(Photo: Gilad Tidhar)
Reviving the Spirit
An Interview with Akiva Turgeman
One of Israel’s most popular singers, Akiva Turgeman’s hit single, “אל תעזבי ידיים” (Never Let Go) hit the top of the music charts in 2018. Since bursting onto the Israeli music scene, Akiva (now known to millions of Israelis by his first name) has followed in Ishay Ribo’s footsteps, composing deeply religious songs that speak to the entire spectrum of Israeli society – but with a style all his own.
Nadav Gedaliah sat with Akiva to talk about faith, fame and family.
Nadav: You grew up in Dimona, the child of a Moroccan father and Canadian mother. How has that impacted your musical style?
Akiva: I have certainly been impacted by the very different musical styles I have been exposed to – I listened to Led Zeppelin when I was 12, and Meir Ariel and piyutim when I was 15! I have a deep connection to the world of Moroccan music, the piyut, the bakashot [liturgical supplications]. I’m very connected to it and grew up on it, and occasionally I’ll include some ethnic instruments in my music. On the other hand, I also grew up on Western music. I call it kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles)!
Nadav: Your music is about the everyday; you don’t sing about abstract love or incomprehensible things. What are you trying to express in your music?
Akiva: Everything in life has grace and beauty. A song possesses emotional energy; it expresses the emotions that we try to convey to one another. Sometimes it’s a love song for a child, or a love song for myself – for the child I was.
Today, the theme of most songs is love. But I try to mine all areas of life and not just the one emotion that is easiest to connect with. Struggles of faith, conflicts with parents, struggling with the death of a friend, the time I went to play music for a sick child. There are many emotions and experiences that can be expressed through song.
By the way, there are things that in the editing room I choose not to share. For every song that comes out, there are about eight songs that are shelved. There are certain things that I feel I have shared too much about, that are too personal.
Nadav: Is there a chance we’ll hear more traditional piyutim from you?
Akiva: Yes, I might make an album of proper piyutim, and besides, I also have a Chassidic side. I studied at the Ramat Gan yeshivah, and it is possible that at some point in my life I will express the more Chassidic side of myself in music. At the end of the day, at the Shabbat table, I don’t sing [my song] “Don’t Let Go”; I sing “’אליך אקרא ה” (I call out to You Hashem). This is what gives me life!
Nadav: What is the price of fame, of breaking into the mainstream of Israeli music?
Akiva: This is a question you can ask anyone who is successful in his field. It’s not a natural way of life, and the workload is not normal. There are people who are hurt by it, and I know many people who find this kind of shlichut (mission) to be a heavy burden. It’s important to pray for good mental health; I pray for this every day – to make sure I remain Akiva, the private person.
Nadav: What do you do to stay centered?
Akiva: I try to escape from all the publicity. I go out to the fields to be alone, to grab moments where I don’t have to answer to anyone except myself and Hashem. I give thanks for all the good in my life, for every step of progress along the way. I didn’t get to where I am from nothing. It wasn’t sudden; I didn’t sing in a reality show and suddenly become famous.
Nadav: Still, there was clearly a turning point in your career.
Akiva: Yes, it happened when my song “Never Let Go” was the top song on the Galgalatz [Israeli radio station] billboard for two months. For audiences in Israel, I seemed to arrive from nowhere; for most people, I went from zero to a hundred all at once.
But professionally, as a musician, I progressed steadily, little by little. It took years to get to where I am today, which has helped me remain grounded. I don’t take any of this for granted!
The balance for me is my home, the family. My wife would be happy if we hired some help for the house, but our goal is to remain simple. I come back from a show with my head in the clouds to wash dishes and remember who I really am. I consider myself a family man first and foremost: a husband and a father. This is what I was before all the success, and this is who I am, fundamentally, even more than being a singer.
Nadav: How do you measure the success of a Jewish singer today? And do you believe that art and commercialization can coexist?
Akiva: I always distinguish success from commercial success. Success is like what happened to me a few days ago: I released the song “כמו שאת,” Like You, and someone sent me a message that she had listened to it five times in a row. She is pregnant, experiencing some complications, and the song really spoke to her. She felt the song was written about her and it gave her strength to get through a long and difficult night.
