Israels singing kibbutzniks are on their way here

At Kibbutz Geva, an industrial collective located in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, the No. 1 product is solenoid valves. The No. 2 industry is song.

That’s because Kibbutz Geva is home to Gevatron, a popular vocal ensemble as old as the state of Israel itself. What began as a group of teens celebrating the music of their pioneer parents is now one of Israel’s most revered artistic institutions.

The 14-voice Gevatron is set to embark on a U.S. concert tour that includes a stop in San Mateo on Oct. 7. The event is co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency, the Israel Center of San Francisco and Yad B’Yad. A portion of the proceeds go to Yad B’Yad’s Warm Home program, which aids needy children in Israel.

Of course, 59 years after Gevatron was founded, the members are not teenagers anymore. The average age is 65, and a few are in their 70s, although a few youngsters in their 40s have managed to slip into the lineup.

But all are kibbutzniks through and through.

Yoel Parnes, a former member, now serves as the group’s administrator and spokesperson. Born in Milwaukee, he’s the right man for the job, although he has long since exchanged his Midwestern accent for a proper Israeli one.

He came to Kibbutz Geva as a child in 1955, and now serves as president of Geva’s tool-and-dye factory. Indeed, all Gevatron members have day jobs, ranging from accountant and schoolteacher to lathe machinist and social worker. Yet twice a week, all of them meet in the kibbutz’s social hall, gather ’round the piano and sing.

“There isn’t a person in Israel who doesn’t know us,” says Parnes. “We became a symbol of the good parts of Israel Our repertoire is typical Israeli music written by Israeli composers, all arranged by our musical director. We also take Yiddish melodies and sing them with Hebrew lyrics.”

Their material ranges from Yemenite folk tunes and Israeli standards like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” to Russian ballads and pieces composed just for Gevatron. Their song “Unataneh Tokef,” for example, is based on the somber High Holy Days prayer and dedicated to kibbutznik soldiers who died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Parnes notes that average age of a typical Gevatron fan hovers somewhere between 45 and 60. “A lot of them remember as children spending weekends traveling with their parents, and the only music they had to keep them quiet were tapes of Gevatron,” he says with a laugh.

After 18 CDs and so many years in the public eye, Gevatron accepted a new honor last April when Israel’s Ministry of Culture bestowed a lifetime achievement award on the group.

This led to renewed interest in Gevatron, which over the years has toured North America, China, Europe and South America. Normally the group gives two concerts per month, but since the award they’ve given nearly 60 concerts. Parnes took that as a sign it might be time for another trip to the United States.

Not that any of the members earn rock star salaries. Gevatron is a nonprofit enterprise; all they money they earn is funneled back into the kibbutz. But that’s just fine with Parnes and his cohorts.

“It’s become more a family than a choir,” he says. “If we break even, we’re fine.”

Gevatron performs 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7, at the College of San Mateo Theatre, 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo. Tickets: $35-$50. Information: (408) 530-8243.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.