The prayer “Avinu Malkeinu” — “Our Father, Our King” — is an important part of Jewish tradition recited during Yom Kippur, the somber Day of Atonement. It beseeches God to hear our voices and our sins, to have compassion for our world, to inscribe us in the Book of Life and to grant us a good year.
The most famous rendition of the prayer and song is, arguably, that of Barbra Streisand, sung to the popular tune of German Jewish composer Max Janowski. First recorded to seal her aptly titled 1997 album “Higher Ground,” Streisand’s vocals stir the listener’s heart and the soul, truly transmuting the meaning and the emotion behind this prayer. There’s something so powerful about Streisand, probably the greatest Jewish singer this country has ever known, sing such a devout religious text solemnly in Hebrew and include it in one of her records.
But if you want a truly transcendent experience, you have to witness her sing it live.
Back in 2013, at a gala event celebrating the 90th birthday of Israeli President Shimon Peres, Streisand, who was 71 at the time, sang the song especially for the Israeli leader at an event in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. It was her first time performing the song on stage.
“At the request of the president, I am going to sing a song that he loves, which I’ve never sung before live,” she told the crowd, which included many prominent Israeli and international figures, including president Bill Clinton, who sat next to Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon Stone, Tony Blair, Dr. Ruth and Robert DeNiro.
The song, Streisand said that evening, “asks God to have compassion for us and our children and to help bring an end to war and famine, and to cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth. And we pray that can happen.”
Peres and Clinton both look at Streisand in awe as she delivers this seamless and awe-inspiring rendition of the prayer. In fact, everyone in attendance seemed mesmerized, knowing that they were witnessing true greatness.
“The heavens speak,” she said, as the choir joined her performance, and then asked, “Is she listening?” referring to God in the feminine. The performance seems both effortless, haunting and heartfelt.
Peres, who fought for peace in Israel until his dying days, spoke of the prayer’s themes, which asks for an end to war and speaks to the idea of repentance.
“Our work is not yet complete,” he said from the stage. “We came to the promised land and now we must make it a land of promise, into an exemplary country.”
“I believe that Israel can go higher and higher, if we make the necessary decisions,” Peres continued. “We genuinely and truly strive to be a nation among nations, a nation that gives. We long for peace with our neighbors. The yesterday between us and the Palestinians is full of sadness. I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can offer our children a ray of hope.”
It has been over a decade since this event, and that Israel of tomorrow seems even further from reach, which makes Streisand’s performance, and Peres’ speech, more moving and evocative than ever.
Streisand later took her place in the audience, sitting next to Clinton. A picture of Streisand and Peres show her holding onto his face with adoration.
Streisand had a pretty prolific visit in Israel that June — she not only sang for Peres, but had two sold-out shows, attended a Make-A-Wish Foundation event with the president, visited the Western Wall, and even got an honorary PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Almost three decades earlier, in 1984, Babs visited the same university to dedicate a building there in her father’s name.
“I’m so glad that at the Emanuel Streisand School of Jewish Studies women will be able to study Jewish thought and Talmud without having to disguise themselves as men,” Barbra said at the time, referring, of course, to her film “Yentl,” whose Israeli premiere she also attended during that visit. In fact, it was a visit to her father Emanuel’s grave that inspired her to direct the movie.
But that 2013 visit for Peres’ birthday was the first time the “Funny Girl” star had ever performed in Israel. Her two Tel Aviv concerts, which featured both her sister Roslyn Kind and her son Jason Gould, got rave reviews. Streisand told her fans that performing in Israel made her feel connected to her family and history, and added that sharing the stage with her family was part of her “Jewish approach.”
“Avinu Malkeinu” wasn’t the only song she sang in Hebrew on stage that summer. During the show’s encore, Streisand regaled the crowd with her touching rendition of the Israeli national anthem “HaTikvah” — and I must say, hers might also be one of the most beautiful versions of that song, as well.