“Write about your role models or heroes.”
The assignment was standard fodder for teachers throughout my childhood, and I felt weird every time they put a paper and pencil in front of me, expecting an answer. What was wrong with me? Everyone else seemed to know exactly who they wanted to be like, but I didn’t see anyone around that I wanted to emulate. I certainly liked Wonder Woman a whole bunch: I used to run around playing her part in make-believe games, and I always wished my parents would capitulate and let me buy Wonder Woman Underoos. But Wonder Woman wasn’t real. Neither were the Bionic Woman, Nancy Drew, or Samantha on “Bewitched.”
Truth is, I didn’t even know what it felt like to have a role model. I didn’t know what the whole concept was about. Only at age 19, when Ofra Haza burst out on the international music scene, did I understand. I was a young Mizrahi woman; she was a young Mizrahi woman. I was a musician; she was a musician. I wanted to make Mizrahi heritage mainstream and popular; she did it. I wanted to be famous; she was. For the first time in my life, someone who reflected my identity was further down my path than me. For the first time in my life, I had someone to look up to, someone to inspire me. I finally got the whole role model/hero thing.
By my senior year in college, I was obsessed with trying to meet Ofra Haza. I accosted random Yemenite Jews, pumping them for information. I called Yemenite synagogues in Israel, hoping for some leads. I pushed my Israeli cousin, a musician, to get the dope on her. Somehow, I mustered up the name of a guy who was in her band and worked at an Israeli restaurant in New York – where I conveniently lived at the time. I raced over to the restaurant, only to find out the guy had quit a few weeks before. Nobody knew how to get in touch with him. But Ofra, they told me, had moved to Los Angeles. Disheartened, I went home.
After graduating college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my own music career. I didn’t give up searching for Ofra, though I did lose hope. The next Winter, I visited a friend still in college in New York. Coincidentally, she had organized a Jewish student trip to an Ofra Haza concert the week of my visit. I was delirious with the desire to go, but the tickets were all sold out. It was maddening. Then the evening of the concert, one of the students got sick and canceled. I swear I didn’t poison her. I did, however, buy her ticket in a nanosecond and board the subway in a state of ecstasy.
When the group arrived in the huge concert hall in Brooklyn, I was disappointed to see our seats were far away from the stage and over to the left. Too close to accept a setback, I toured the hall, looking for alternate seats. I found two seats in the front row, right up against the stage. Bulls Eye! I dumped my extra clothes on the chairs and ran to get my friend. “But people might come to take the seats!” she warned. “So what?” I countered. “If they come we’ll give ’em up. We’ll still have our other seats.” Excited, she snatched her belongings, and we ran back to the front row. Within fifteen minutes, the lights went down in the hall, and Ofra Haza stood five feet in front of my face.
I was going nuts. For two years, I had tried everything to reach this woman. Here she was so close that I could reach out and touch her, yet she was completely out of my grasp. She finished introducing a Yemenite Israeli dance troupe and went backstage. My knee bounced fervently up and down, as I scanned the stage and considered the possibilities. That stage was low, about the height of my waist. Throughout the dance performance, I obsessed about the possibility of jumping on it and running backstage to meet her.
An hour later, the curtain came down for intermission. My friend and I went back up to the college group. I teetered on the edge of possibility, thinking “now or never.” I reflected on someone’s advice that approaching famous people requires going through professional channels. Otherwise, she cautioned, one will not be taken seriously. As I pondered my options, a friend from the group came up to me.
“What’s up?” she asked. I told her about my obsessive two-year quest to meet Ofra Haza. “That stage is really low! I want to jump up on it and run backstage to meet her!” I sounded more confident than I felt. “Let’s do it!” she exclaimed. “What?!” I asked incredulously. “Really?!” “Yes!!” she shouted, grabbing my hand and running down the aisle with me in tow. Her momentum pushed me over my edge, and I raced past her towards the stage. Behind us, I heard the voices of panicked security guards thundering down the aisle after us. “Stop! Stop!” they yelled. “You can’t do that!” I leapt onto the stage and dove underneath the curtain, aware that my friend got caught behind me.
