but I only wanted to learn the basic techniques – nothing more. In those days, only the thought of being a conductor performing on stage gave me pain in my stomach. It was only in the course of the years that my self-confidence grew!”

“There was never a moment in my life when I realized I had a talent for composing”, Nurit continues. “I just did it. It has been with me for as long as I can remember… I published my first song in 1962, while I was still in the army.” Nurit’s real breakthrough as a composer came in 1965 with the song ‘Perach halilach’, which she wrote for Chava Alberstein. With this song, Alberstein was catapulted to the top of Israeli entertainment as a folk artist. “Chava and I first met in ’64, when she performed some of her songs in the Hammam Art Club in Jaffa, where I occasionally worked as a pianist. She was a little girl with a guitar, a couple of years younger than me. I decided to write her a song: ‘Perach halilach’. The lyrics were by Uri Asaf. It was an instant success and a pivotal moment in the careers of Chava and me. Everybody in Israel knows the song… many people say ‘Perach halilach’ is my best composition. From that moment onwards, I was considered as one of Israel’s leading composers of light entertainment and pop music. Israel is a country of machos… for me as a young woman it was not always easy to be accepted in the music business as a composer, but I did it! I was taken seriously, as people realized I was good at what I did, composing and arranging my own work.”

Since the early 1960s, Nurit Hirsh has built up a repertoire of over 1,000 songs. Some of her best-known work from the 1960s includes ‘Rega lifney’ for Edna Lev, ‘Hachaziki lanu etsba’ot’ for Ron Eliran, and ‘Itach bildayich’ for Yehaoram Gaon. She also worked with the likes of Offira Gluska, Hedva Amrani, Shaike Levi, and the trio Shlishiyat Gesher Hayarkon. In 1969, two of Nurit’s compositions were admitted to the final of the Israel Song Festival (Festival Hazemer ve Ha’pizmon), both of which were to become classics in their own right: ‘Baderech chazara’, interpreted by Avi Toledano and ‘Ose shalom bimromav’, which was performed by Yigal Bashan. The former song, which was later recorded in Spanish by Raphael Martos, was a considerable chart success, but ‘Ose shalom’ has over the decades won a status which Nurit could never have envisaged when she composed it.

Nurit about ‘Ose shalom’: “I took the words from the Kaddish, one of the most important prayers for Jews. At burials, we bless the dead with this Aramaic prayer. Everyone with a Jewish background all over the world knows the words. My music to the words became so popular, that it was adopted to the repertoire of synagogue services, not just in Israel, but in the USA and all over the world. Nowadays, many people believe it is an ancient folk song. It makes me very proud that it is sung in synagogues from Tel Aviv to as far away as Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. Recently, I discovered it had even been performed at a special occasion in the Kremlin in Moscow. I freaked out when I discovered that… I mean, in Russia – they are not even Jewish! Without a doubt, it is the most important song I wrote in my life. Although I am secular, I feel very Jewish inside. I believe it is of the utmost importance that our children and grand-children learn about the history and the spirit of the Jewish people. With ‘Ose shalom’, I feel I have contributed in my own way to preserving this Jewish heritage.”

Towards the end of the 1960s, Nurit built up a tight working relationship with the hugely popular singing duo Ilan & Ilanit. Ilan was the stage name of none other than Shlomo Zach, destined to become Israel’s most important music producer. Among Nurit’s first compositions for the duo are ‘Beikvotaich’ and ‘Bein shnei levavot’. In 1970, Ilanit participated in the Israel Song Festival with a song written by Nurit, ‘Ahavata shel Tereza Dimon’, finishing second. Another chart success which Hirsh penned for them as a duo, ‘Bashana haba’ah’, was released internationally in the USA as ‘Next year’ and in West Germany as ‘Dieses Jahr, dieses Jahr’. In 1971, Nurit conducted the orchestra as Ilan & Ilanit represented Israel at the Athens Song Festival in Greece with ‘Veshuv itchem’, which finished third and was the audience’s favourite.

