Yoni Tokayer and Nina Medved — the couple now known as Yonina — met briefly on a balcony in Tzfat while Yoni was shepherding an Australian tour group and Nina was doing her national service at Livnot U’lehibanot, a nonprofit Israel experience program.
The two spoke briefly — “three minutes,” Yoni recalled during our recent telephone interview — then went their separate ways. He would have liked to find her afterward, but he didn’t know who she was.
And then — is this bashert or what? — he saw a Tu B’Shvat video from the organization Nina was serving, and he learned her name.
At the time, both were singing on their own, and both were in the process of recording original albums. “Yoni was further along,” Nina said. “But we’d both been writing our entire lives. We didn’t meet through music, but we quickly realized that we both shared a passion for music and it was an immediate click.” In fact, she added, the night before their first date, they were listening to each other’s music.
Now, nearly 2 l/2 years later, Yoni, 29, and Nina, 23, are happily married and living in Pardes Hanna, near Caesarea, while enjoying a singing career that blends their voices, their worldviews, and their individual styles. They’ve blended their names to perform as Yonina (think Brangelina). They also share a daughter, Ashira, who is 1 1/2. Ashira doesn’t sing, Nina said, but she does dance.
Nina admits that having her career and a young child is “a bit of a challenge — and we get a lot of help from our parents.” Both families live in Israel. Nina was born in Jerusalem, but her parents hailed from Chicago and Los Angeles. Yoni’s family came from New York when he was 5. In both cases, most of the parents’ siblings made aliyah as well.
Coming to the United States — Yonina will perform at Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom on September 13 — will be “an adventure,” Nina said, though the fact that her daughter is no longer nursing will make it a bit easier.
Yonina has become an international sensation — their cover of the song “One Day” drew some 40 million viewers” — primarily through the weekly videos they post on Facebook and YouTube every Friday before Shabbat. The songs they choose — whether originals or covers — are gentle, harmonic, and uplifting. They have an international following — Jewish and non-Jewish, secular and religious, young and old. And although most of the hits for their weekly music videos come from Israel and the United States, the Philippines comes in third, a fact that delights but amazes the two young singers.
Yoni said that before he and Nina began to post the weekly videos, he and a friend posted videos on a site called “Weekly Niggun.” “We thought it would be cool,” he said. Later, “we made it a trio. Then we” — he and Nina — “moved to Tel Aviv, and we thought it would be a shame to stop it.”
Nina said they had “so much fun doing music together, and dreamed this could grow beyond sharing with friends and family. Two months later, we noticed that people we don’t know were commenting, and it was growing and growing. Then it just exploded.”
“It just happened by itself,” Yoni said. “Every Friday we put out a video, then one day there were over 40 million viewers.” They were, they admit, “very surprised,” especially, for example, seeing the video shared on a Turkish site. According to that site, they were a Turkish couple who lived by the Black Sea.
The couple’s unique sound, the way their voices blend, “just happens,” Yoni said. Even when they record in a studio, they try to keep things simple. “Our home videos ended up being a type of guideline,” he said. “We started with just a guitar and harmony,” taped either at home or in their car. “We keep the intimacy of the vocals in the center.” While both Nina and Yoni have lovely voices when they sing separately, singing together “does form something else,” Yoni said. “When we met, something new evolved.”
“We complement each other musically,” Nina said. “Yoni can pick up an instrument and in 10 minutes he can play it. He’s got a good ear.” In reviewing their first album — released on Monday — “he noticed all the tiny things. I’m more of a lyrics person. We each bring something different to the table.”
Their album, Emet Pshuta, or Simple Truth, is “100 percent original,” Nina said. “Some we wrote before we met and some we wrote together. Most of it is in Hebrew, but there are two tracks in English. Some are upbeat — like American country — and some are more quiet and intimate. Some have a Middle Eastern feel. It’s a really interesting mix.” Some of the songs already have been released as singles.
Nina said that the album was made possible by a crowd-funding campaign, which raised 128,000 shekels from all over the world. “It gave the album a communal feeling,” she added. “We weren’t just creating it for ourselves.”
The two young singers said there are definitely “ideas we want to share, like family values.” The songs are “wholesome and natural,” Nina said. “We want to make people feel good.” Some people use music to criticize. “We want to bring positivity.” It’s about being mindful, “trying to live meaningful lives.
“By default, that we’re a religious couple is a message within itself,” she added, noting that perhaps it might show Israel and Judaism in a new light. Still, their appeal reaches beyond the Orthodox world. Indeed, they wonder if their popularity in the Philippines is due to some shared values, like the importance of the family.
Nina said that the issue of kol isha, where men are forbidden to listen to a woman sing, arises occasionally. “On a personal level, it’s been quite a journey,” she said, explaining that she has studied the issue with several rabbis. While the duo hears occasional criticism, an increasing number of rabbis have begun to hold that what counts is how the singing is done — whether it is done in a modest way.
“That’s the halachic opinion we go by,” she said. “People choose to come and listen; we’re surprised by how accepting people are.” One rabbi, she said, will not attend a live concert, but will watch a video.
While Yonina’s appeal is evident and widespread, the two singers are at a loss to explain it. “We’re very blessed,” said Nina, while Yoni added that “We can’t give ourselves any credit,” attributing their success to God’s help.
But, Nina said, “People can relate to our music. We try to be authentic. It comes from the heart. We named the album Simple Truth and that’s what we’re trying to convey. A line in the first song we released, Ahavah, says that ‘love is a simple truth.’”
The two don’t call themselves celebrities, nor do they feel like stars.
“We try to be ourselves,” Nina said. When people recognize them, “it’s like they feel they’ve met us before. We may be recognized, but we don’t feel like stars. We just feel like we have a lot of friends.”
At their Teaneck concert, the singers will be accompanied by two local musicians, keyboardist Mark Berman and percussionist Jeff Potter. “There will be a blend of original songs from our new album and from our favorite covers,” Nina said. “We’ll try to create an intimate feeling like we’re all together in one living room. There will be something for everybody to connect to.”
What: Will perform
Where: Congregation Netivot Shalom, 811 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck
When: September 13; doors open at 8 p.m., concert begins at 8:30
And also: You can buy tickets by googling Eventbrite Yonini concert Teaneck