A Night to Remember
Thirty years ago, Barbra and Golda made nice in prime time
On May 13th, a marquee gathering began in Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s sixtieth anniversary. Over three days, political leaders and writers including Henry Kissinger, Bernard Henri-Levi, Amos Oz, and President George W. Bush made speeches, and symposia on weighty topics, ranging from the scientific foundation of creation to the nature of Jewish identity, were held. Also this month, in New York and Los Angeles, live concerts featuring Matisyahu, David Broza, and Paul Shaffer marked the occasion. In Times Square, videos featuring stars such as Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, and Dakota Fanning wishing Israel a happy birthday are appearing on two giant screens twice every hour. And on June 1, New York’s annual Salute to Israel parade will offer birthday wishes, as will yet another concert—this one on the Mall in Washington, D.C., hosted by Mandy Patinkin and featuring Regina Spektor.
But while the cable news channels are broadcasting the speeches of international dignitaries in Israel, and PBS stations will have some specialty programming—New York’s WNET will show Visions of Israel, an aerial tour of the country—the big networks are pretty much avoiding the occasion. Typical of the cable coverage: CNBC packaged a series of reports on the Jewish State under the banner “Israel at 60: Business Under Fire”; CNN International, for its part, ran Israel at 60, which showcased the country’s technological achievements, its ethnic mix, and its struggle “for acceptance and peace with its neighbors.”
All this is well and good, but certainly a far cry from the thirtieth-anniversary celebration that ABC broadcast—in prime time—on Monday, May 8, 1978, and simulcast in Israel. The two-hour extravaganza, The Stars Salute Israel at 30, featured icons of the day: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carol Burnett, Sammy Davis Jr., Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, Billie Jean King, Barry Manilow, Paul Newman, Bernadette Peters, and more. Sally Struthers of All in the Family cheerfully sang “Happy Birthday Israel” with a group of children. Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz on ABC’s number one sitcom, Happy Days, was paired with Henry Fonda in an unlikely skit: a sabra (Winkler) encountering an Old West cowboy (Fonda) in the desert.
Yet this was mere prelude to the big finish: Barbra Streisand. With a big head of era-appropriate permed hair, she first sang three standards (“Tomorrow,” “People,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again”), then conducted a conversation via satellite with Israel’s former prime minister, Golda Meir, who appeared on a gigantic video screen, holding a clunky telephone receiver, gracefully answering Streisand’s fawning questions. (“How did you manage all these years to have so much energy? Did you take vitamins?”) After the chat came the pièce de résistance: Streisand singing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. Introducing the song, whose title means “the hope,” Streisand said, “Let us light candles on both sides of the world in the hope that people everywhere will be inspired to work for peace and love and the betterment of all men.” Attendees in Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion held aloft light sticks as their counterparts in Israel raised candles. No fewer than 18.7 million American households tuned in. Now Streisand’s performance is enjoying a second life: More than 366,000 people have watched it on YouTube since it was posted in 2006.
Streisand had been scheduled to sing at the festivities in Israel this year, but in late April she backed out, citing “personal obligations.” If she had made it to Israel this time around, it’s unlikely that as many people would have seen her appearance as back in a time when network TV really meant something—when shows in the top twenty attracted at least fifteen million viewers. (These days a show can reach the number twenty spot with just eleven million viewers.)
Two months before the thirtieth anniversary, Israel had suffered its deadliest terrorist attack. Palestinian terrorists who came by boat from Lebanon killed thirty-five Israeli civilians. Israel responded by invading Lebanon, a weeklong incursion that ended when the United Nations Security Council mandated Israel’s withdrawal and the posting of UN troops.
But this was also, as Streisand said, a historical moment of hope: six months earlier Sadat had traveled to Jerusalem, raising the possibility of lasting peace. And two years prior, Israel had succeeded in rescuing all but three of 105 hostages from a hijacked Air France plane in Entebbe, Uganda—a daring raid that became the subject of two made-for-TV movies, one of which appeared on ABC. The chief and founder of ABC, Leonard Goldenson, was an outspoken advocate of Israel (according to one account, when he showed up unannounced at Golda Meir’s doorstep in the 1960s, she thanked him for his devotion to the nation and invited him in), so it’s no surprise he greenlighted the thirtieth-anniversary spectacular. ABC also had a proclivity for quirky programming, like Battle of the Network Stars, the biannual special in which you could see, say, Scott Baio and Billy Crystal competing in an obstacle course race, with Howard Cosell announcing.
One of the writers of The Stars Salute Israel at 30 was Buz Kohan, who wrote or cowrote dozens of TV award shows and celebrations, as well as a variety program marking Israel’s twenty-fifth anniversary five years earlier, The Stars Salute Israel—25. That program—filmed at the Western Wall, with Alan King hosting—aired on ABC on a Thursday, at 11 p.m. in some markets and 11:30 p.m. in most. It featured performances by Rudolf Nureyev, Isaac Stern and, in one of her final appearances, Josephine Baker. (Because of its late night airtime, its Nielsen ratings aren’t available today.)
Five years later, Israel’s embassy turned to Charles Fishman, a jazz producer who had formerly served as the national director of Young Judaea, for help in planning the thirtieth-anniversary celebration. Fishman had brought Stan Getz to Israel in 1977, a trip filmed for the 1978 documentary Stan Getz: A Musical Odyssey. “How do you break away from the late night television?” Fishman remembers asking himself. “I sat back and said, ‘What would be the hippest thing to do? What would be the biggest star-power thing to do?’”
No other Jewish American performer of the time was as big as Streisand. This was little more than a year after the release of A Star Is Born, which had garnered her an Oscar for the song “Evergreen.” Fishman enlisted producer James Lipton, now famous for Inside the Actors Studio, and director Marty Pasetta, another award-show veteran, and set to work getting Streisand. She was interested, but had her own conditions: She wanted to sing accompanied by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So that’s exactly what she got. And with the strength of Streisand’s name, Fishman and company sold the show to ABC.
In the days before the show aired, Kohan and Mehta went to Streisand’s home to help her prepare. “She wanted to sing ‘Hatikvah,’ only she didn’t know” the song, Kohan recalls. Kohan picked up the phone, called his wife, Rhea, and asked her to sing the song to Streisand. “I hope she’s not intimidated,” Rhea quipped before launching into it.
Streisand’s preparation worked. For the organizers, the result was transcendent. “She was remarkable,” says Kohan. “Everybody was impressed with the last twenty minutes of the show.”
Even with all of this year’s celebrations, including the celebrity testimonials in Times Square, it’s hard to believe that Israel’s birthday was once celebrated with a TV program watched by more than eighteen million Americans. “To this day,” Fishman says, “it’s the only time that a foreign nation has been honored on network TV on prime time.”