'People think I'm a prince, but grandpa sold vegetables'

Banai exhibit at Tower of David Museum follows a musical family’s journey

The renowned clan of actors and musicians made their way from Persia to Israel in 1881, creating a story of survival and success

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Performer Yossi Banai, from an exhibit that opened June 18, 2020, at the Tower of David Museum, 'Banai, This is Our Song' (Courtesy Nino Hananiah Herman)
Performer Yossi Banai, from an exhibit that opened June 18, 2020, at the Tower of David Museum, 'Banai, This is Our Song' (Courtesy Nino Hananiah Herman)

A tale of family, Jerusalem and Israeli music is told in “Banai: A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem,” a new exhibit recounting the history of the talented Banai family of performers at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum.

“I knew I wanted to do an exhibit of music, and Jerusalem,” said Eilat Lieber, the museum director. “This is a story of a family, but the most Israeli story, because we all immigrated to Israel at some time. It’s a story of surviving despite everything.”

The result is “Banai,” a rich combination of Persian Jewish history, historical and family artifacts, and stories that together weave the tale of the Banai family, who came to the promised land in 1881, led by grandfather Rachamim Banai, and brought forth a family of singers and entertainers from their family home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot.

The exhibit begins with a look at the Banais’ life in Shiraz, Persia, suggesting a connection between the ancient city and the Tower of David, the historic citadel in which the museum is located. There’s a look at the instruments played in Persia, the stories common to Jewish and Persian life, and the traditions the Banais brought to their new life in pre-state Palestine.

Bachora and Meir Banai with their eldest son Shmuel, Jerusalem, 1915, from the new Banai exhibit that opened June 18, 2020 at the Tower of David Museum (Courtesy Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Photographic Archives)

“If we don’t know the roots, then we won’t understand where they came from,” said Tal Kobo, the exhibit’s curator. “Shiraz was a community of musicians and singers, a very creative place.”

When they came to Israel in 1881, the men of the family worked in construction; hence their original name, Bana, from the Hebrew word for building.

The family’s story follows the timeline of the country, including the development of neighborhoods they lived in, the Mahane Yehuda market where their grandfather sold vegetables, the schools they attended in Jerusalem and the playgrounds where they played.

“People think of me as a prince, but my grandfather sold vegetables in the Mahane Yehuda market,” said Yuval Banai, the lead singer of rock group Mashina, in a quote recalled by music expert Boaz Cohen in a text written for the exhibit.

Ha’agas Street or Pear Street, where grandfather Banai sold vegetables in the market, is now known for its culinary fast food stands and bars where young Jerusalemites like to gather on Thursday nights.

Banai family members on the rooftop of 13 Agas Street in 1949, from the Banai exhibit that opened June 18, 2020, at the Tower of David Museum (Courtesy Yad Itzhak Ben Zvi Photographic Archives)

It’s the second and third generations of this family that are so well known to Israelis: the brothers — actors and storytellers Gavri Banai, Yaakov Banai and  Yossi Banai; and their children — singers Ehud Banai, Meir Banai, Yuval Banai and Eviatar Banai, and comic Orna Banai. Their grandfather, Eliyahu Banai, who passed on the love for storytelling and music.

The music made by the third generation of Banai siblings and cousins is considered the epitome of Israeliness, even as some — Ehud Banai, Meir Banai, who died in 2017, and Eviatar Banai — returned to religion and began melding their rock with piyyutim, liturgical poems, and making the secular-religious divide more fluid.

The family members all helped curator Kobo in telling the stories of their family, she said.

“It was crazy,” she said, “they all gave me things and told me stories. It’s not an exhibit of celebrities; they all took part. They told us about the experiences of their childhood, their memories, their grandparents’ house in the shuk.”

There are family heirlooms in the exhibit, such as an amber necklace that Khanoum Banai received from her mother when she was betrothed at the age of six, and a Torah scroll case donated to the family’s local Persian synagogue in Jerusalem.

Singer Eviatar Banai, from one of the videos in BANAI, the new exhibit about the famed Israeli family that opened June 18, 2020, at the Tower of David Museum (Courtesy Tower of David Museum)

There are also engaging videos featuring various Banai family members, both famous and lesser known, telling their grandfather’s Mahane Yehuda tales. There are school photos and family pictures, and the final gallery of the exhibit shows clips of the various Banais’ performances onstage and on TV shows, for a comfortable spate of entertainment.

The name of the exhibit in Hebrew is “This Is Our Song,” a line from a well-known song, “Tip Tipa,” by Ehud Banai (see below).

“It serves as a metaphor of how the historical story of the Banai family and the Banai opus became the common soundtrack of Israeli culture,” said Kobo.

The exhibit, the museum’s first as it reopened on June 18 after shutting due to the coronavirus in March, is an apt choice for this summer, when it will presumably be mostly Israeli visitors coming to the museum.

“We’re not expecting 500,000 visitors this summer. It will take some time but I decided to reopen even with many staffers on furlough,” said Lieber. “We figured that Israelis will be thirsty for something cultural and local, so it’s fitting for this summer.”

There are plans to offer concerts related to the Banai exhibit during the summer, and tickets must be ordered online for the museum, which is carefully following all coronavirus guidelines. The museum will also be open many evenings during the summer to allow visitors to come during the cooler parts of the day.

The museum will host webinars about the exhibit on July 5 and 9. The museum is closed on Sunday, and open Monday to Thursday and Saturday, 10-6 pm, and Friday, 10-2 pm.

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