The biggest Israeli musical icon you’ve probably never heard of is coming to town.
On April 26, singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi, hands-down the most popular musician in Israel, will arrive here for a one-night-only performance at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The concert, one of the highlights of the Israeli American Council’s Israel Independence Day celebrations in New York, will benefit ORT, an international Jewish education and vocational training nonprofit that provides programs for underprivileged children in 37 countries.
Artzi hasn’t toured the U.S. since 2007, and his rare visits create something of a feeding frenzy among Israeli Americans. Yediot America, the New York-based Hebrew newspaper, reported that hundreds of Israelis from Los Angeles and Miami, as well as Canada and Israel, were flying in for next week’s show. Most of the 5,500 seats have already been sold, with the remaining going for as much as $400. The prices have spurred a mini-protest movement: Last September, the Israeli news site themarker.co.il reported that a Facebook group titled (in Hebrew) “Shlomo Artzi Don’t You Think You’re Exaggerating?” with over 400 Israeli-American followers was urging Artzi’s production company to lower ticket prices.
Despite their disgruntled epithet, group members appear driven by honest adoration. “Shlomo, I grew up on your music. You are the soundtrack to my life,” one New York expat posted in Hebrew. “To hear, in the midst of all this estrangement and loneliness and distance from home, that you will be just a subway ride away … I only wish I could afford it.” ORT told themarker.com that pricing was a derivative of production costs and that Artzi himself has nothing to do with it; ultimately, special discounts were made available.
With a career spanning four decades and over 1.5 million albums sold, Artzi, 68, enjoys an unparalleled status among Israeli musicians. A 2012 survey, conducted by the popular Israeli news site Mako.co.il, named him “the singer of the state [of Israel].”
Born to Holocaust survivors, the son of Knesset member Yitzhak Artzi, Artzi served as a combat soldier in the Artillery Corps and later became a star of the Navy army band. His performance in Israel’s 1970s national song festival — which took place during a euphoric stretch between Israel’s Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars — propelled him to instant stardom, making him one of the country’s first pop icons. His popularity dipped in the mid-’70s, along with the national mood, but rose again in the ’80s and his popularity continues today. While centered on personal stories, his songs are interlinked with the story of his country and its people, and they have become the soundtrack of Israeli history. “Yesterday was good, and so will [be] tomorrow,” the bridge of his famous 1992 song “Yareakh” (Moon), became the impromptu anthem for Israel’s 2011 social justice movement. Even his last name — “my country” in Hebrew — fits the bill. “He has become not only a singer in the heart of Israeli consensus, but one of its favorite personas of all times,” writes Mako. “[He] has positioned himself as the embodiment of Israeli statehood. … The brand ‘Shlomo Artzi’ has become synonymous with the brand ‘Israeli.’”
But has Artzi’s remarkable symbiosis with Israel hurt his career outside the country? Asaf Avidan, Idan Raichel, David Broza and The Balkan Beat Box lead the top-10 lists of Israeli pop singers who have made it abroad, in the U.S. or elsewhere; Artzi, Israel’s No. 1, doesn’t even appear among the top 20. Outside the circle of Israeli expats and some Israel aficionados, he is little known.
Artzi offered an explanation via email, translated from Hebrew: “To develop an international career, an artist would need songs that break [cultural] barriers, in languages like English or French. I just never worked on that. … I admit singing for the 8 million residents of Israel plus the Israelis and Jews living abroad was enough for me.
“I very much live my life in Israel,” Artzi continued. “Popping over to America for a concert is a big project that takes a lot of organizing and energy, so I think that’s why it’s rare.”
The reason he was leaving his comfort zone now, he added, was to support ORT. “The profits will go to empower and encourage teenagers that need help … That’s a mission that felt important to me.”