WALKING INTO Chaim Topol’s central Tel Aviv home is like taking a time tunnel back to an Eretz Yisrael that doesn’t exist any more.
In the spacious, light-filled multifloor apartment that he’s shared with his wife, Galia, for 56 years, tastefully stylish furnishings and décor are complemented by walls of books and countless paintings and artifacts – tributes to a country’s cultural development that has matched its advancements in other fields stride by stride.
And nobody has contributed more to the Yishuv’s cultural life than Topol, who made using one name fashionable, before Madonna and Rita were even born.
Forget for a moment the fact that he was Israel’s most famous export since the Jaffa orange – the first Sabra entertainer that most of the world had ever seen thanks to his iconic portrayal of Tevye in both the stage and film versions of Fiddler on the Roof.
More significant, in an era of cookie-cutter music competition shows and universal uniformity that’s increasingly sucking any ethnic diversity out of the country’s entertainment palette, the 77-year-old Topol is a testament to something uniquely Israeli. His outlook, his rhythm, even his Queen’s English – are derived from the same DNA that fueled a generation of Israelis who built the country and decided how it would look, sound and feel.
Whether performing on the dusty army stages of the Nahal Troupe of the 1950s, or acting in seminal nation-defining films like 1964’s Sallah Shabati, Topol even added a few new strands of molecular makeup to the nation’s national psyche.
Still spry and looking trim – a few kilos lighter than his trademark beefy Tevye look – Topol’s youthful demeanor belies his age as he sits down barefoot and relaxed to reminisce about his fabled life in on stage and film.
Even though he last performed as Tevye during a farewell performance of Fiddler in 2009 in London, Topol himself has no thoughts of retiring. He is getting ready to fly to China the following day – for the fifth time this year – as part of his work with a World Health Organization initiative that raised awareness about issues related to the elderly, and noted he was planning to add to his 3,500 appearances as Tevye next year in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Evidently, for Topol, there’s no sunrise or sunset – only high noon. And it’s been that way ever since he exhibited charisma and acting talent in kindergarten.
“My teacher picked me out from the class to lead the ceremonies for all the holidays like Lag Ba’omer and Tu Bishvat. I was already singing and acting, but I didn’t know it was something special, it’s just what all kids did,” says Topol. “It happened again and again as I got older. The first day of high school, the teacher said to me, ‘OK, you’re going to play this part in our play.’”
The experience proved handy when Topol began his army service in the Nahal Brigade in 1953. Chosen to attend a commanders’ course, Topol found himself performing at a farewell party for the female soldiers who had completed their course three months earlier than the boys. An education officer happened to catch his act, and jotted his name down.
“When I finished the course, I was summoned to Nahal headquarters and was told that I was joining the entertainment troupe,” he recalls. “That was an order, but one that I liked.”
For the next two and a half years, Topol traveled around the country with the troupe – eventually becoming its commander – with his future wife Galia as one of his performers.
In the pre-television days of the young country, the Nahal entertainment troupe was the most popular variety show around, and the originator of a brand of whimsical yet patriotic Israeli entertainment that would soon branch out into film and the small screen. It was like a laboratory of developing Israeli culture, with future leading lights like Haim Hefer, Ephraim Kishon and Dahn Ben-Amotz learning their skills with their first written material, and the performers, led by Topol, captivating the country.
“We really appeared everywhere, and even though there was no mass electronic media, we became very well known,” says Topol. “Every male was going to miluim [reserve duty], usually more than once a year, and they would see us in very strange places – whether in the desert or in miserable conditions in the Galilee. I think there was a lot of subconscious gratefulness to us for coming to these places and dancing, singing and making them smile. Songs like “Ya Mishlati” (My Outpost) written by Yehiel Mohar and Moshe Wilensky, became well-known standards that reflected the tough conditions soldiers were forced to function in, while, at the same time, bolstering their sense of purpose.