At the piano with Ilanit, 1970s

From 1972 onwards, Ilanit pursued a solo career. With Nurit Hirsh as her composer, arranger, and conductor, she did not just participate in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest (see below), but also in the 1974 World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo (Japan) with ‘Shiru shir lashemesh’, which reached the finals and came ninth; at this occasion, Hirsh was awarded with an Outstanding Composition Award. In 1973, Nurit and Ilanit travelled to Brazil to deliver a special guest performance at the Open Air Song Festival in Rio de Janeiro; there, Ilanit performed ‘Bashana haba’ah’ and ‘Ahavata shel Tereza Dimon’ with Nurit conducting the orchestra. In the 1970s, Hirsh wrote some of Ilanit’s most remarkable solo successes, such as ‘Kvar acharai chatzot’. In later years, the special relationship between singer and composer was borne out by more hit songs, including ‘El haderech’, ‘Hine yamim ba’im’, ‘Lalechet shevi acharayich’, and ‘Nechama’.

As Nurit Hirsh, to use her own words, “loved the zest of competing” at that time, she participated in many festivals in Israel and abroad in the course of the 1970s. In 1971 alone, she represented Israel in three international song competitions: apart from her appearance in Athens with Ilan & Ilanit, she took part in the Split Song Festival (Yugoslavia) with ‘Na’ari bayam beito’, performed by Edna Goren and, in a Serbo-Croatian version (‘Moren plovi dragi tvoj’), by Ibrica Jusić; and in the Viña del Mar Song Festival in Chile, where she obtained the second prize with ‘Hora nova’ performed by Aliza Azikri; for the last-mentioned performance, Hirsh conducted the orchestra herself. In 1979, Nurit came second again, this time in the Castlebar Song Festival (Ireland) with ‘I want to tell the world about you’, which was interpreted by a local singer; in this contest, Hirsh was awarded with the medal for best arrangement in the competition.

Conducting an orchestra in a TV performance, c1975

Throughout her career, Nurit Hirsh has been particularly active as a composer of music for children, most prominently in the IBA Children’s Festival, which she won on three occasions: with Edna Lev and ‘Lassie shuvi habaita’ in 1976, and twice with Yardena Arazi, who interpreted ‘Shuvi harmonica’ in 1984 and ‘Lo na’atsor’ in 1985. Moreover, two of her compositions came first in Festigal, an alternative annual children’s song event held during the Hanukkah vacation time. Internationally, Nurit obtained first prizes in the 1972 Malta Children’s Song Festival with ‘Makhela Aliza’, and in the 1979 Portuguese Children’s Song Festival with ‘Papa Popeye’. More recently, from 2006 onwards, Hirsh has come up with a cycle of song material which has become part of the curriculum of over 2,000 primary schools across Israel. “A programme was developed at the request of our Ministry of Education”, she explains. “Through my compositions, children learn about history, literature, and of course music. I even wrote a song about the Israeli alphabet to help the young children mastering it. At the end of the school year, I visit many schools around the country for end-of-the-year concerts. It is very rewarding to work with those youngsters, conveying them my message in a playful way, through music. Once again, the feeling that I can make a contribution to the future of my people and my country by educating children about Jewish history and Eretz Israel is most important to me.”

Back to the 1970s, a decade in which Nurit Hirsh penned songs for all important Israeli popular vocalists, including the likes of Shlomo Artzi, Miri Aloni, Chocolata-Menta-Mastik, Hakol Over Habibi, Lior Yeini, Ron Eliran, and Ehud Manor’s wife Ofra Fuchs. Her compositions included the hit songs ‘Balada lashoter’ for Oshik Lavi, ‘Ben yafe nolad’ for Rivka Zohar, and ‘Layla tov le’ahava’ for Yehoram Gaon. In 1975, Nurit took a break from her regular working activities in Israel, spending a year in Los Angeles, United States, to study avant-garde and electronic music.

Nurit in the studio with close harmony group Hakol Over Habibi, early 1980s

Meanwhile, Hirsh had also started making her mark as a soundtrack composer: “In ’65, a film director knocked on my door. After having heard ‘Perach halilach’, my song for Chava Alberstein, he decided, without knowing me at all, that I was the right person to write the music to a half-hour publicity film of his. Though I protested I had never written a soundtrack in my life, he would have nothing of it… and I got this commission. True, it was not a film which made headlines, but it gave me the confidence to work in the movie business later onwards.” Between 1970 and 1997, Nurit composed and arranged the soundtracks to fourteen Israeli motion pictures, most prominently the Academy Award nominee ‘Ha-shoter azulai-The Policeman’ (1972) by director Ephraim Kishon. Later onwards, Hirsh scored another of Kishon’s films, ‘The Fox in the Chicken Coop’ (1978), as well as titles such as ‘Lupo’ (1970), ‘Imi ha-generalit’ (1980), and ‘Ha-bachur shel shuli’ (1997).