I ran and ran in the space between the heavy velvet outer curtain and an identical one behind it. Shit, shit, I kept thinking as I ran. I heard the security guards yelling behind me. Where the hell am I going? Finally I reached an opening and saw Ofra Haza’s band members preparing for the show. Oh my god, I did it! I was on the stage. I slowed down my pace, not wanting to call attention to myself. I walked briskly to my left, no idea where I was heading. I walked through the first door I saw. Suddenly I was back in the concert hall. No, wait…It was identical to the one I had just left, but there were no people in it. As I stood bewildered, trying to figure out where I was in that surreal maze, I heard the security guards leap on stage. “Did you see this girl…” they asked the band members, describing me.
I ran out of that room and down a corridor. “There she is!” I heard them in the distance behind me. I bolted through the first door I saw, to my right, and shut it. I was face-to-face with one of the Yemenite dancers. “Hi, my name is Loolwa Khazzoom, and I started a group called Student Organization for Jews from Iran and Arab Countries, and we do programs on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, and I want to talk with Ofra Haza and see if we can work together.” I was speaking a million words a minute, panting from running, not stopping for a breath, all too aware that the security guards were on my heels. The dancer looked at me, languidly took a drag on his cigarette, slowly blew out the air, looked at me again, and asked, “Maaa?”
Oh,” I replied, realizing he didn’t speak a word of English. “Shmee Loolwa Khazzoom, hithaltee irgun studentim yehudee yotsei artsot arav…” I repeated everything in Hebrew, speaking just as fast. The dancer told me to follow him, as he calmly brought me to a room across the hall, where all the dancers were lounging. He motioned me to have a seat. I was exploding out of my skin, anticipating the security guards’ entrance at any moment. The dancer offered me a cigarette. I declined. He took another drag on his and sat down next to me, where I was perched on the edge of a couch, muscles taut with apprehension. “You in a rush?” he asked, smiling as he leaned into the plush sofa. His words dripped with tranquillity, in marked contrast to my agitated state. I realized from his warmth that I had made it “in,” that even if the security guards did find me, I would be welcome to stay. I relaxed. “No,” I said. “No.” I also leaned into the sofa.
I shared my adventures with the dancers, and they thought it was a riot. We chit-chatted for a while, then I asked if I could meet Ofra. My dancing man pointed me in the direction of her dressing room. I thanked him and left, going down the hall. I walked briskly, still apprehensive of the security guards. At the end of the hall, I knocked on Ofra’s dressing room door. I couldn’t believe I was doing it! I was afraid she might be irritated by an uninvited guest. Here goes, I thought.
An unfamiliar woman answered the door, and I asked her if I could speak with Ofra. “Not now,” she said, “she’s getting ready to go on stage. Come back later.” I explained to her that I couldn’t, that I urgently needed to speak with her, that it would just take a minute. “You can speak with her manager,” she said kindly. “He’s on the stage.” I thanked her, as my heart sank. The stage. I was so, so close, but surely I would get caught on my way back there. I took a breath and retraced my steps. I made sure to walk calmly, repeating a mantra in my head, “I belong here. I work here.” I made random Hebrew comments to people as I passed by, hoping it would add an air of belonging.
I made it to the stage and saw Bezalel Aloni bent over, maneuvering some electrical chords. I introduced myself, asked which language to speak, and explained to him my interest in meeting Ofra. He seemed interested and told me to call her, giving me the phone number. I could not believe it! Here I had searched for her for two years, and in a split second, I had her phone number! I asked Bezalel if I could meet Ofra that day, and he invited me to come backstage after the show. For obvious reasons, I asked how. He made it seem easy, advising me to just walk back there. I pressed for another way to get backstage, sharing my story of how I got back there to begin with. He laughed, delighted by the story, and assured me he would speak with the door people.
