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Dance Fever

How a vintage Israeli pop song became an international summer camp sensation

Marjorie Ingall
July 06, 2010
Courtesy Wayne Hoffman
Tablet Magazine’s Wayne Hoffman with his Israeli dance troupe Kallil, circa 1986.Courtesy Wayne Hoffman
Courtesy Wayne Hoffman
Tablet Magazine’s Wayne Hoffman with his Israeli dance troupe Kallil, circa 1986.Courtesy Wayne Hoffman

Sun-In! Sea Breeze! Dippity-Do! The comments on my last column, about Jewish summer camp in the 1980s, caused a torrent of memories to come rushing back so powerfully, it was just like the finale of Lost.

In seemingly but not actually unrelated news, I read Anthony Lane’s hilarious piece in the June 28 issue of The New Yorker about the Eurovision Song Contest. Lane made a passing reference to 1978’s winning song, Israel’s “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” and my head exploded.

“A-Ba-Ni-Bi” was huge at my Jewish camp. In rikud (dance), we learned a line dance that went with it, a clapping, snapping, arm-waving number that was the Kova Tembel of dances—a fetishistic, unreal representation of “the real Israel.”

We pretended to roll our eyes at rikud because it was so uncool, but we secretly loved it. It was the 1981 version of the Electric Slide, for the braces-wearing Chosen People of Palmer, Massachusetts. Trying to remember all the steps, I scoured the Internet for “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” references. The only video I could find of the “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” dance was taken at last year’s Toronto Rikudiyah, an Israeli dance festival for children. The steps are exactly the same as they were 30 years ago. Dig dig, dig dig, arm up, arm up, back back back back! It didn’t take long for me to realize the vastness of the song’s cultural import. But for me to explain it to you, you first have to understand the Eurovision Song Contest.

As Lane points out, the contest—a poppy sing-off pitting the continent’s nations against each other in a battle of catchy refrains and silly outfits—was conceived in Switzerland in 1956, “a melodic antidote to the blood-soaked, strictly non-signing calamity that had ended a decade before.” It went on to spawn ABBA, Julio Iglesias, Celine Dion, and Riverdance. It is a stunningly popular, spangly, toothy, cruise-ship-esque entertainment dripping with more cheese than a Carl’s, Jr. double burger.

These days it’s huge, with 200 million viewers worldwide, more than twice the average Super Bowl, but in the 1970s, it was even huger. The audience was 400 million strong.

Why, you may ask, does Israel get to participate despite not being in Europe? Because it’s within the “European Broadcasting Area,” along with a bunch of other Middle Eastern countries, all of which refuse to participate because Israel does.

Despite this boycott (lifted just once, by Morocco, which fielded an entry in 1980—the one year Israel didn’t attend), many Arab countries love to watch the Eurovision. They do not, however, love to watch warbling Jews. In 1978, Jordanian broadcasters cut to commercial during the performance of “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” but they were stumped about what to do when Israel went on to win. They opted to frantically insert a lovely photo of daffodils and announce that Belgium, the second-place finisher, was the winner.

In 1979, by dint of its victory the previous year, Israel got to host the contest. Again, a huge deal. The Israeli entry that year was “Hallelujah,” another Jewish summer camp staple. And Israel won again. As the very entertaining blog Israelity (an arm of Israel 21c, a pro-Israel PR organization) remembers, “It was a great moment in Israeli pop culture history, when we proved to the world we could be a nation like any other, crafting light, catchy Europop ditties, wearing tight outfits and dancing to the disco beat.” And we American kids felt it too—Israel was the underdog, the Little Engine That Could, the rough land full of muscular guys who were way hotter than nebbishy American Jewish boys could ever be.

“A-Ba-Ni-Bi” turned out to be one of the biggest hits in Eurovision history. Lane places it in the grand tradition of winners with internationally radio-friendly nonsense-syllable names, like The Netherlands’ “Ding-a-Dong,” Sweden’s “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley,” and the British “Boom-Bang-A-Bang” (Monty Python mocked this trend with the “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong” song.)

But “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” isn’t actually nonsense; it’s Israeli Pig Latin. (Insert your own Jews-and-pork joke here.) Israeli kids sometimes use S’fat HaBet, or “B language,” inserting the letter bet after each syllable. So A-Ba-Ni-Bi-O-Bo-Heh-Bev-O-Bo-Tah-Bach is actually “Ani Ohev Otach,” I love you.

A quick zip around the web reveals international cover versions. There’s one in “Gao Gao,” a hit 2006 Thai movie about a time-traveling band from the future. (In Thai, it’s “Ai bah Ai bee Ai bo Ai be.”) There’s one from 2008 by the cringe-inducingly named Dutch band Hot Black Stuff. There’s a trance version sung in Spanish that sounds vaguely like a tampon commercial. There’s a version arranged for a marching band. There’s one sung by Spanish star Carlos Baute, who looks like the unholy spawn of Tom Cruise and a Ken doll. There’s an Icelandic version that’s only slightly less terrifying than Eyjafjallajokull.

And, lo and behold, there’s even a new version of our summer-camp line dance! Feast your eyes on a troupe of Singaporean dancers doing completely unfamiliar choreography (the best part is the crazily wheeling arms) to a 2008 surf-guitar version of “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” sung in Mandarin by Taiwanese singer Harlem Yu!

Or hey, maybe you’d prefer the rendition by the Malaysian bridesmaids!

And what of “A-Ba-Ni-Bi”’s original Jewfro’d singer, Izhar Cohen? He still sings and acts in Israel today. Hailing from a famous clan of singers known as the Yemenite Jackson family, he reappeared at Eurovision in 1985, sporting a Jheri curl instead of a Jewfro, singing “Ole Ole,” and placing fifth. “He’s the Israeli Gloria Gaynor,” gushes a friend. Anthony Lane writes about the camp power of Eurovision, and Israel (or at least some of Israel) embraces the aesthetic wholeheartedly. In a 2004 paper called “My Kind of Campfire: The Eurovision Song Contest and Israeli Gay Men” in the journal Popular Communication, Tel Aviv University Professor Dafna Lemish looks at how the contest is a source of delight and empowerment for Israel’s gay community. The paper, Lemish writes, “suggests that the role of the [Eurovision] in the construction of gay identity and consciousness goes well beyond territorial constraints and national borders. As such, it demonstrates the significance and multiplicity of meanings that popular music has in everyday life in general and in perceptions of gender in particular.” (Need I add that we boogying little Americans missed the subtext entirely?)

Though Israel has won the contest one more time, in 1998, thanks to groundbreaking transgender singer Dana International, I wonder how long it’ll be before Israel wins again. The way the Eurovision’s voting works, phone-in viewers and a professional jury split the vote in each country; you can’t vote for your own country. Voting is extremely political. Countries vote for their neighbors and allies, which means Israel often stands alone. In 1978 and 1979, Eurovision analysts felt that Israel won as a reward for the peace talks with Egypt. In 1998, Israel won for showing the world its deeply fabulous liberal face. But in 2010, though the professional jury ranked Israel fifth of the 25 contenders, phone-in voters ranked it 19th. Israel still sang great (at least by pathetic Eurovision standards), but public opinion had turned against it.

So, now what? Is my daughter, off at camp in a cone of silence (Not even a postcard to her poor mother, I’m only saying), dancing to “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” singing “Hallelujah,” falling in love with Israel the way I did back when?

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.