In the 1980s, the music business changed. “It was the time when synthesizers and computers took the place of arrangers and big orchestras”, Nurit acknowledges. “The business changed forever. Nowadays, anyone can sit at home, writing and producing his own music without needing an arranger, let alone an orchestra. I cannot say that I am sad about it… it is just a different approach. To me, it does not really matter how music is being made, as long as it is good. As a consequence of these developments, I have not worked with big orchestras for a very long time now. But still, in the last movie I worked on, and for which I had a very limited budget available, I decided to spend this money on five musicians to play the soundtrack… it was not even about credibility for me: I just want to be satisfied about my work, preferring to have real instruments and genuine musicians to play the orchestrations – even when it costs me money.”

Nurit was responsible for some major 1980s hits in Israel, including ‘Ata li eretz’ for Yardena Arazi, ‘Chelkat elohim’ for Rivka Zohar, ‘Bapardes leyad hashoket’ by Yehoram Gaon, and ‘Tni li yad’ for Boaz Sharabi. Moreover, material penned by her was recorded by the likes of Ofra Haza, Doron Mazar, Ilana Avital, and Aviva Hed. Later onwards, Hirsh also worked with up and coming stars such as Dafna Dekel and Sarit Hadad, but, in fairness, from the 1990s onwards, she has focused on other projects than writing for Israeli pop stars.

Nurit Hirsh composed the signature melodies and background music to many radio and television programmes, most prominently the Israeli news bulletin ‘Erev chadash’, but also to entertainment programmes such as ‘Krovim krovim’ and Ephraim Kishon’s ‘Sara & Ephraim’, as well as to the children’s series ‘Parpar nechmad’ and ‘Habayit shel fistuk’. Furthermore, in the world of theatre, Nurit composed, arranged, and conducted several musical productions for the Habima National Theatre in Tel Aviv, of which Ephraim Kishon’s ‘Sallach shabati’, which ran for three consecutive seasons (1988-’90), was most successful. Moreover, she wrote the music to the theatre pieces such as ‘Not a word to Morgenstern’ by Ephraim Kishon, ‘Azit’ by General Motta Gur, as well as several children’s stage shows.

Nurit Hirsh with author, screenwriter, dramatist, and film director Ephraim Kishon (1924-2005)

Recognized as one of Israel’s most prolific musicians, Nurit Hirsh was invited on many occasions to perform abroad. In 2000, she gave a concert in Buenos Aires (Argentina) with her daughter, soprano Ruth Rosenfeld. In September of that same year, Nurit and Ruth travelled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on a tour sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2004, Hirsh paid a visit to the World War II death camp sites in Poland and performed in Cracow for an audience of a thousand Israeli students. On several occasions, she crossed the Atlantic to work in the United States, playing her music for Jewish congregations across the nation. In 2011, at the invitation of the Jewish community in California, she gave a lecture about Israeli music in Los Angeles. Around the same time, she again did a tour in South America, making stage appearances in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

In Israel, Nurit continues to compose and do some forty to fifty concerts a year, playing the piano and performing with different vocalists and vocal ensembles. In 2000, a special tribute concert in honour of Nurit was organized at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, packed to capacity with 3,000 spectators, and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra providing the accompaniment. Moreover, she performed in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 2005. “Over the last years”, Nurit comments, “besides my work as a performer and composer, I am also trying to enjoy some leisure time, reading books and going on holiday now and again. Performing my work on stage, however, is still something which I love doing. There is this special programme centring on my songs, which I perform with an excellent group consisting young talented singers-actors and musicians. We have taken it all over the country, but also abroad.”

On stage with one of the Army Entertainment Groups, c2010

Nurit’s oeuvre was published in six song books which include music and lyrics. She received several awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting of the Israeli Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ACUM) in 2001, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University in 2006, and, in that same year, the Woman of the Year Award from the Lions Club Israel.

Nurit Hirsh in the Eurovision Song Contest
After the Israeli broadcaster IBA had been late in submitting its application for the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest, Israel finally made its debut in the competition one year later, when the festival was held in Luxembourg. Choosing to play the safe card, it was decided upon to pick one of the country’s most popular female singers of the moment, Ilanit, to do the honours. Lyricist Ehud Manor (1941-2005) and composer Nurit Hirsh were requested to write a suitable song. “We really wrote it for the occasion”, Nurit recalls. “Ehud Manor was a great personality to work with, a guy full of charisma. He came up with the words, entitled ‘Ey-sham’, which translates as ‘somewhere’. Upon that, I composed the melody and wrote the arrangement. Occasionally, it is good to say to musicians: ‘Be creative’, but not in a Eurovision Song Contest! I did not want to leave anything to chance. I wrote the scores for every single instrument.”