I walked away with a feeling of ecstasy, mixed with anxiety that I might not actually get backstage. I joined my friends, who buzzed around me, asking how it went. Everyone was thrilled. As the lights dimmed in the hall, my friend and I took our seats in the front row. Ofra Haza came on, and I was delirious with excitement that I might actually meet her within an hour. I had that sense of peaceful bliss that I since have found only follows risk.
Ofra went up to the front of the stage and began singing accapella. When she opened her mouth, liquid pearls flowed out. I sat entranced in a spell. I never heard such a beautiful voice, such sweet nectar, in all my life. She used none of the high tech vocal modifiers on the market. She was the real thing.
The concert ended, and I marched over to the back stage entrance. The guy at the door would not let me in. I was not going to let him not let me in. He assured me there was no way anyone could enter. I told him Bezalel said I could. He said he could not leave his spot to check. I told him to find someone to do it. He assured me the task was impossible. I told him he had to do it anyhow. He refused. I yelled at him, insisting I would not budge until I got my way. Nobody was going to stand in the way of my moment. I figured that if I just persisted and gave hell, his resistance eventually would wear down, and I would get my way.
And so I did. After a grueling 10 minute battle, the door man directed me to a backstage entrance at the side of the building. He assured me that he would alert security to let me in there. I did not trust him but saw no other option. My friends and I went around to the side and waited in front of a heavy iron gate. Other people were let in, but we were not. Every time the gate opened, I tried to enter, but security refused. My panic heightened with each passing moment. I made a huge fuss. Finally, someone approached security and told them to let me in. I thanked that person a million times. Someone had come through on his promise, whether it was the door person or Bezalal or both.
We were taken in an elevator to another floor, where Ofra Haza stood with the woman from the dressing room. I could not believe it! I went up to Ofra and shook her hand. I told her how much she meant to me. I told her about my organization and proposed that we discuss ways we could work together. She was very impressed with and enthusiastic about my work and seemed genuinely interested in collaborating on some project. She was warm, friendly, and genuine. I told her about how I had searched for her for years, and about how I finally got to her that evening. She thought it was hilarious.
Eight years later, two images of Ofra hang in my hallway: One is a picture of me handing her my business card. Another is a picture of her posing with my friends and myself. Her poster hangs in my classroom, where I teach children about Jews around the world. They have listened to her music and seen her video, as samples of important Mizrahi figures.
A few weeks ago, when I mentioned something about Ofra Haza, a friend said flat out, “She’s dead.” I was shocked and horrified, unwilling to believe it. Since confirming her tragic death, I have mourned the loss of a being so powerful, one of the few individuals who truly have inspired me. I wonder about the circumstances of her death, how much of it was wrapped up in destructive cultural norms that exist for Middle Easterners, Jews, and women – especially when all three are intertwined.
Ironically, a year ago I asked Ofra Haza (via her manager) to contribute an essay to or write the foreword for my forthcoming anthology, a collection of personal stories about transcending the struggles in Mizrahi women’s lives. I was told she had dropped out of most activities, “to focus on her family.” Little did I know it was because she had AIDS and would not have much time left with them.
I was distraught when I learned Ofra Haza preferred to die rather than take treatment and risk public knowledge of her disease. I am unclear how much has been confirmed and how much has been deduced, but it seems she chose to protect her family’s reputation over her very own life, not wanting to bring her family to shame – despite apparently contracting AIDS from her husband.
But even through her tragic death, Ofra Haza managed to inspire me on my own path. My anger about her choice made me re-examine my own choices, the ways I too have put protecting my family and community above protecting myself, the way I too have been holding onto secrets that are not my own and that are destructive to my life.
So Ofra, wherever you are, thank you. May your memory be blessed. May your next spiritual adventure be glorious. Ruah athonai tanhenu b’gan eden. Amen.
© 2000 by Loolwa Khazzoom. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be copied without author’s permission. This article was first published in Generation J.