Yaffa Yarkoni was born in Tel Aviv in 1925. The families of both her father, Avraham Avrahamov, and her mother, Malka Alhassof, immigrated to pre-state Palestine from the Caucasus region at around the turn of the twentieth century. Yarkoni’s parents met in Palestine, married in 1920, and lived in Tel Aviv. The couple had three children: Tikva (b. 1921), Yaffa (b. 1925) and Binyamin (b. 1927).
Avraham Avrahamov, a merchant who dealt in fabric and carpets, traveled to South Africa and remained there, leaving Malka alone to raise and support their children. During the 1930s, mother and children moved to Givat Rambam (in Givatayim, Israel), where Malka Avrahamov opened the Tslil coffee house, which quickly became a popular gathering place, particularly among security personnel and artists.
Together with her brother and sister, Yaffa started the Bamati entertainment group (the name is a Hebrew acronym of the first names of her family members), which sang and played at the coffee house. At the recommendation of singer-actor Shmuel Fisher, a regular visitor to the café, Yarkoni was accepted at the classical dance studio of Gertrude Kraus, where she studied for over ten years. During this period, she also learned to play the piano, and, after several years at the studio, was accepted to the dance company of the Palestine Opera. Yarkoni danced with this company for twelve years. At one of her performances there in 1945, she suffered a leg injury that forced her to abandon her dance career.
One of the guests at the coffee house, Yosef Gustin, fell in love with Yarkoni and they married on September 21, 1944. Gustin volunteered with the British Army, serving in the Jewish Brigade, which fought in Italy. In April 1945, he was killed in one of the final German rearguard actions against Allied forces.
Yarkoni served in the Haganah as a wireless radio operator, joining the Givati Brigade at the outbreak of the War of Independence. Tuli Raviv (Robov) and Bobi Pinhasi, who founded the Hishtaron entertainment troupe, added Yarkoni to their ensemble. Other members of the group included Zerubavela Shashonkin, Ahuva Tzadok, Shalom Gamliel, Moshe Goldstein, Yosefa Rosenstein and Adi Grinberg. Yarkoni was accepted into the group as a dancer, but, encouraged by Tuli Raviv, began to sing as well. Her deep and somewhat throaty singing voice quickly became her trademark. The songs sung by Yarkoni during this period (“Im Teshvu be-Sheket,” “Elisheva” and later “Al Na Tomar Li Shalom,” “Sheharhoret,” “Karah Zeh Rak ha-Pa’am,” and others) became much-requested hits. Their uniqueness lay in their use of rhythms from the popular ballroom dances of the time, such as the tango, foxtrot and others, earning them the name “ballroom songs.”
These songs marked a departure from the then-accepted forms of Israeli music. While the popular songs of the period dealt with poetic pathos on an individual level, or with love of the land and the readiness to sacrifice one’s life to build the homeland, the ballroom songs spoke of love and personal feelings. The different subject matter and “foreign” rhythms transformed these songs into a genre all their own.
Yaffah married Shaike Yarkoni in 1948, while still in uniform. The couple had three daughters: Orit (b. 1950), Tamar (b. 1953) and Ruth (b. 1956).
Yarkoni recorded her first record (a 78 rpm) at Radio Doctor (the studio that recorded Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948). On one side of the record was the song “Einayim Yerukot,” with Yarkoni accompanying herself on the piano. The song became a hit, spreading to the radio, where the name Yaffa Gustin quickly became famous. During a lull in her work, Yarkoni went into Café Nussbaum, a center of the art scene at the time, and asked to hear the record. The owner refused to play it, claiming that it was already scratched from overuse. Yarkoni argued that she was the singer Yaffa Gustin who performed on the record, to which the café owner responded: “There were already four girls in here before you, each of them claiming to be Yaffa Gustin of the record.”
The Hed Arzi record company, which had only just been founded, signed Yarkoni to a recording contract—quite a rare occurrence for Israel at the time. She was one of the first singers to be signed by the company. Within a short time, Yarkoni had recorded dozens of songs with Hed Arzi, including children’s records, songs of war and folk songs.
Among the songs she recorded during this period were “Bab el Wad,” “Rabotai, Ha-Historiyah Hozeret,” “Hen Efshar,” “Hayu Zemanim,” “Yatzanu At” and the most popular, “Ha’Amini Yom Yavo.” Her appearances at Israeli army bases and before soldiers in the field, where she sang Israeli war songs, earned her the title “singer of the wars.”
During the 1950s Yarkoni was considered Israel’s leading singer, recording numerous records. She was the first woman to record a full album of songs by Naomi Shemer (Shirim mi-Kinneret). At the Israel Song Festivals organized by Kol Yisrael, Yarkoni took first place in 1965 and again in 1966, with “Ayelet ha-Hen” and “Leil Stav,” respectively.
Over a span of forty years, Yarkoni has performed hundreds of concerts abroad before Jewish communities and general audiences alike. Her appearances at such major venues as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Olympia in Paris, the Palladium in London, and in Japan, Scandinavia, Australia and Russia (1989) have drawn large audiences.
Over the years, the media have fueled a “rivalry” between Yaffa Yarkoni and Shoshana Damari, the two most established women singers on the Israeli music scene. But in reality, relations between the two were good, and they even recorded two songs together: “Rak Shuvu be-Shalom,” which they sang at an appearance marking Israel’s fortieth anniversary, and “Ke-Shehayinu Yeladim,” recorded for the album of duets entitled Sharim im Yaffa Yarkoni (1996).
To date, Yarkoni has recorded some 1,400 songs (some claim the total is even higher) and over sixty albums (more than any other Israeli singer, male or female), in an impressive range of styles and rhythms.
In 1998, Yarkoni was awarded the Israel Prize. The judges wrote in their citation: “For her generosity, constancy, talent and charm, and for her contribution to Hebrew song, Yaffa Yarkoni has been deemed worthy of the Israel Prize for Hebrew song.”