Whitney does Dimona

Haaretz Daily/May 29, 2003
By Michal Palti

"That's not the bus. She wouldn't arrive like that on a Negev Transportation company bus." So said one of the dozens of youths from Dimona's Hebrew Israelite community who crowded together on Sunday evening in the plaza of the community's caravan site. Soon pop singer Whitney Houston was to arrive - "one of the greatest voices of the 20th century," according to Rolling Stone magazine, who has sold over 120 million albums and signed a five-year contract with Arista Records for a total sum of $100 million.

It was evening and there was something fanciful about the scene. Representatives of the Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona, located on the outskirts of town, came out to greet Houston, who was arriving here directly from Las Vegas. Other Dimona residents were more surprised by the large amount of journalists and photographers in the plaza and the police patrol cars crowded for some unclear reason on the sidewalk opposite.

Yeda'a Bat Yisrael, an impressive woman with graying hair, is the community representative and organizer of the visit. She has been busy since the early morning making arrangements and talking with the press. The community, whose members are Blacks who have converted to Judaism, has lived in Dimona since the early 1970s and for two years they have been promised the status of permanent residents in Israel, but the actual conferral of this status has been slow in coming.

The Volvo used by Dimona Mayor Gabi Lalush zooms into the parking lot. He hurries to shake hands with the journalists and position himself within view of the cameras. He sees that the matter of citizenship will soon be taken care of and the Hebrew Israelites will even be moved into new housing projects. Their construction is already under way around the corner.

Meanwhile, Yeda'a Bat Yisrael is telling the press about the initiative behind the odd visit: Ben Ami Carter, the leader of the community, proposed the idea of hosting the singer Whitney Houston in the Negev. Houston's mother, the veteran soul singer, Cissy Houston, is a friend of community member Asiel Ben Yisrael. Cissy Houston, as well as Whitney's godmother, Aretha Franklin, knew him back in Chicago. Ben Yisrael has been working on this visit for over two years and met in the United States with mutual friends of his and the singer's family.

About a month ago, Houston's personal manager came to Israel and stayed with Hebrew Israelites in Dimona. She remained in the south for two weeks and felt that "Israel is a safe place" and recommended that Whitney and her family visit.

"You have to understand, black-skinned people always dream of visiting the Holy Land," says Yeda'a Bat Yisrael. "We're Jews and she's Christian, but the holiness of Israel is common to different religions. Whitney came to Israel on a journey of spiritual purification and to visit the holy sites and we're glad that she's coming with her children. It's important they see the places they've read about over the years."

The community members also have a plan to promote tourism: They hope that by the end of the year Houston will record a television show with Stevie Wonder, who in the past has also visited Israel. On her current trip, perhaps she will even select some filming locations.

The past few years have not been easy for Houston. Her biography is full of the cliches associated with big stars: She started singing at age five and at age 11 was already the choir soloist in her community church in New Jersey. In 1983, at the age of 20, she signed a contract with Clive Davis, the former CEO of Arista, who among others also signed up Bob Dylan. A year ago, Davis proved he has not lost his touch: Alicia Keyes, who won five Grammy awards, was also one of his discoveries.

"Whitney Houston," Houston's premiere album, which came out in 1985 under Davis' direction, sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and transformed her into a megastar - too quickly it seemed. Houston's singles were exactly what the public wanted to hear: songs based on the soul and Black music traditions, sung by a singer who knows how to integrate soul music with pop music that you can dance to. So Houston hit the charts in the U.S. with songs like "I wanna dance with somebody" and "Saving all my love for you" among others. The song "So emotional" from the 1987 "Whitney" album stayed on the record sales charts for so many weeks that it broke the singles' records set by the Beatles and the Bee Gees.

But success never continues in a straight line and many stars have some kind of major crisis at this time. In the early 1990s, Whitney's came when some of her albums did not repeat her earlier successes. In 1992, after her marriage to hotheaded rapper Bobby Brown, she also went into acting. Immediately after the marriage she appeared in "The Bodyguard" alongside Kevin Costner and won a Grammy award for the songs she did in the film. Since then, she has appeared in "The Preacher's Wife" alongside Denzel Washington, continued recording additional albums and began the predictable game of fleeing from the press, which reported troublesome revelations about her: her drug addiction, Brown's abusing her, her repeated attempts at rehab and her absence from important events such as the Oscar awards ceremony and a Michael Jackson tribute concert. In an interview with Diane Sawyer a year ago, Houston admitted using various drugs, but was careful to note she "isn't addicted and can stop at any time."

However, for the Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona, as with audiences all over the world, the drug addiction is not a problem at the moment. It is part of the price of stardom. In Houston's case, it seems her struggles with crises are heartwarming and will enable the audience to like her more. The fact is her last album, "Just Whitney," which came out in November 2002 and contains a series of jibes at the hounding press, sold 200,000 copies in one week and 11 million copies in total. Over 250,000 copies of her albums have been sold in Israel,

At around 9:30 P.M., there are signs of movement from the patrol cars across the way. A shiny white bus slowly enters the plaza. Inside there is a smiling face in a white blouse. Whitney waves excitedly to the crowd. And then the door opens and Mayor Gabi Lalush hurries inside. A few minutes later, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown step out of the bus. Houston seems happy and pleased. She shouts to the crowd: "We love you, see you soon!"

Brown, for his part, doesn't forget his role, and makes a fist with a hand adorned with a huge ring and waves it in a gesture of "Black power." Houston joins him and the crowd in the plaza enthusiastically raises its hands. It is an impressive moment and there is not much else to do but soak it all in quietly. Houston gets back on the bus. She spends the night in a local villa rented for her by the members of the Hebrew Israelite community in town. She will remain in Israel for a week and will visit sites all over the country. On Thursday she will come to sing with the community members. Who knows, summarizes Yeda'a Bat Yisrael, maybe she will encourage the members in America to visit Israel more often.

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