Israeli singer blends modern music with ancient Hebrew

Victoria Hanna is a born-and-bred Israeli. But she has a big problem with modern Hebrew.

“I felt my mouth was missing something,” she says of the revived language of contemporary Israel. “It was renewed in such an artificial way.”

That’s why the singer prefers the ancient Hebrew of the Torah. It’s the language she sings in concerts around the world.

Hanna will team up with Ukrainian singer Marjana Sadowska in a concert Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. The show is a production of the Hub, a performing arts wing of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The two will trade off singing songs in their respective ancient tongues. And then some.

“You will hear songs I learned in Ukrainian villages,” Hanna says. “I will also do a kind of rap from the Book of Creation, a primal Kabbalah text. I also composed the prayer you say when you get off the toilet, and I sing a lot of text from the Song of Songs.”

If that sounds like an eclectic program, that’s just as Hanna would have it. She is a bold, in-your-face performer, akin to Bjork, only Israeli.

Hanna, 33, has built an international reputation blending pop, dance and hip-hop with Hebrew passages from Talmud, Torah and other sacred texts.

Why sing in languages that few understand?

“Audiences invite me to go more deeply into the sound of Hebrew as a plastic vibration,” says Hanna. “This is the privilege of not knowing a language — you can hear its character in a deep sense. When I sing to Israelis, they hear the Hebrew from a different place. I use the Hebrew of my grandfather.”

With the upcoming S.F. show, Hanna teams up with a close friend and artistic kindred spirit. Sadowska has long sought to do with Ukrainian folk music what Hanna does with Hebrew.

The two met in Germany four years ago and struck up an immediate friendship. Within days of meeting, they mounted an impromptu duo concert at New York’s La Mama Theater. Both women have extensive theater backgrounds and bring the requisite amount of

theatrical flair to their shows.

The two really bonded after a trip they took together to the Ukrainian countryside. They toured many villages,

most of which still ran on horse and oxen power. But the Sephardic Hanna discovered an ancient Jewish connection there in the woods.

“The energy there was so powerful,” she says. “In the Jewish cemeteries, I could see the people. All the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac B. Singer, I could almost see the Chassidic people walking. What happened there resonated in such a strong way.”

She also recounts coming across an abandoned synagogue, with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” written in Hebrew on the walls.

“I was shivering,” says the Jerusalem native. “All the layers of the past and the present came together. I wanted to be alone with the spirits. So much love came out of my heart. For the first time in my life I felt what it feels to be a Jew.”

In fact, the singer says she finds it more inspiring to be a Jew than an Israeli. “Most Israelis have no clue about what it means to be a Jew,” she adds. “When you don’t feel connected to your roots, what is the reason for being in this country? So you say the Palestinians should have it. But when you open the Bible, you see everything.”

Hanna is busy with other projects, including a piece for voice and orchestra, and another with a Mongolian throat singer. She also has her own band in Israel. But she says she often feels out of place there, artistically and otherwise. “I don’t see a lot of people in Israel with whom I can have a deep dialogue,” she says.

Perhaps that’s why she spends a lot of time touring around the world. Next up, stops in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.

And though any touring Israeli artist may be viewed as a traveling goodwill ambassador of the country, Hanna eschews the title.

“I don’t see myself as a politician or messenger,” she says. “I solve my own conflict as an Israeli-born Jew who lives in a Sephardic Orthodox community, a woman exposed to the modern world and all the amazing things it has to offer. All these contradictions together I try to solve, and it’s reflected in my work.”

Victoria Hanna and Marjana Sadowska appear together in concert 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Swedish American Hall, 2170 Market St., S.F. Tickets: $14-$16. Information: (415) 292-1233 or online at arts@jccsf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.