Just prior to winning Eurovision 2018, Israeli composer Doron Medalie said he had a spiritual experience. As he looked up at the clouds over Lisbon, he saw a head with the hair done up in buns, just like performer Netta Barzilai’s trademark hairstyle, with the number 1 emerging from it.
This was no random vision: The three other Israeli winning Eurovision entries have also noted a mystical secret ingredient in their success. Izhar Cohen, Israel’s first champion for “Abanibi” (Paris, 1978), described the experience of winning as feeling like being on the wings of the Divine.
Gali Atari and Kobi Oshrat, the lead singer and the songwriter for “Hallelujah” (Jerusalem, 1979), recalled in an interview that two young girls came running toward the Israeli delegation on the Saturday of the finals in Jerusalem. Breathless, the girls gave them a message from their grandmother: If they entered the building with their right foot first and recited the biblical verse, “And Noah found favor in the eyes of God” seven times, they would win Eurovision.
In an interview several months ago, transgender pop star and 1998 Eurovision winner Dana International told The Times of Israel that just before she traveled with the Israeli delegation to Birmingham, England to perform “Diva,” she went to the Western Wall in the middle of the night to ask for a victory for Israel.
One could raise an eyebrow and pooh-pooh the idea. But who ever said that Israel’s formula for success was based on logic alone?
Over the 46 years in which Israel has participated in Eurovision, it has reached the top five 11 times. With its four wins, Israel is in joint fourth place along with Holland, after Ireland (seven victories), Sweden (six), and the UK, Luxembourg and France (five each). The video below features Israel’s top ten performing entries.
With Eurovision 2019 about to launch in Tel Aviv, The Times of Israel checked in with Israel’s four past winners to discover, alongside the spiritual plane, any more earthly recipes for a decisive win at this year’s event by Israel’s entrant Kobi Marimi.
Izhar Cohen — “Abanibi,” 1978
Cohen became Israel’s first Eurovision winner when he got all of Europe up on its feet with “Abanibi,” the hit song written by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsh. Backed up by Alphabeta, a band in the spirit of the Jackson Five, Cohen performed the number that would become one of the most prominent Israeli symbols in Eurovision’s history.
The Times of Israel spoke with Cohen during a busy week of nightly performances. Like all Eurovision winners, contest month is his busiest time of the year. And he won’t be left out of this year’s main event: Cohen will reveal the results of the Israeli jury at Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv.
At his show night before we spoke, Cohen hit his head on a screen as he ran on stage, but continued apparently unaffected and got 4,000 people dancing as he sang. That’s what you do when you’re not only a seasoned performer but also a symbol of your country’s Eurovision successes.
The Times of Israel: Izhar, are you OK?
Izhar Cohen: My whole neck is stiff and my forehead hurts where I hit it. But I performed yesterday as if nothing had happened. I could hardly see, and I fainted afterward. But everything’s OK, thank God. I’ve worked in every possible situation throughout my career, and tonight I’ll be back on my feet for a show in front of 2,000 employees of a credit-card company.”
If we look at Israel’s Eurovision winners over the years, can we detect a pattern?
Each winner had something new to say. After all, we’re a small country that has brought quite a few new things to Eurovision. “Abanibi” was something completely new to the Eurovision scene. They called it “the new look” in Europe back then, and imitated it for years afterward — the whole thing about the way we looked, the band and the attitude.
If we take “Hallelujah,” which conveyed a new message — that most famous Christian word of faith that came from Jerusalem — it had a kind of sanctity in it. Then came Dana, who brought transgender identity to the forefront of the stage, and now Netta, who brought the issue of being an outsider, as well as women’s empowerment, to the heart of the mainstream. There’s something new each time that brings a new aspect to Eurovision.
Kobi Oshrat — composer of “Hallelujah,” Jerusalem, 1979
Kobi Oshrat brought Israel a win with his song “Hallelujah” on his first attempt. In speaking with The Times of Israel, Oshrat highlighted the political background of the era in which the song was performed.
“We should recall that this was also the year of peace with Egypt and the Eurovision that was held in Jerusalem. All of this was going on, so there was a pro-Israel atmosphere,” he said.
To date, said Oshrat, the song has been covered internationally more than 400 times. “There’s hardly a language that it hasn’t been translated into, and it still has something to say. It’s not over yet,” he said.
Last year, the song was chosen to headline Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations, and this year Gali Atari will perform it with the Shalva band at Expo Tel Aviv during Eurovision 2019. But while the 1979 win was resounding, Oshrat said he does not believe there’s any such thing as a set formula for success.
What’s the secret to winning Eurovision?
Kobi Oshrat: Anyone who tells you that he has a formula is either an idiot or a genius. There’s no formula, since you can never know, with more than 40 countries in every competition. How can you know? There are different songs each year, so until you listen to every one of them, you can’t know whom you’re competing with.
For Eurovision aficionados, are there patterns that can be recreated?
No, there aren’t necessarily set patterns. Look — several things need to happen at the same time. There needs to be an excellent song with a touching word or phrase. There needs to be an excellent performer who takes the song where it needs to go. And there needs to be a lot of luck: that there aren’t any songs that year that are better. That’s the whole game, and all the rest of it is just fairy tales.
