To see Ania Bukstein perform in a concert is a theatrical experience. Sometimes, the award-winning actress and singer is Marlene Dietrich, standing in front of the mic in an-all white trouser suit, hair slicked back, her voice, eyes and lips oozing sensuality directly into the microphone while singing in a tone barely louder than a whisper.
Other times, the Soviet-born Bukstein plays a demure school girl, sitting at the piano with a white ribbon in her hair, explaining that her bantik is what all first-grade Russian girls would wear on the first day of class back in the USSR. And then she begins belting out her songs, her bare shoulders moving in time as she winks to the audience.
In her everyday incarnation, sitting in a small neighborhood Tel Aviv cafe after spending the early morning dealing with a broken washing machine, Bukstein brims with enthusiasm about her music. “Really, never in my life have I experienced something like this”, she says, her aquamarine eyes sparkling. “It’s more personal. It’s also something new. I adore my work as an actress, it’s very important for me. And now with the music – I’m more excited about it because it is new, and I didn’t expect it to be so well received. People are listening, my songs are played on the radio, and quite often too. It’s a shock,” she says.
In many ways Bukstein’s music, personality and career epitomize the many cultural, religious and political contradictions of modern-day Israel. Born in the Moscow, she moved to Israel and served in the IDF as a singer.
While she is the daughter of two secular scientists, her best-known role so far is that of a devout Orthodox girl who comes to acknowledge her lesbian side.
Although Bukstein, 31, has become a household name through her acting — she has taken part in numerous Israeli films and TV shows, and has most recently starred as Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’ in Tel Aviv — her first public foray as a recording artist has been received with critical acclaim.
“Bukstein surprises with her impressive vocal abilities, strong and lucid, with a clear jazz influence,” critic Amos Oren wrote of her over the summer, comparing the singer to Norah Jones.
At a recent concert in Tel Aviv, Bukstein played the piano and sang together with the Israeli jazz legend Shlomo Gronich. All eight of the songs on her eponymous debut album were written and composed by Bukstein herself, who has sung and played the piano since childhood and previously studied song writing.
“I used to write poems when I was very young, when I first came to Israel. I wrote only in Hebrew, it was a way of learning and discovering a language,” she says.
All the songs on her album are sung in Hebrew, though she mixes in English and Russian when live.
Much of the inspiration for Bukstein’s songs is drawn from her move to Tel Aviv from Moscow at age 7. In conversation, Bukstein weaves in between Russian and English seamlessly, sometimes mid-sentence. Typically, English is reserved for work, Russian for when the topics become more personal.
“We left everything, we sold everything, and we arrived with 800 shekels in our pocket,” Bukstein says. Moving to Israel, she didn’t really understand what was happening to her as she departed in a “giant metal bird,” her first trip on a plane as she describes it in her lyrics, having to leave behind her “goy” cat.
Upon arrival, her parents dispatched Bukstein to live on a kibbutz.
“It was nothing terrible”, she says, “I learned Hebrew very quickly. … My parents were very ambitious, very strong”.
Eventually, Bukstein attended an arts school, where she says, “I could play the piano and where I could connect to myself and do something I was good at.”
While she seems perfectly assimilated to life in Israel, Bukstein’s relationship with her native Russia is more tumultuous.
“I suffered, really suffered,” she says of a trip she took there when she was 25.
Bukstein describes how she cut the visit short by a few days, leaving without her parents. “I hated it, I hated the way my grandmother lived, she was still alive so I saw everything — above all, the way everything was so neglected.”
Today, Bukstein says it’s difficult to imagine what her life might have been like had her parents chosen to stay.
“I feel like Russia is a sad place. I feel like nothing really changed — most of the people are still very poor, and the gaps between the rich and the poor are just unbelievable,” she says. “But still, there are a lot of things I appreciate. The art, Moscow is beautiful. You know, there are a lot of positive things.”
Just four years after arriving in Israel, Bukstein had her first major film role in “Eretz Hadasha” (“New Land”), which earned her a nomination for the Ophir film prize – the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar.
In 2007, she went on to star alongside the French star Fanny Ardant in “The Secrets,” set in the mystical town of Safed. There she played the part of Naomi, a brilliant and headstrong young scholar of Jewish religious law and the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Reluctant to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Naomi meets Michelle, a rebellious Parisian teen, and, in the process of trying to help an older woman who had murdered her husband, the two form a tight bond which turns into love. Naomi grapples with and tries to reconcile her feelings of love and attraction for her friend with religious Judaism, and wider societal pressures.
Bukstein was determined to play this character — despite the director initially wanting her to play the role of the unruly but ultimately more conservative Michelle.
“I read the scenes of both characters and I completely understood that Naomi girl and told the director ‘No ,no you’re making a mistake. This is not me. This is me,'” she recalls.
“I’m also a bit strict, and disciplined, and it’s a big conflict within me”, says Bukstein. “I’m very passionate about things, and I love feelings, but I also work with my brain a lot. So I put myself on a leash — it’s a kind of dialogue I have within me.”
Bukstein explains that for her as an artist, freedom is absolutely essential. “I have a lot of discipline in my work. Everything needs to be just right. It’s not about routine – everything I’m doing I need to do it properly, until the end, as it should be”, she says, slipping into Russian for emphasis on the last part. “My biggest fear is to stay in one place — I must, I must move forwards and develop — this is what keeps me going. … This is why I never sign with just one theater group — because I feel that I need to be a bird.”
In the times when she is not making music or acting, Bukstein says she is always busy, whether it’s with learning French or taking writing classes.
For now, Bukstein keeps herself occupied with ‘The Sound of Music,’ as well as concerts and acting. She is currently starring in a short feature film ‘Anywhere But Here,’ where, displaying an impressive grasp of French, she plays a troubled Israeli expat from Paris.
However, Bukstein recognizes that for women in the film industry in Israel, there is a certain plateau, that “almost almost all of the actresses my age who work and who want to be challenged have reached.”
The situation, though, is different for male actors, she says.
“Men, men, men, men men!”, she exclaims, laughing, but at the same time expressing regret at the way the Israeli film industry “plays it safe” by making films invariably “about religion, soldiers and the conflict”.
“There aren’t a lot of stories about life,” she says, “about women.”