Nurit and Ilanit during rehearsals in Luxembourg: Eurovision Song Contest 1973

In Luxembourg, it was Nurit Hirsh herself to conduct the orchestra during Ilanit’s performance of ‘Ey-sham’. The 1973 contest was the first Eurovision edition which saw a woman conducting the orchestra – in fact, two women, as Sweden happened to have a female conductor too, Monica Dominique. Nurit: “I realized that it was special, but I was prepared for that, as I had already conducted at festivals in places as far away as Greece and Brazil. I always was the only woman amongst the orchestra leaders. Especially in Greece, with this macho culture, I was considered as a kind of novelty. On the other hand, I could use it to my advantage… simply, by being a woman, looking these guys in the orchestra straight in the face and telling them exactly what I wanted. I am not a conductor by profession, but during my student days I had mastered the basic techniques… which I used to my advantage later, because I insisted on conducting my own compositions and arrangements in international festivals. To my mind, I was the only person who should do it, as I always want a perfect rendition and I completely trust myself! I am a perfectionist… for example, when I first wrote an arrangement which included a harp, I took private lessons with a harpist to learn about the peculiarities of this instrument.”

Just one year after the massacre at the Munich Summer Olympics, going abroad to represent Israel in any competition was an affair which involved major security measures. Hirsh: “Ilanit and I were accompanied by armed guards – tall, rectangular guys. They reminded me most of refrigerators! Moreover, there were local policemen with motorcycles accompanying us from the hotel to the auditorium and back. At that time, it was necessary to have all these precautions; in Israel, Arabs even put bombs in garbage cans to kill Israelis. You cannot imagine the amount of tension which we felt back then when going abroad. Ilanit was more relaxed under the circumstances than I was… Ilanit always was cool. She even took a quick nap shortly before the live broadcast, while my hands were shaking when I tried to button my pink blouse. In Israel, there is a myth which has persisted until this day: people believe Ilanit was wearing a bullet-proof vest under her dress to protect her from a terrorist attack… but this is simply not true. Before we went on stage, Ilanit and I simply prayed that we would be alive after this… and that was it! During the performance, I forgot about what could happen to us and I returned to being my normal self, who is always excited to play and to perform in front of an audience, trying to transmit my energy to the other musicians.”

Nurit Hirsh conducting the orchestra in rehearsal in Luxembourg, Eurovision 1973. While Ilanit is performing ‘Ey-sham’, one of the Israeli armed guards is cautiously keeping an eye on what goes on behind the camera. In the orchestra, pianist Jean Roderes can be detected

The Israeli entry, which was performed last of all seventeen songs participating in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, finished fourth, all the more respectable when taking a look at the podium, consisting of Anne-Marie David with ‘Tu te reconnaîtras’
(Luxembourg), Mocedades with ‘Eres tú’ (Spain), and Cliff Richard with ‘Power to all our friends’ (United Kingdom). “Reaching the fourth spot behind those three was an honour”, Nurit smiles. “My favourite melody was ‘Eres tú’, a beautiful hymn. In truth, we never aimed at winning in Luxembourg. Especially as it was the first time Israel took part in the contest, we were there to do well for our country’s sake. I was not thinking of my own success at that moment. We wanted to perform well and make our compatriots proud. During our performance, the streets in Israel were empty. People all over the country were glued to their TV sets, as they felt it was a special moment for Israel.”

