‘Love has a country, and he was its prince’: Lyricist Yehonatan Geffen laid to rest

Mourners honor late author, musician with songs he wrote; daughter Shira Geffen recalls helping father with book of songs before his death, feared his passing upon completing work

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Friends and family members mourn during the funeral ceremony of athor and  lyricist Yehonatan Geffen in Nahalal cemetery, northern Israel, April 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)
Friends and family members mourn during the funeral ceremony of athor and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen in Nahalal cemetery, northern Israel, April 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Writer and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen was buried at the Nahalal cemetery in northern Israel on Friday, with friends, relatives and public figures paying tribute to a cultural icon who belonged to the first generation that grew up in the Jewish state.

Geffen died at age 76 on Wednesday and was known for his writing — particularly books, songs and poems for children — for his left-wing leanings, and for his children, rocker Aviv Geffen, writer Shira Geffen (who is married to author Etgar Keret) and Natasha Geffen from his second marriage.

Family and friends eulogized Geffen in speeches and with the lyrics he wrote throughout his successful career. Mourners included several public figures such singer and close friend David Broza, former president Reuven Rivlin, opposition leader Yair Lapid, Labor MK Efrat Rayten, and former minister Ayelet Shaked.

In a short speech, Aviv Geffen called his father “my hero,” then sang “Cause for Concern,” a 1978 song he wrote.

Alongside sisters Shira and Natasha, the siblings sang “The Sixteenth Lamb,” a children’s poem written by his father, also released in 1978.

Addressing mourners, Natasha, who moved to Israel last year from the United States, said her father was “my best friend and part of me is waiting for you to wake up and say, Don’t cry Natasha, it’s all just a bad dream.”

Rocker Aviv Geffen (right) mourns during the funeral ceremony of his father, lyricist Yehonatan Geffen in Nahalal cemetery, northern Israel, April 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

“You’re the first person to call, to cry to, or if I needed someone to make me laugh,” she said. “You’re probably looking down at us now and laughing at all of this.”

“We spent most of our lives at opposite ends of the earth, but you were still a constant in my life,” she added.

Shira Geffen speaks during the funeral ceremony of her father, author and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen, in Nahalal cemetery, northern Israel, April 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Shira Geffen told mourners that in the last two months, she met her father several times to edit his latest book of songs.

“In the last month, you were already running out of patience and asked that we close and proofread it. I argued with you. You said there was still work left, and I wanted to continue to sit with you on your porch next to the cats, drink cordial and soda and fix the songs,” she said.

“You said you were tired, that from your experience if we work too hard on the songs they will be destroyed. But I didn’t let you, maybe because I felt that if the work was completed, you would go,” Shira added.

Zohar Betzer, Geffen’s sister, eulogized her “eldest and beloved” brother at the service.

“There are no words to describe this suffocating feeling. There were four of us, two are left. The punch we took straight to the gut is still there and there is no air,” she said.

Anat Ben Ari, Geffen’s other sister, recalled her sibling returning from the army on weekends, where he would ask “which children from kindergarten he needs to beat up this week.”

“Even though you never carried out the threat, I knew there was someone protecting me,” Ben Ari said.

“Yehonatan, you were my only and special brother, funny and unique. Together we joked about eulogies people would give, where they would speak about themselves instead of whoever died. I think that’s what I’m doing now,” she added.

File: Singer and poet Yehonatan Geffen at the EMI, the Israel Artists Association, lifetime achievement awards ceremony, held in Petah Tikva, February 17, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Broza performed “If Death Shall Come,” a song written by Geffen and released on Broza’s 1984 album. Broza said that it was the one song his close friend requested to be played at his funeral.

In his speech, Lapid described the late artist as a man full of love: “Once Yehonatan wrote: ‘If love was a country, I would be Foreign Minister.’ He was mistaken. Love has a country, and he was its prince.”

“Aside from his children, he loved words the most,” Lapid said. “He loved me even when he thought I was wrong. He wasn’t afraid of death, he believed that there was life before death and not after. It is not exactly clear how such a restless person will rest.”

Geffen was born in 1947 in Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley — he was of the same generation as writer Meir Shalev, also from Nahalal, who died last week — and was the nephew of army general Moshe Dayan, his mother’s brother.

He was one of a group of journalists who published the 1973 book “The Failure,” the first book to document and criticize the Yom Kippur War. He was known for never mincing words and for voicing controversial opinions on the country and its politics.

One of his more recent brouhahas was caused by his comparison of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi to Holocaust victim Anne Frank, which he later apologized for.

He was possibly best known among Israelis for his works for kids, such as the book of children’s poems “The Sixteenth Sheep” which later became an award-winning 1978 album, composed with Yoni Rechter and sung by Yehudit Ravitz.

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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