ObituaryHerzog: Hard to imagine existence of Israeli art without him

Musical and literary icon Yehonatan Geffen dies at 76

The writer, nephew of Moshe Dayan and father to singer Aviv Gefen as well as artists Shira and Natasha, battled inner demons to express himself

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

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)
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)

Writer and lyricist Yehonatan Geffen died Wednesday at age 76.

He will be laid to rest on Friday morning at the Nahalal cemetery in northern Israel.

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

He was part of a tight circle of Tel Aviv friends including Arik Einstein, Gidi Gov, Yehudit Ravitz, Yoni Rechter, David Broza, Uri Zohar and Shalom Hanoch. He joined Einstein, Hanoch and Zohar’s entertainment troupe after moving to Tel Aviv following his 1969 discharge from the army.

“I found myself at a young age looking for people who I could identify with,” said Geffen in a past interview broadcast by Kan. “I came from the Jezreel Valley to rock and jazz and I don’t regret it.”

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 suffered from several tragic incidents in his life. In 1967 his mother died from an overdose that Geffen considered a suicide. In 1972, while Geffen was studying in London, his sister Nurit died by suicide, which brought him back to Tel Aviv.

Geffen and his son Aviv, who was born in 1973, had a difficult relationship during the latter’s formative years, Aviv Geffen revealed in recent years.

His father, the singer said in a March 2022 interview with the Maariv newspaper, turned to alcohol and drugs for many years, and it took time before the two of them were able to reunite and work through their issues in therapy.

Israeli singer/songwriter Shalom Hanoch with Yonatan Geffen in the 1980s. (Photo by Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

As the first generation growing up in the new Jewish state, Geffen had followed the expectations of a young man of those times and served as a paratrooper under major general Matan Vilnai, but later developed strong left-wing leanings.

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.

However, Geffen 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.

Israeli singer/songwriter Yehonatan Geffen with his daughter Shira Geffen, undated (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Geffen’s works were often first written for kids but were also intended for parents.

“The Sixteenth Sheep” was named for the story in which the narrator describes how he usually falls asleep while counting sheep, only making it to the sixteenth.

The book was followed by a successful children’s record and several television shows, and the album was selected more than once as the best Israeli album of all time.

Friend and musician David Broza wrote on Instagram, “We sang, we wrote, we rejoiced, we cried, we fought, we won, we lost, we went on…. You taught me like a big brother and I will carry your insights in our singing, and your singing… Love, David.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote, “A short time ago, my older brother Yehonatan Geffen passed away… Today we lost an important and beloved Israeli voice.”

President Isaac Herzog tweeted, “Yehonatan Geffen passed away, and left us a playful and eternal smile, of someone who knew how to capture the smallest and biggest moments and turn them into eternal texts. It is hard to imagine the existence of Israeli art, our hymns, the worlds of literature and theater, without his unique and unforgettable contribution.”

Culture Minister Miki Zohar commented, “I was sorry to hear about the passing of the poet and writer Yehonatan Geffen, who among other things expressed our childhoods… with much emotion and power. Yonatan wrote stories and songs that will stay with us forever and will be played by us for many years to come, as an echo of Israeliness. May his memory be blessed.”

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