Victoria Hanna creates songs from modern and ancient Hebrew texts. (Photo/Eric Portman)
Victoria Hanna creates songs from modern and ancient Hebrew texts. (Photo/Eric Portman)

Eccentric Israeli artist Victoria Hanna brings spells ancient and modern to Berkeley

Victoria Hanna was just a small child living in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem when she discovered that her voice could set her free.

Afflicted with a stutter, Hanna was confined to a lonely state while uncomprehending children laughed at her. It was in one such schoolyard situation where she jumped up onto a large rock and, with all her heart, sent her very musical voice up to the God she believed would save her. The sound she made silenced the taunts and released her to a life in music and the performing arts. After finding that the stutter ceased when she sang or performed theatrically, she was motivated to continue expressing herself musically.

Though later in life she would have some differences with the restrictions on Orthodox Jewish women, she says the action she took at age 6 or 7 was “a gift from the Orthodox world, the strong belief that there is something above us, and only He can help me, by calling Him through song, through prayer.”

Hanna today is a singer, composer, teacher and video artist who performs in Israel onstage, at schools, official ceremonies and important national occasions, and for international audiences at festivals. Her unique angle is that she creates songs from modern and ancient Hebrew texts, adapting musical styles from traditional Jewish music to new music and hip-hop.

This past summer she sang at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event held every four years in Israel. On Oct. 28 she’ll be performing at the World Music Expo in Poland.

The daughter of an Iranian Jewish mother and an Iraqi Jewish father by way of Egypt, she is equally comfortable with Arab and mainstream Israeli music — another line her music crosses.

“When my father, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, was ironing his white shirt for Shabbat, he was listening to Egyptian music. Like a lot of Sephardic Jews in Israel, this is the music that I heard growing up,” Hanna said.

Earlier this year, UC Berkeley music professor Francesco Spagnolo found some of Hanna’s performances on YouTube and reached out to her. As curator of the Magnes Collection in Berkeley, Spagnolo has collaborated with Israeli artists through the Schusterman Visiting Artist Program of the Israel Institute. Watching Hanna perform her haunting songs that lie at the intersection of the ancient and utterly contemporary, he knew she was someone with whom he wanted to work.

With support from the Schusterman program, UC Berkeley students and the public will be able to participate in a collaboration that explores new territory in Jewish culture. As the Magnes’ fall 2017 resident artist, Hanna will co-teach Spagnolo’s new course, “Jewish Nightlife: Poetry, Music, and Ritual Performance from Renaissance Italy to Contemporary Israel.” The course explores the cultural impact of the arrival of both Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism, and coffee, of all things, to Venice “in the roaring 1570s,” Spagnolo said.

“Coffee allowed people to stay up at night, and propelled the invention of new Jewish rituals based on the nighttime singing of Hebrew poetry, that have impacted many ideas and practices to this very day,” he said.

As the course’s music lab component, Hanna and the students will develop a performance series that will be open to the public. It was Spagnolo’s idea that Hanna use some of the Hebrew amulets held in the Magnes collection as a creative source.

Historically, amulets — physical objects, paper or parchment — were designed to protect the vulnerable from harm.

“They were older versions of health insurance or homeowner policies, but also gateways to connect this world with another dimension,” Spagnolo explained. “They are portals.”

Used extensively in the Jewish mystical tradition, amulets featured texts including biblical verses, psalms, divine names, and invocations of angels and the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. In inviting Hanna for the artist residency, he asked her to examine the museum’s collection of amulets and attempt to use them as if they were musical scores.

“Victoria performs texts,” Spagnolo said. “She doesn’t sing from written music; she connects text with sound, and music comes out. She improvises and composes.”

The free performance series, “Magic Spells,” will feature a different amulet on display during each concert; ultimately Spagnolo and Hanna hope to weave these pieces together into a longer operatic work. Audiences will have the opportunity to witness the creative process, Spagnolo says, by attending any of these performances (which are, in effect, the undergraduate humanities course).

“I think I’m really privileged to meet Francesco because he understands in a deep way what I do and his instincts are so clear in everything he proposed,” Hanna said. “For me art was a lifesaver. It was the place where the conflicts in my life made sense. The dark places and loneliness became a gift. That’s why I know that when you work with young people, it’s important to let them express themselves in their own way. This is some of my message: to use your handicaps, your difficulties, for your own benefit.”

“Magic Spells,” 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Oct. 24–Dec. 5 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free. For information, click here. Hanna’s first CD, based on ancient Hebrew scripts, will be available for purchase.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.