Interview with Rona Kenan

Rona Kenan1, the 35-year-old Israeli singer and guitarist, is overwhelmed as she arrives at our appointment. These last days, she has been the objet of a series of insults and death threats on Facebook because of her public position on the subject of peace, combined with misinformation about her. The morning of the day of the interview, there was an overflow. She tells us her mother is worried.2

Your mother is worried. Here we are, already, on topic…

I think that the choice of the word “worry” is precise. When I speak of my mother, this word hits the bull’s-eye. Worry is one of the pillars of my relation with her. This bond between us, which is not necessarily spoken, is very profound and it implies a certain fragility.

Fragility?

Her worry for me returns to me in the form of worrying about her. Mutually, we consider one another as fine china that must be treated with precaution. At the same time, in the situations such as what I am currently living, the mother remains the only place where one can come and reside. In these moments, she transforms into a lioness saying: “Enough! We are going to press charges!”

And of course, the question of my own motherhood is folded up in my relations with her. The theme of the multiples possibilities of parenthood which introduce a certain confusion, which interest you as analysts, preoccupy me. But all of this is, for the moment, only on the level of a question that I ask myself, a question situated in the unspoken depths of my relation with my mother.

Is there a memory of your mother that has marked you?

I remember I would awaken every night after dreaming. She would put me on the mattress next to her and turn on the “noise machine”. It was a machine that emitted a regular sound, like a broken television. In this way it drowned out the external noises that prevented one from sleeping. I grew accustomed to this white noise. For me, this was silence. These machines called Pink noise machine were made in the 80s. Recently, I obtained one via eBay and I use it.

Perhaps it is not unrelated with your choice of profession…

It is probable. But also, the first dream I remember, one that precedes language, is a dream of sounds and textures, a high pitched chirping and something rugged. It’s very abstract. This dream repeats, and in my opinion before the age of three.

Have you written songs about your mother?

About my father3 instead, at a precise moment. When he was already very sick, when my mother began writing a book about him, it was as though there was an urgency to do it. This entirely private book4 became a bestseller. It starts in his childhood and ends once he had lived in Paris, including his participation in the 1948 Israeli independence war, and other events: Dir Yassin, the bomb placed in the house of the Minister of transportation with friends, etc.

So what your father is for you passes through the recounting by your mother?

It’s exactly that! And my album “Songs for Joel” could be considered as the soundtrack of this book. It was inspired by the stories brought up by my mother during its writing, notably, some things we never knew. There was urgency in the creation of this album; I was unable to stop myself.

How do you understand your mother’s initiative to write this book?

My mother is a literary researcher. She always wrote of theory, apart from two occasions, when she wrote tales. The first time, when my maternal grandmother became 80, and we needed to find a way to keep her alive. And so she tasked her with a “mission”, that of writing a diary entry every day. She also went traveling with her. During this time, the two wrote a very beautiful book entitled: “Not From Here (El Ma Shenamog)”. In the end, my grandmother died at the age of 102.

Then, when we realized that my father had begun suffering from a kind of dementia after the age of 70, my mother had the same reflex as earlier regarding her own mother. She realized time was running out, that we needed to make my father speak but she would never have created a private work without any public interest, and as the life of my father meets the history of the state of Israel at several crossroads, it became a cultural phenomenon.

In your songs there is a dimension of drama that you cross; perhaps a drama related to your mother’s worry?

The act of writing is in its self a will to go traverse drama. The lyrics of my songs are very important to my mother. She also loves my music. I know that she finds relief from her acute pains when she listens to me singing on the radio. As a child, I already made her listen to my songs every time I wrote a new one.

Usually, it is the mothers that sing to their children in the cradle.

My mother sings so terribly out of tune that it was not a possible option. I didn’t let her sing…

Your desire to sing was constructed out of this flaw…

I am not so sure… In our very matriarchal family constellation, instead my maternal grandmother assumed many of the classical roles of a mother. I was very attached to her in the most physical sense of the word. A member of the Zionist socialistic movement Hashomer hatzair, she was the first of the family to have left Poland to come to the country at the beginning of the last century. It was she who sang and her songs soaked into me. Often, they spoke of sad situations, of abandonment, of orphan children… Without a doubt the uprooting from her native country and immigration left traces of sadness in her songs. Today, I find myself making new versions of them.

An example?

The song “Who is this lamenting in the wind?”5, which you heard the other day when you came to my concert, is one of the most important songs of my childhood. The Israeli poet Ya’acov Orland wrote it and the popular melody is from Yiddish culture. The first phrase of this song is a question: “Who is this lamenting in the wind?” and the rest is a series of possible answers to this question. One terrible verse proposes the following hypothesis: “Maybe it is a child who was born sad, since before he had an unhappy mother and she has left forever.” I remember crying while listening to this verse because of the fear it provoked in me, of the idea of this child whose mother is gone. Later on, when she was older, my grandmother pretended that she had always omitted this part of the song so as not to sadden me. But the fact is she always sang it.

Interview by Patricia Bosquin Caroz and Gil Caroz in Tel-Aviv, on the 28th of July 2014.

Translation to English by Stathis Mergmikis.

[1] http://ronakenan.com/epk/

2 Four days later, we learnt in the press that Rona was obliged to cancel a concert in Haifa in order to protect herself from these threats.

3 Amos Kenan (Israel: 1927-2009): Israeli writer, essayist, screenwriter, painter, and sculptor.

4 Nurith Gertz, Unrepentant (Al Da’at atzmo: Arbaim pirkei haim shel Amos Kenan), Am Oved, 2008.

5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp9kHAReTP0