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In person, actor and comedian Tuvia Tsafir is not so different from his on-stage persona as children's entertainer Saba (grandpa) Tuvia. At 62, the real-life grandfather of five seems genuinely emotional as he recalls how, following one of his shows, a young boy came up, gave him a hug and kiss and said: "Saba Tuvia, you are the best person in the world."
"I was going through a hard time in my life at that point and it was an extremely powerful moment. Adults do not like to show their feelings but children do, they are always honest," says the star, who in 2001 left adult audiences behind, donned a comical orange checked shirt and denim overalls to become the cheeky but lovable grandfather figure. "I never believed that I would create something so important."
It's been 44 years in the making, but Tsafir - who got his start in 1963 with the IDF's entertainment troupe, received professional training from artists such as Yossi Banai and Shaike Ophir and has a real talent for impersonating the country's politicians - says that he might have finally created what he calls "my legacy."
"A person often wonders what he will leave behind him when he dies, and I believe that this is perhaps my most meaningful work," philosophizes Tsafir, who was inspired to work with children following the birth of his first grandchild in 1999.
In the six years since Saba Tuvia came to life, the balding grandfather has become somewhat of a hero to thousands of adoring preschool fans who with ease can parrot his monologues and hound him for cuddles after every public appearance. Selling more than 350,000 DVDs and performing hundreds of stage shows each year, Saba Tuvia's catchy tunes and unique storytelling talents have also catapulted him into the role of the nation's beloved grandfather, a position Tsafir says, "I love."
"It's the real bonus here," he continues. "Some children really see me as another grandfather, they have Saba Moshe, Saba Shmulik and Saba Tuvia; and for those who do not have a grandfather - if their grandfather has passed away or something - then I'm their only one."
And now the grandfather of the nation is taking on a new role - as Zionist educator with his fourth DVD release and stage production, Tales of the State, which focuses on retelling the country's history through song and dance.
Theodor Herzl breaking out into song at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Golda Meir doing the hora with other female pioneers, Baron Edmund de Rothschild throwing cash down on Metulla and Rishon Lezion, and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in yoga poses on the Tel Aviv beach are just some of the historical characters that Tsafir impersonates in his latest yarn.
"Deciding on this topic was not easy," he says. "It was a real gamble whether parents would go for it. We were worried that Zionist stories might be a little scary, that parents might say, 'This is a nice, but not for my child.'"
Until now, Saba Tuvia has stuck to safer content: retelling classic stories from the animal kingdom, such as the tortoise and the hare, or fables of famous kings and queens and, more recently, biblical tales.
However, Tsafir explains that together with his creative team, which includes his manager/producer wife, Yael, and writer and director Ofer Shafrir, "we wanted to do something positive."
"Adults are very cynical," he continues. "We are always giving our opinions and analyzing the corruption here. From outside, one would think that we had one of the worst countries in the world, but it's not exactly true and I wanted to provide a balance. Israel is not such a bad place."
With songs written by Miri Myers, Liora Shlezinger and even one number by Tsafir's son Yoni, the DVD has already sold 34,000 copies and Saba Tuvia and his company of actors have performed the show 40 times since Hanukka.
"Children start learning about the country's history in kindergarten, but sometimes they find it hard to grasp what they are learning," says Tsafir. "We thought about that during the creative process and hoped Saba Tuvia would be able to help them visualize the history."
"I feel like we are doing a real service, kind of like shlihut [a mission]," he says. "No one asked us to do this, not the government or the Ministry of Education. It was totally voluntary."
When asked which character he likes playing best in the show, Tsafir says emphatically David Ben-Gurion.
"I respect him more than any of Israel's past leaders," explains the performer. "Although I also love being Golda and feel very strongly about the section on women pioneers. They were so strong, leaving their homes and moving to the desert with all the men to build the country. For every two women here, there were at least 30 or 40 men."
He fondly recalls a story he learnt about Golda during his research: "Her father took her to the train station in Milwaukee and asked her again why she was moving [to Palestine]," says Tsafir, with genuine admiration in his voice. "She said she had to do it. She left everything she knew to move to the desert!"
While each character is brought to life by Tsafir's effortless flair for impersonating others, he is quick to point out that he spent hours reading and researching each subject. He also reviewed black-and-white TV footage from Channel 1's archives.
He adds, however, "I'm old enough to remember most of them [the historical figures] though. I even met Ben-Gurion several times because my brother was a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker."
BORN IN 1945 in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood to parents of Polish origin, Tsafir claims that he was "born with the desire to perform."
"I often think about the tale of [American performer] Sammy Davis Jr., who loved being in the spotlight so much that even when he opened the fridge door and the light inside shone out, he started to entertain," jokes Tsafir.
As a child, Tsafir recalls that he perpetually starred in his school productions and following his initiation into the world of showbiz via the army's entertainment troupe, Tsafir found work on the stage in Tel Aviv. Later, he turned his talents to television and throughout the 1980s made a name for himself as an impersonator, poking fun at the country's politicians.
"I was the Ben-Gurion of impersonators in Israel," he says. "Today there are so many comedians doing it - Eli Yatzpan and Eretz Nehederet, but I started it all."
However, as with all careers in show business, there are ups and downs, says Tsafir. "Nothing is for sure in our profession but there is no business like show business. The surprises are the best thing and, sometimes, the worst."
One of the low points for Tsafir came two years ago, when he lost his temper on the set of Telenovela Incorporated and assaulted the female stage manager and a crew member.
"I was under a lot of stress back then. I'd just had a heart attack and they would not cut me any slack," he explains when questioned about the incident. He was brought before the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, and agreed to perform community service and financially compensate those he'd assaulted. "I've moved on from that now and learned that such lapses can happen to anyone, we are only human after all."
Asked whether he was concerned the bad press might turn parents off from his lovable Saba Tuvia character, Tsafir shakes his head.
"People are smart," he says. "They continued to come to my plays and rather than losing supporters, I actually gained some more. The media tried to turn me into someone I am not, but I realized afterward that this could happen to anyone."
As for the future, Tsafir is taking it in his stride. He has several projects in the pipeline, one for television cable provider HOT to make a series for its baby channel, and he plans to take Tales of the State on an international tour.
"Because of Israel's 60th anniversary next year, I think this production will be suitable for international audiences," he says, adding that the company has already performed Bible Stories for North American and British audiences.
"They were really amazing and reacted well, we had a presenter translating the Hebrew," he says. "Of course, I would also be happy going back to entertaining adults. But while the younger ones still want me, I'll stay with them.
"I know that most journalists or arts reviewers don't know what to make of me in this guise, but I can see now that what I am doing will have a lasting impression on the younger generation. Saba Tuvia is something original that I've created and I hope it will last forever."
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