Nurit Hirsh conducting the first-ever Israeli entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, her own composition ‘Ey-sham’, which was performed by Ilanit (1973)

Five years later, in 1978, Israel was again represented in the festival by a song composed, arranged and conducted by Nurit Hirsh; what was more, this song, the disco-esque ‘Abanibi’, performed by Izhar Cohen and The Alpha Beta, turned out to be the runaway winner of that year’s edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Paris – the first winning Israeli entry ever. Remarkably enough, and quite opposite to ‘Ey-sham’ in ’73, ‘Abanibi’ was not a song which had been written with Eurovision in mind. Hirsh explains: “As so often over the years, I again teamed up with Ehud Manor. We brought out the best in each other, writing dozens of songs together. He was a person always full of original ideas… at one point, he said to me: ‘Nurit, I have a great plan. Let’s participate in the IBA Children’s Song Festival with a song in the Bet-Language!’ The Bet-Language or B-Language was an alternative version of Hebrew which children used as a game. They reduplicated each syllable by repeating it with a letter ‘b’ leading it. They spoke it so fast that they were able to hold secret conversations amongst each other which their parents could not understand. Of course, it was a wonderful idea! We put the song together over the phone. I wanted the title to be the Bet-Language equivalent of ‘I love you’, so the chorus became: ‘A-ba-ni-bi o-bo-he-bev / A-ba-ni-bi o-bo-he-bev o-bo-ta-bach’. These words were actually my invention, while the original idea was Ehud’s! Upon that, I composed the music to the chorus. Then I asked Ehud to give me the words to the first verse, to which I added the music. All along we wanted it to be a happy tune for children to sing along to. Nonetheless, given the theme of the song, I thought we needed a more romantic and slower part as well. So I composed a romantic interlude and then Ehud wrote the lyrics needed for this bit: ‘Love is a beautiful word, it is a wondrous prayer, it is a language’. I fitted this bit in the middle of the song.”

“When the song was ready”, Hirsh continues, “we made a demo with five of the musicians with whom I usually worked in the studio and a random singer who happened to be available at that time: Izhar Cohen! Izhar, who was a household name in Israeli showbiz already at that time, was a friend of both Ehud and me. When we had done the demo, however, all of us thought that this song was too good for a children’s festival! Only at that point, we decided that the Israeli Eurovision preliminaries were a better option. As Izhar had been such a perfect interpreter on the demo, we decided to keep him as our singer. When the song was chosen for the selection programme in Israel, I picked five young vocalists to back-up Izhar… we coined them the ‘Alpha Beta’. During the preparations of the pre-selection in Tel Aviv, I gave the IBA production team a hard time, as I insisted on the Selina String Ensemble synthesizer in the orchestra. I had first heard this musical instrument in the Bee Gees soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” and was enchanted by its special sound. Since I felt this particular synthesizer was essential for the unusual sound I wanted to create in ‘Abanibi’, I even threatened to withdraw from the competition if I was not provided with one. Wow, I was very tough! The IBA crew were desperate, because where in Israel could they find this instrument? In the end, they found out about a local musician who had one in his studio and hired it from him. The rest is history: we won the competition in Tel Aviv and went on to represent Israel in Paris!”

Whereas the orchestra for the preliminaries in Israel for all entries was conducted by Yitzhak Graziani throughout the 1970s, this veritable maestro never accompanied an Israeli entrant to the international contest. In Paris, 1978, Nurit Hirsh once again took charge of the orchestra for the song which she had composed and arranged herself. “It was great to have that big orchestra there in a festival”, Nurit says. “Even with an upbeat disco song like ‘Abanibi’! To have electronic music is fine in a discotheque, but, to my mind, a live orchestra with strings and brass will always be the heart of music. For ‘Abanibi’, I did not only write the score for every instrument, but I also worked on the choreography of Izhar and his backings! From my thirteenth year onwards, and especially during my days in the Army Entertainment Group, I had been dancing in many different styles, so I was aware that delivering a performance was not about the vocals only, but just as much about movement. Together with a professional choreographer, I put together a suitable choreography for the stage performance in Paris. Working with the French orchestra proved very easy.”

Nurit Hirsh conducting the orchestra to her Eurovision winner ‘Abanibi’ for Izhar Cohen & The Alpha-Beta: Paris, 1978

On the day of the contest, just after the final rehearsal, it dawned to Nurit that her song was one of the favourites to win the festival: “After the dress rehearsal, I heard people whispering that we had a chance. Immediately, music publishers from all over Europe thronged around me and Ehud, the songwriters, as they were eager to do a deal with us about publishing the song in their countries. Now you have to know that Ehud, who was always busy studying or working on some project, had only come to Paris because I had begged him to… In Luxembourg, he had not been there, and I thought he should be with the rest of us as part of the team. In the end, he decided to do me the favour. He strolled around the congress centre in Paris in sandals, looking casual. He did not think of winning, let alone about making money. So of course Ehud, confronted with all these business-like types, said: “I do not want anything to do with all of this! I understand nothing of it!” There I was, with as little knowledge about music publishing as Ehud – after all, I was just a composer – but I sat myself down on this thick carpet of the congress hall’s foyer, crossing my legs to a lotus position. I must have looked like a hippie! One by one, these publishing guys offered me contracts. Although I was completely new to this business, I instinctively understood what to do. In a game of bargaining, I did what I could to get a maximum percentage of the money the record would make. I must have signed my name dozens of times that afternoon! When contracts were in English, I could check them before putting my signature under it… if they were in another language, however, I just had to trust the person with whom I was doing a deal.”