“We were also very lucky in the troupe because we had such great writers like Hefer and Kishon, who did their milium with us. Because of them – more than our performing talent – we topped all the other entertainment troupes.”
The Nahal troupe achieved legend status when Topol was called for reserve duty at the beginning of the 1956 Sinai campaign, only a month after being discharged from the IDF and two days after marrying Galia. At the end of the conflict, the troupe recorded another song written by Mohar and Wilensky, a special request from the top brass.
“Mul Har Sinai” (At Mount Sinai) juxtaposed biblical images of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai with images of modern-day IDF troops battling Egyptian forces – and emerged as a national anthem, a forerunner to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” 10 years later.
“The song with the lyrics and sheet music was sent to us by plane, we learned it, and performed it near the Suez Canal,” says Topol. “Half the general staff was there and I remember them all crying. Wherever we went with that song, people were crying.”
Settling at Kibbutz Mishmar David after the 1956 campaign, Topol and Galia, along with other Nahal entertainment troupe alumni, began toying with the idea of creating a kibbutz theater group based on their already established style. And Batzal Yarok (Green Onion) – the Eretz Nehederet of its era – was born.
“I asked permission from the kibbutz to launch the troupe and they agreed, with the stipulation that everyone who joined the theater had to also join the kibbutz,” says Topol. “The idea was to work four days a week in the theater and two days a week in agriculture on the meshek (farm). Fortunately, or unfortunately, the theater turned out to be very successful and we worked eight days a week – all over the country.”
From 1957 to 1960, Batzal Yarok set a new standard in Israel for musical variety and comedy, establishing characters like Sallah Shabati, the hapless Yemenite immigrant – who would turn up again later in Topol’s career.
The next challenge was bringing theater to Haifa in 1960, where, along with mayor Abba Khoushy and director Yosef Milo, he established the Haifa Theater. Even though the coastal city might then have been more of a backwater town than a cultural haven, Haifa proved to be a receptive location for theater.
“A big hit would run maybe 10 to 20 times back then, but usually it was only three or four performances. The goal was for five shows a year, and we were allocated 200 nights a year in the theater, so the question arose of how we were going to fill all those nights,” recalls Topol.
“A friend of mine – a retired colonel – had the answer. He had become the tax authority representative in the North and he said to me, ‘it’s very simple. If you go to all the workers’ committees in the area and tell them you’ll give them subscriptions for five shows a year for their workers, then it will be a benefit to them, without causing them to pay more taxes, and at the same time, the management of the factory or company will receive a tax cut, so everybody wins.’ So unbelievably, in the first year, the Haifa Theater sold out 40 performances of every show.”
The early 1960s also saw Topol’s first foray into the silver screen, with roles in the drama I Like Mike in 1961 and Eldorado in 1963. But it was his starring turn in 1964’s Sallah Shabtai that proved to be the turning point in the young actor’s career.
Directed by Kishon, produced by newcomer Menahem Golan and featuring Arik Einstein and Gila Almagor, the social satire still stands as an Israeli cinematic landmark.
Topol played the title role of Shabati, a mizrahi Jewish immigrant arriving with his family in Israel, and sent to live in a ma’abara, or transit camp.
Amid the laughter, the film provided biting satire and commentary on the political and social stereotypes of the day, while focusing on the plight of the Sephardi immigrants who had seemingly been shunted to society’s margins.
“It wasn’t the first film about Sephardim, but it was the first Israeli film to be nominated for an Academy Award,” says Topol proudly.
The role helped him nab a subsequent part in his first international English-language feature, the 1966 American production of the Mickey Marcus biopic, Cast a Giant Shadow, in which Topol acted alongside Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Yul Brynner.
“The producers were looking for somewhat of an older man to play an Arab character and they saw me in Sallah and said, ‘he’ll do,’ he says.
Topol’s ability to portray a character decades older than himself also proved to be the secret weapon in eventually winning the role he’s universally identified with – that of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But it was his relative youth – he was 30 in 1965 when he first auditioned for the London stage version of the show – that almost did him in.