Anything can happen — even a second successive victory, like you had with “Hallelujah”?
Yes. Nobody believed then that Israel would win twice, and it happened. It seems we had a song that touched the hearts of many people, with a very powerful word and an excellent performance by the band. We should remember that back then, there were only 20 songs competing, rather than over 40, like today. Also, each song was performed with a live band on the stage.
How would you explain your victory?
It’s just a good pop song with touching phrases and a powerful word. It was also a new thing that Israel sent a band. Most countries sent solo singers at the time. I didn’t know then that I’d cracked the formula. What, did I know that I was going to win? I was lucky that it touched the hearts of so many people in Europe — a moving message that is conveyed well in writing, with one powerful word: Shimrit Orr’s “Hallelujah.” That, and the combination of all these things, with the excellent Milk and Honey band, and my arrangement — it all came together at the same time.
Do you have any criticism of the changes that the competition has undergone?
Eurovision has become a reality show. It wasn’t like that in the past. Each country had a professional committee that gave out its points to the other countries. The moment it became dependent on televoting via SMS, it turned into a cute game that lost its true value because it wasn’t professional.
It’s a fact that ever since Dana International’s “Diva,” which caused a stir in Europe, no song has had staying power. It hasn’t sold financially, nor has it pushed the artist who performed it. Maybe the performers were stars in their own countries for a time, but they were forgotten later on.
Dana International — “Diva,” Birmingham, 1998
“Diva” started a new era in Eurovision culture that highlights the inseparable linkage between pop and queer cultures. The song’s performer, Dana International, will grace this year’s Eurovision stage twice, to perform “Tel Aviv” and “Diva” in the Eurovision semi-finals and finals.
Like a true diva, Dana was hard to reach during the frenzied Eurovision season that Israel is going through these days, but The Times of Israel managed to catch her for a brief discussion between international performances.
“Winning Eurovision is like getting a pension, since there’s a Eurovision every year and every year you’re invited to perform,” Dana joked. “It’s really busy this year in particular, since it’s being held in Israel.”
I heard you telling this year’s Israeli contender Kobi Marimi about the initial placement of your song “Diva” in the betting tables before your big win.
I spoke with Kobi and gave him a hug. I told him not to get upset over all the talk and commotion beforehand, since they have nothing to do with reality at all. I told him that when I arrived in England, I was in seventh place in the betting. Just last year, Eleni from Cyprus, who came in second, was ranked 20th until the night of the dress rehearsal.
In the end, all that matters at Eurovision is the performance on the night itself. All the rest is irrelevant, and I’m absolutely certain that Kobi’s going to finish in the top 10.
It’s said that there’s no formula for winning the competition — and it’s true that the winning songs over the years are from different styles.
That’s correct. There’s no formula. Eurovision is a cacophony of about 40 songs from 40 countries. If I try to think about what really makes a song win, it’s the audience’s choice of which one of all of the songs they’d like to hear a second time. That’s the winning song.
Of course, what makes a song win depends on a whole bunch of things, such as the singer who’s performing and the song itself.
Doron Medalie — lyricist and composer of “Toy” (with Stav Beger), Lisbon, 2018
After decades of drought, in one unforgettable historical moment, Netta Barzilai and “Toy” brought Eurovision pride back to Israel.
The Times of Israel heard the song’s composer Doron Medalie lecture recently in Beit HaYotzer at the Tel Aviv Port, where he shared his ideas and recalled the chain of events that set him on the path to Eurovision over the past decade as a director, composer, and lyricist.
Inbar Weitzman and Ohad Shragai, composers of this year’s Israel entry, “Home,” performed by Kobi Marimi, were also in the audience. They had come to learn from Medalie, the expert.
It was Medalie who finally gave us the formula that we had been searching for.
“Israel’s brand in the Eurovision has values — joy, color, ethnicity, and daring,” he said, summing up the research that he has done over the years and that brought him, after quite a few attempts and failures, the longed-for win.
Here are the ingredients, as Medalie set them out: An attractive musical opening that leads, within 50 seconds, to a precise refrain with one central word; an up-to-date sound; a special beat and “addictive spices” such as music and dance additives, along with a reference to current events in the lyrics (such as, in the case of “Toy,” the #MeToo movement, body image, Gal Gadot, Trump, the crowing of a rooster, and the K-pop style); visuals (such as the kimono, the Japanese Maneki-neko figurines that are used as good-fortune charms, and dancers with colorful hair) — everything that helps to turn the song and its performer into an icon.
Another secret is the video clip — with a dominant color, pyrotechnics, iconic shots, and movement with an ethnic reference (such as the group of five dancers resembling an Israeli commando unit doing a choreography in “Toy” that pays homage to the songs “Kan” and “Hora”), among other things. “Toy” has received more views than any other Eurovision clip to date.
With his attention to marketing, which has become a decisive factor with the advent of audience voting, Medalie realized that as much audiovisual material as possible needed to be released online. These spawned a flood of reaction and remix videos of “Toy.”
By doing so, “as many people as possible would love it, hate it, laugh at us — it didn’t matter. In this way, we’d become more of an icon,” said Medalie.