Signing all these contracts gave Nurit a degree of self-confidence: “All of these men thought we were a potential winner! Money is just money, and even at that time, although I was still quite young, I was fairly level-headed about that. As in Luxembourg, the main concern for Izhar and me was to bring honour to Israel. During the big night and the voting, I did not feel nervous at all. As usual when it really mattered, Izhar’s delivery was brilliant. We turned out to be the runaway winners, but I remember we remained quite down-to-earth – except for Izhar, who went crazy. In a way, though, the success was too much for me at that time, as it was for Izhar. I decided to persist in my original idea to spend a holiday in the United States with a friend and catch a flight from Paris straight to Los Angeles. Funnily, Ehud did a similar thing. He went to Cambridge to finish his thesis in English literature. Izhar returned to Israel and was received as a god at the airport in Tel Aviv – an honour he definitely deserved!”

The Israeli delegation celebrating the Eurovision victory in Paris: kneeling in the middle, from left to right: lyricist Ehud Manor, lead vocalist Izhar Cohen, and Nurit Hirsh. Behind them, Izhar’s backing group, the Alpha-Beta

Did winning the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest change Nurit’s life? “No, in a way Eurovision was just another competition. In the 1970s, I participated in song festivals around the world and I was used to winning prizes. Of course, Eurovision was a very important competition. Winning the contest was nice, but I simply kept on working as a songwriter in Israel. As for ‘Abanibi’, I like it a lot, but I do not think of it as my most impressive composition. It is what it was meant to be: a catchy, folkloristic tune. Of all my songs, I would rather pick ‘Ose shalom’, which is now sung in synagogues across the globe. ‘Abanibi’ should be compared to whipped cream over a cake…while ‘Ose shalom’, on the other hand, is about the Jewish spirit which I also feel inside of me… in other words, a song which provokes far more profound emotions!”

Over the years, many cover versions of ‘Abanibi’ were recorded by artists such as Rika Zaraï and Connie Francis. Eurovision icons such as Jahn Teigen (Norway) and Jørgen Ingman (Denmark) also created their own version of it. Nurit’s preferred version, though, is from Taiwan: “A guy named Harlem-Yu, who is a famous singer and actor there, recorded a very modern, powerful version in Chinese. Some years ago, Israelis who spent their holiday in China, told me they had heard it. As Israel does not have a mutual copyright agreement with either China or Taiwan, I did not receive any royalties for this version. The song sold so well in the Far East, that it was recorded in other languages as well. In Thailand, it was even included in a movie. What I am very proud of is that, as far as I know, for none of the cover versions a new arrangement was written. Apparently, producers believed my arrangement was so good it did not require adaptation!”

Nurit with Izhar Cohen, c2000

After 1978, Hirsh did not feel the particular urge to try her hand at the Eurovision Song Contest again. “I am much different… participating in a Eurovision Song Contest is not challenge anymore, especially after winning first place. It is in my character to rather move on and work on new, exciting projects”.

Other artists on Nurit Hirsh
Songwriter and friend Kobi Oshrat: “Nurit and I met for the first time when we served in the entertainment groups of the Israeli army. She had just started writing music then and, coincidentally, I sang one of her melodies with my group. Later onwards, she wrote many great hits with lyricist Ehud Manor, including Israel’s first Eurovision entry, ‘Ey-sham’. Nurit Hirsh is one of the finest composers in Israeli music and among the creators of the soundtrack of our country.” (2012)

Having a good time with colleague and friend Kobi Oshrat, c2010

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Nurit Hirsh in Tel Aviv, December 2011. Many thanks to Nurit for providing us with minute information about her international festival participations.
  • Many thanks to Amir Herschkovitsch for doing some valuable research in Israeli popular music history.
  • All photos courtesy of Nurit Hirsh.



Songs conducted
1973: Ey-sham
1978: Abanibi