The Jerusalem Post

An Israeli-Diaspora love story

Bat Ella pays tribute to Jewish music inspiratio­n Debbie Friedman in televized show


In the age of Birthright, gap-year programs and summer trips, many Jews develop a connection to their faith when they come to Israel from America. For Israeli singer Bat Ella, it was completely the opposite.

Bat Ella Birnbaum, who uses just her first name profession­ally, grew up in a traditiona­l home in Israel. She didn’t keep Shabbat and didn’t follow many mitzvot, but her house was always filled with singing on Friday night. However, the perceived rigidity and non-egalitaria­n nature of Judaism pushed her away from her roots.

“I grew up where there was secular or religious, nothing in between,” she said.

That was until she went to America and met the late Jewish American singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman.

Friedman wrote numerous Jewish songs and performed them in English until her death in 2011. Conservati­ve and Reform synagogues in America continue to sing her melodies during prayer services.

Bat Ella first came to the United States with the Tzofim Friendship Caravan in 1983; a traveling band that performs at synagogues, summer camps and Jewish schools in America.

She met Friedman at the Hava Nashira music workshop in 1994, and the two singers later toured together in the US and Europe. Being in those communitie­s and performing with Friedman had a significan­t impact on Bat Ella.

“In the States, I realized something different,” Bat Ella said. “There’s a spectrum [of religion there]. It’s a pity because it belongs to all of us, and no one [should have] a

monopoly over it. [In the US] I learned that there’s more than one way to be a Jew.”

A minority of Jews identify as Conservati­ve or Reform in Israel. A 2019 study from The Jewish People Policy Institute found that 8% of Israelis identify as Reform and 5% as Conservati­ve. That’s compared to 8% ultra-Orthodox, 12% Orthodox and 13% traditiona­l religious, according to 2010 Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics findings.

Bat Ella, who incorporat­es Debbie’s songs and lyrics from the Bible into her work, identifies as “secular.” However, that’s

mostly because of the religious dichotomy that exists in Israel, and the way Israelis use the term.

She felt that in the US, people need to try harder to be Jewish. She said that’s not the case in the Jewish state. That forces people to create their own Jewish identity there.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘Bat Ella, you’re a secular person. How come a lot of your songs are from Jewish sources?’” Bat Ella said. “I fell in love with it, [but] not from a place that I was forced. I see the Jewish sources as a source of inspiratio­n. I learned that there is more than one way to be secular.”

BAT ELLA SAID she learns Talmud and Tanach (Hebrew Bible), says Modeh Ani (the prayer upon arising) in the morning and the Shema prayer when she goes to sleep. She also attends a Conservati­ve synagogue near her home. She said she is incredibly proud of her Judaism, and believes it’s a source of wisdom that makes her a better human being.

“I think we have to concentrat­e on the essence and not in the details,” she said. “I respect religious people, just don’t interfere in my life.”

Bat Ella always admired Friedman. She recalled on the last night of the workshop, during the Havdalah service, how Friedman stopped right before the final chord and there was a tangible silence before the final crescendo. She loved the way she captured the audience and got them involved in the performanc­e.

She wants to bring that to Israel. On July 24, Bat Ella will be performing in a virtual tribute concert to Friedman that will be broadcast in the United States and in various Jewish communitie­s. Although the audience is mostly American, she sees the concert as an opportunit­y to bridge the gap between American and Israeli Jews, and fulfill a dream Friedman had.

“I learned that [Friedman] spent a year in Israel in a kibbutz,” Bat Ella said. “She always dreamt that her music would be sung in Israel. If she couldn’t make this dream, I will make this dream.”

Bat Ella was the first person to translate Friedman’s songs into Hebrew with her Lechi Lach project. She said every song in her five albums is at least inspired by Friedman’s music. Her music is a combinatio­n of Friedman’s folk style and Bat Ella’s experience living within the diverse Israeli culture.

“We can’t take our relationsh­ip with North American Jewry for granted,” Bat Ella said. “We have to find ways to build bridges, and music is definitely [one]. To take someone [whose music] is very symbolic and very profound in the states and bring her to Israel, I feel very proud and happy.”

It’s part of Bat Ella’s mission of “Kiruv Levavot,” bringing hearts together. Her work extends beyond North America and Israel. Her husband, Daniel Birnbaum, was the former CEO of Sodastream. Bat Ella recruited some Arab and Jewish workers from the company’s factory in the Bedouin city of Rahat to record songs in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

She also works to model these values to her children, including her son Nitzan, who will be performing with Bat Ella.

“Since they were born, [we have tried to instill] the passion for Judaism, music, Tikkun Olam [“repairing the world”], and contributi­ng to the community,” she said. “This is something we grew up with in our families and something we bring to our kids. To perform with my son, to be with him on stage, as a parent,” she said, was all she could ask for.

Bat Ella will be filming the performanc­e from Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. The performanc­e will be shown on Jewish Life Television on Saturday, July 24 at 8 p.m. EDT (July 25 at 3 a.m. in Israel) and again on Sunday, July 25 at noon EDT (7 p.m. in Israel). For more informatio­n, visit

 ?? (Orit Pnini) ?? BAT ELLA: I grew up where there was secular or religious, nothing in between.
(Orit Pnini) BAT ELLA: I grew up where there was secular or religious, nothing in between.

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