When Israeli singer-songwriter Nathan Slor performs, he looks in the audience for his mother — but never finds her.
That’s not surprising, since his mom — the celebrated Israeli poet Tirza Atar — died 40 years ago when Slor was 5. But when he sings her songs, or those of his grandfather, the late poet-playwright Nathan Alterman, Slor feels like he’s communicating directly with his forebears.
Slor will have a chance to carry on just such a conversation on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, where he and pianist Ofer Bashan will be performing in Hebrew a program of works by Atar and Alterman.
Many of the songs set to lyrics of Atar or Alterman have become multigenerational hits in Israel that are played regularly on the radio and at concerts. Among them are “Ballad About my Boy Who Grew Up,” based on a poem that Atar wrote about her son. The OFJCC program is titled “Yet the Melody Returns,” based on an Alterman poem.
“It’s like a greatest hits show, because in Israel and in the Israeli community in the United States, it’s like the soundtracks of our lives,” Slor told J. from his home in Tel Aviv. “It’s like we’re having a dialogue” with his mother and grandfather. “It’s a way of keeping them in my life.”
Alterman was a major figure in Zionist politics because of his writings, and now is featured on Israel’s 200 shekel note. Two years after he died in 1970, Slor was born and named after him.
Alterman’s daughter, Atar, was a well-known cultural figure in Israel who died in 1977 at age 36, leaving behind two young children. Her death remains a mystery: Did she accidentally fall from an apartment balcony, as family members maintain, or are rumors that she jumped true? In any regard, she purportedly grew up “heavily influenced” by her father’s dark side (he often wrote about death and being prepared to die). In addition to her poetry, she also wrote lyrics for popular songs and was a prolific author of children’s books, including the beloved “The Lion Who Loved Strawberries.”
Slor said it was very difficult growing up with such legacies. When he was studying at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music outside of Tel Aviv, he hid his family connections.
“Every time people approach you and talk to you like a son or a grandson of, it can be really hard and difficult,” he said. “They weren’t musicians and I’m not a poet. I have my own personality and sometimes people forget about it.
“When I was younger, 20 years ago … I really wanted people to treat me like I’m not a son of someone. But now when I’m 45, I can tell you I’m at peace with them.”
Bashan, who is based in New York, said Slor is his best friend. They have done gigs together for years, and Bashan said he can feel his friend looking for his mom in the audience.
“I think that all of the artists, in a way, we see our parents [when we perform],” Bashan said. “I think that art which is complete, which possesses truth, always goes with arrows directly into the heart with no connection to the circumstances.
“Atar and Alterman are these kind of artists. The art is total, it is complete, it possesses absolute truth in it and in that moment it becomes not dependent on time and history.”
Slor’s tour — his first in the U.S. — includes stops in Los Angeles and Chicago. The shows are being presented by the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Diaspora Activities to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Nov. 29, 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine. The Palo Alto show is also being presented by the OFJCC’s Israeli Cultural Connection department.
Both Slor and Bashan write their own music, but in Palo Alto will stick to Alterman and Atar favorites that will be familiar to Israeli expats of any generation in the audience. Slor also will tell audience members anecdotes about his family, the backstory to many of their songs.
“Their legacy and their poems and texts and books and plays are still really interesting to people,” Slor said. “We call it ‘Yet the Melody Returns’ because it’s still here, it never went away.”
Bashan, who went to New York to complete a master’s degree in film scoring and songwriting at NYU, composes a lot of dance music as well as prayers for the Park Avenue Synagogue there.
He said it was hard to choose the program for his tour with Slor because there are so many great songs by his friend’s mother and grandfather.
“We have a good problem, that so many songs became a huge Israeli classic, they really became part of the Israeli culture. These songs were part of my childhood,” Bashan said. “I love art that breaks my heart. Both Alterman and Atar’s songs break my heart.”