“Because of Sallah, I got called to London to audition for Fiddler – they were looking for the old guy from Tel Aviv,” said Topol. “So when my agent from the William Morris Agency announced to the producers that Mr. Topol is here, a whole battery of people turned my way and looked right through me for the old guy.
“I never had a problem playing someone older than I was. I was 27 when I did Sallah and 30 when I did Fiddler for the first time. I utilized techniques to prevent myself from making young gestures, or moving too fast. I had to close [my] muscles and not use them, to make sure I didn’t break the illusion for the audience,” he says, getting up and accurately demonstrating how a 30-yearold would walk quickly across the room.
“You need to force a discipline on your body to make sure you don’t break that wall. Obviously it gets easier when you’re older and you can do whatever you feel like. The last time I played Tevye was three years ago, when I was 74 and [I] had to adjust the opposite way, to play someone who’s 50 and has a young daughter. It’s no different.”
Topol went on to star in the 1971 film version of Fiddler and has portrayed Tevye thousands of times on stage. Other roles in the 1980s like Dr. Zarkov in Flash Gordon and Milos Columbo in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only have attracted their own trail of folklore and notoriety, but for many, Topol will always be identified with hir role of Tevye, the milkman from Anatevka.
Topol expresses gratitude for the role, but admits that even without Tevye he would have kept on working as an actor and would have been just as happy. Nevertheless, he has been able to use the fame that came along with Tevye to better Israeli society – and whether in his post as chairman of the board for the Jordan River Village, a vacation village for children with life-threatening illnesses (see sidebar) or serving as the MC during the London Olympics last summer at the memorial service for the 11 Israeli Olympians killed in the 1972 Munich games, he’s become synonymous with integrity, and a poster boy for the “beautiful Israel.”
Topol credits much of his success to his wife, who cut short her own acting career when the couple had the first of their three children and spending more and more time abroad to accommodate his acting schedule.
“Once I started appearing abroad, she gave up her career,” says Topol. “We had a rule: if it’s for more than three weeks out of the country, then we all go – kids included. That also meant taking a nanny and a tutor when the children were smaller.
“Without Galia, I wouldn’t be here. And because she’s 10 days older than I am, I’ve always taken her orders.”
Adding to the sense of stability has been the family’s longtime residence in the same Tel Aviv house that Galia’s father built in 1928 and has housed five generations, including some of Topol’s nine grandchildren. Maybe that’s why the home takes on the characteristics of a somewhat funky museum, with decades of family and career heirlooms on display, not the least of which are Topol’s prodigious portraits he’s sketched since his youth.
Drawing has been a passion of his almost as long as acting has. Taking visitors to his top-floor studio via an internal elevator in the apartment, he displays folder after folder of thousands of sketches he’s rendered over the years – from the country’s leaders like Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to colleagues like Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein.
“I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. When I was little, I would draw faces of Chaim Weizmann and Henrietta Szold from photographs in the paper, as well as sketching my family. I loved doing it,” says Topol, wistfully examining some of the frayed drawings that he hadn’t seen for decades.
“I don’t think it’s anything outstanding, but I love doing it – it’s dedicating a couple of hours to someone, looking at his eyes, shape of his head, his forehead. I find it very relaxing.”
A tradition that Topol initiated early in his career was photographing his subjects and then drawing their sketches during the run of the show or the film shoot. At the end, he would present them with the picture as a farewell gesture.
“The recipients always enjoyed it, and after a while, it became known that I was going to do it, so they expected it,” he adds.
What’s more unexpected is what direction the homegrown artistic culture – that Topol played such a pivotal role in developing – is heading. Instead of pining for the old days when Israel was fueled by wholesome army troupes, he supported the rise of celebrity entertainment and music competition shows as healthy for the artistic community.