It’s certainly possible that this woman will not attend any concerts or buy the album, but for me, this is the success I’m hoping for – that the songs will touch people from within. If it also translates into parnasa and ticket sales, that’s great. But most importantly, the songs are a means to reach people.
I ask myself tough questions: Am I cynically exploiting people’s emotions to make a living? This is a question I need to ask myself every morning. There are people who do this, though thank G-d I don’t know them personally. I hope it does not exist here in Israel, and I hope and believe that no Jew is like that. Most importantly, I pray about this. It’s important to recognize that “sin crouches at the door” (Bereishit 4:7).
Yes, I make commercial choices, such as choosing to produce a song because I believe it will reach more people. But financial considerations do not enter the creative process. I am not writing songs in order to advance my career.
With publicity and success comes a great deal of fear. In general, it is important to develop a practice of giving; as Eviatar Banai sings, “בואי החוצה, בואי נצא”, “let’s go outside, let’s go!” What saves me from anxiety is a real sense of shlichut, of mission.
I will be open with you. I feel anxious at the thought of what would happen to me if I am no longer famous, if I once again become anonymous. But Hashem has given me a role. Reb Nachman says that “כבוד,” honor, derives from the same root as “כובד,” “seriousness.” It’s important to treat honor in a thoughtful and productive way. For example, to think: “for the moment, I am a successful singer – thank You Hashem! I will try to be and do what I can for as long as I am successful.” Thinking this way eliminates the whole equation of “I have something to lose and so I’m afraid.”
It’s not just about my career – it’s also about family and children. I don’t want to be anxious about my children. I had friends growing up whose parents were always anxious and nervous. Anxiety is everywhere, and a person has to work to develop self-awareness in this regard.
It’s about recognizing our personal place. Hashem wants me to be happy with what I have and not to be afraid about what will happen in the future. This is the basic recipe, and I consider myself a happy person who tries to be happy regardless of the success I am or am not experiencing in the eyes of others. Living in the moment with an attitude of shlichut is critical, and not specifically as a singer. It’s an attitude that’s critical as a parent, a guide, and as a person.
When Yosef was true to himself without regard for what others thought, he was harassed. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the moment Yosef realized he could be a shaliach of Hashem even in prison, and helped Pharaoh’s butler and baker – it was at this moment that Yosef was transformed and uplifted! The truth is, a person can be a shaliach in any situation – on the stage or with his kids. And if one day there are no more concerts, then what? Is there no more Akiva?
Nadav: You don’t get tired of constantly being a shaliach?
Akiva: On the contrary, shlichut, the sense of mission, gives you strength. It’s exhausting to care only about yourself.
Nadav: A few months ago, you moved with your family from the Tel Aviv area to Jerusalem. What prompted your move?
Akiva: We lived in Tel Aviv for seven and a half years and had three more children there, but now we want to tap into the holiness of Jerusalem. The intensity of living in Tel Aviv didn’t fit, and the lack of space suited us even less. We needed a chance to breathe, and so we set out on this journey. We don’t know where we’ll be in the future, but every Jew has a place in Jerusalem.
Nadav: Between us, what makes you laugh when you want to relax from all of this deep intensity?
Akiva: I can sit with friends and watch some funny movies. But the truth is, what really sets me free is going with my friends somewhere where I am not “Akiva,” where we sit in a field near a spring with some beer, and I find myself playing guitar and singing songs in Russian! I know I come off as very heavy and serious sometimes, but I can also relax and fool around with the kids.
Nadav: Do people talk to you about your seriousness and depth?
Akiva: A few years ago, a couple approached me after a show and asked, ‘Why don’t you have happy songs? You look like an optimistic person.’ The lady approached me, waved her index finger in my face and said in a commanding tone: ‘Write happy songs!’ I stuttered in response, “okay,” and began to try to write happy songs. It took a while, but in the end, I succeeded, and wrote optimistic songs like “שלום בבית” (Peace at Home) and “הכול עוד אפשרי” (Everything is Still Possible). But the stand-up comedy will have to wait!
● A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew in Olam Katan.
Nadav Gedaliah is an Israeli journalist, blogger and writer.