Tehila the Kosher Diva first gained notoriety from “Goy,” the Yiddish-language viral YouTube video that parodied Netta Barzilai’s 2018 Eurovision-winning song, “Toy.” Released two years ago, “Goy” garnered 470,000 views and plenty of media coverage.
Less familiar is Yael Yekel, the 34-year-old Israeli actor-singer behind the fun and flirty Tehila. Through her kitschy character, Yekel is on a mission to make the mammeloshen relevant and accessible to younger generations.
Now, just in time for the Jewish New Year, Yekel’s Kosher Diva is premiering a new video, right here on The Times of Israel.
While her earlier clips appropriated international pop melodies and gave them original Yiddish lyrics, this new video takes the beloved Yiddish standard “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (To Me You’re Beautiful) and gives it a “Mizrahi” or Middle Eastern twist.
The song itself has a curious history: Written in 1937, it propelled an era of Yiddish swing that was made popular on international stages by blockbuster musicians such as clarinetist Benny Goodman. According to a recent Kveller article, the tune tore through concert halls and beer gardens across the world — and was beloved by the Nazis (until they found out Jews wrote it).
“I grew up with secular kibbutznik parents. I only heard Yiddish spoken by my grandparents — Holocaust survivors from Poland and Lithuania who helped found Kibbbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot in northern Israel — when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying,” Yekel told The Times of Israel.
When not portraying the Kosher Diva, Yekel acts on stage and in commercials and television shows. Her studies at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts focused on musical theater, through which she first became engaged with Yiddish.
“In 2013 I had an opportunity to participate in a production at the Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv. The sound of the language made me feel good. It reminded me of my grandparents, who had passed away by then.” she said.
Believing that a “cosmic connection” had been made between her and Yiddish, Yekel stuck with it and acted in more Yiddish productions. She worked with a language coach to make sure she recited her lines correctly and understood them.
In summer 2015, Yekel studied Yiddish at Tel Aviv University on a scholarship provided by Yiddishpiel.
In 2018, the actress decided to branch out on her own with the language, dreaming up the Tehila the Kosher Diva character as a way to do it.
“My intention was to have fun with the language, but not to make fun of it,” Yekel emphasized.
The hype surrounding Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision win made Yekel realize that “Toy” rhymed with quite a few Yiddish words.
“Think goy [non-Jew] and azoy [like this], for example,” Yekel said.
With the help of her Yiddish instructor Yaniv Goldberg, the actress wrote and translated into Yiddish the lyrics for her “Goy” parody about an Orthodox Jewish woman distressed that her beloved is a non-Jew. She is pressured by her family and rabbi not to marry him, so she presents him with what she sees as the only option: Conversion. This, of course, involves circumcision — which Tehila the Kosher Diva makes clear by humorously brandishing first a pair of scissors, and then an even scarier pair of pruning shears.
“It was a homemade video. My partner Dvir Chalamish filmed it and I edited it. We posted it on a Friday afternoon, by Saturday night it had gone viral, and by Sunday the media was interviewing me. It was unbelievable,” Yekel recalled.
Some were reportedly confused as to whether Tehila was real or not, and whether she had any issues with kol isha, or the Orthodox Jewish prohibition against women singing in public.
“Goy” was followed some months later by “Gefilte Fish,” a parody of “Under The Sea” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” animated feature film. For that video, Yekel put on a long red wig, squeezed into a shiny mermaid’s tail, and managed to “sing” some lyrics underwater. After forgoing what looks like some tasty — but decidedly unkosher — shrimp and lobster, Tehila extols the virtues of gefilte fish for Rosh Hashanah.
She goes through a long list of Eastern European Jewish foods and their symbolic meanings, but declares gefilte fish to be the best. “But one thing’s for sure: To be young and spry, rich and sexy — well, have only gefilte fish,” the Kosher Diva hams it up (pun intended).
However, toward the end of the song, Tehila remembers she is part fish herself and has a change of heart, declaring that it is best to go vegetarian.
Yekel she hopes that her newest clip, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” will also grab the attention of viewers. In collaboration with Israeli musician Idan Toledano, Yekel gives the 1932 Yiddish hit from Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda a surprising Oriental sound.
After stumbling upon Toledano’s oud cover of Michael Jackson’s iconic “Billie Jean,” Yekel reached out to him and asked him if he would work with her on an original take on “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” The two joined forces to give an entertaining performance that crosses vaudeville shtick with Mizrahi parlor music.
As Toledano plays the oud, accordion and darbuka drum, Tehila coyly compliments him on his “big instrument.” Toledano responds with an “Oh my god,” in Arabic.
“I am not an Oriental singer, but we made the two worlds meet. It turned out that the two kinds of music are similar and use the same keys,” Yekel said.
Thanks to Tehila the Kosher Diva’s worldwide reach, Yekel was invited to perform and present in Jewish communities in France. She was supposed to go to Amsterdam in May, but that event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If the “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” video proves as popular as “Goy” and “Gefilte Fish,” Yekel can expect things to pick up in the future.
“Yiddish is here to stay,” she said.