“We have all this new technology to bring performers into your homes and let hundreds of thousands of viewers vote for who they like. I don’t see a problem with that,” he said.
“In essence, the army entertainment groups back then were the equivalent of today’s reality competitions. We appeared before audiences who didn’t pay to see us, so we had use all the tricks possible to capture their attention and affection. That was the vote. And after two years in a troupe, you knew for sure whether you should be continuing on in that profession or not.”
Topol is also nonplussed over the bastardization of Israeli culture, with a more generic style of show biz, replacing the Sabra-based songs, jokes and stories of yore.
“The entire world is more influenced today by what is happening in other places,” he said. “We know what the new songs and latest trends are instantly, and it affects us all. The last 77 years have been running by so fast, it’s more like 770 years – that’s the reality and you can’t fight or ignore it. I think there’s room for both singing in English and keeping that thread of Hebrew Israeli culture alive.”
After all, what good is culture without a little tradition? It’s something Tevye would agree with wholeheartedly.The actor’s biggest role
AS MUCH as Chaim Topol appears to enjoy talking about his illustrious career, he becomes positively animated when discussing his intensive involvement in the Jordan River Village, a vacation spot for children with serious or life-threatening illnesses.
Set on a sprawling 24-hectare campus in the lower Galilee, the village is part of an international chain of villages established by the late film star Paul Newman in the 1990s. It was Newman who personally recruited Topol to take on the battle to establish an Israeli village.
“Eleven years ago, when I was the international ambassador for Variety International, I was in New York and got a call from Paul, who I knew from the film industry. He said, ‘Chaim, I would like to show you something we’ve done here,’” recalls Topol.
“He took me to his home state of Connecticut and showed me the flagship village he had built there. It had a theater, a huge pool, all kinds of facilities.
It was very impressive, and later I was even more impressed to learn that Newman had contributed $150 million of his own money toward building the village – that’s amazing.”
The visit spurred Topol’s desire to build a similar camp in Israel. He came back home and first inquired among experts in the healthcare field whether such a facility was even necessary in Israel. He was told that unfortunately there were enough sick children who fit the Newman criteria, to fill two villages.
Topol then began to recruit allies in the project, including Shimon Peres, who was then the Negev and Galilee development minister, and Avigdor Liberman, who was housing minister.
“They were both very helpful and the Israel Lands Authority donated the land – one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Peres single-handedly got the government to pledge NIS 20 million toward the project, 20 percent of our projected budget. Out of the rest, I’m proud to say that 70% was raised right here in Israel, with 30% coming from contributors in the US, England and Switzerland,” he says.
After almost 10 years, The Jordan River Village opened its doors in 2011, but just for small groups of children and with limited facilities. In June, Topol, the chairman of the village, attended the official inauguration of the fully operational facility – complete with theater, swimming pool, horseback riding, climbing walls and Omega zip lines.
“You wouldn’t believe it, but there’s a waiting list of doctors who are volunteering to come whenever we call them,” says Topol.
“We’re housing children with all kinds of different illnesses from cancer to child diabetes – each one-week session is dedicated to a different illness – so we need a lot of specialists. And besides the doctors and nurses, some of the children require up to two caretakers,” he says.
The village accepts non-Israeli children as long as they are being treated in an Israeli hospital, so recent sessions have welcomed campers from the West Bank, Jordan and Gaza. According to Topol, all the sessions include both Jewish and Arab children.
“There’s one disease – a blood disorder called thalassemia – that in our region strikes mostly Arab children,” Topol explains.
“When we were preparing for that week’s session, we realized the 45 of the children were Arab and five were haredi Jews. We decided to call the Jewish families just to let them know they should be prepared that most of the other children would be Arab, and their response was amazing. They said ‘it’s no problem at all, we all go to treatments together and they’re our friends.’ They all had a great time that week, and our worry was for nothing.”
Even with all of his illustrious credits to his name, his work as chairman of the Jordan River Village may prove to be Topol’s most important role yet.