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The following is the cover story from d"ash, the new Jerusalem Post Israel magazine for young people around the world
"I hated living in New York," says Hani Furstenberg, who at 27 is one of Israel's most talented and critically acclaimed actresses. A few months ago, she returned from almost three years of studying and working in the US.
Sitting comfortably in her Tel Aviv apartment on a late December afternoon, enumerating "all the things that drive me crazy about Israel," she sounds like the ultimate Israeli insider. But this award-winning actress is, in fact, a transplanted New Yorker.
Born and raised in Queens to an Israeli father and an American mother, she moved to Israel at the age of 16, when her parents decided to make their home here. Even at that young age, Hani had already been bitten by the acting bug and had studied at the La Guardia High School for Music and the Performing Arts in New York.
Most English-speaking aspiring actors with US citizenship would probably have done an about-face as soon as possible and made their careers in the US, but not Hani. Although she spoke some Hebrew growing up, she made it her mission to become fluent once she moved to Israel. Now she acts in films and onstage in perfect Hebrew and most of her Israeli fans probably don't even realize that she did not grow up here. "I feel much more Israeli than I do American. I didn't want New York to feel like home this time," she says.
In spite of her strong Israeli identity, Hani found herself drawn back to the US after making the movie Campfire, directed by Joseph Cedar. In that film, she plays a religious Jewish teenager who has just lost her father and is struggling over her mother's decision to move the family to a West Bank settlement. Although she received rave reviews for her performance and continued to appear in stage productions, she found herself becoming "more self-critical. I kept telling myself how terrible I was."
Instead of fretting about it, she decided to go back to school. She studied at Israel's prestigious Beit Zvi acting school and played many roles in the student theater productions there, but found to her disappointment that the school lacked a program that suited her needs. "There was no place in Israel for professional actors who want to continue studying," she explains.
In New York, she found a singing coach, Elly Stone, famous for her performance in the off-Broadway hit Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, who was enormously helpful. She also found a school called the Actors' Center.
Hani returned to Israel briefly to attend the 2004 Ophir Awards, the Oscars of the Israeli film industry, where she won a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Campfire. Surprised by her win - the award was expected to go to an older, more experienced actress - she describes the evening as a big blur.
"It was very exciting, I had grown up watching the Oscars, making up speeches, but I remember nothing from that night," except for her dress, a sophisticated, white-ruffled, mini-gown with an asymmetrical hemline, which accentuated the contrast between Hani in person and the gawky character she portrays in the film.
An agent who wanted to represent Hani urged her to move to Los Angeles, and she decided to give it a try. But despite landing a role on the popular TV show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and taking a screenwriting course at UCLA, she felt "I wasn't giving it my all." She found herself feeling homesick for Israel. "I loved living here, I loved my career here," she explains. "I just felt things have more meaning here... I felt that here I can really try to say something, really try to change things."
Hani's career, in a country where young actresses compete fiercely in a growing but relatively small entertainment industry, has been extraordinary. Her big break was a recurring role on the popular Israeli nighttime television drama, The Bourgeoisie.
She even had a hit single with the theme song for that show, which was the No. 1, chart-topping Israeli hit four years ago. But although she could hear her voice nearly every time she switched on the radio, there are big differences between being a star in Israel and in America. "Only in Israel can you have the 'Record of the Year' and not make a lot of money," she says, laughing, although she isn't really complaining.
Her next high-profile role was as Goldie, a flirtatious soldier in director Eytan Fox's 2002 film Yossi & Jagger, a love story between two male soldiers that was Israel's Brokeback Mountain. This small role attracted the notice of director Cedar and led to her being cast in Campfire. Ironically, Furstenberg and movie directors Cedar and Fox were all born in New York.
Hani is currently appearing in a stage production of the Neil Simon play, Brighton Beach Memoirs. "It's an ensemble piece. I can enjoy myself, because my part is not too big," she says. "Acting is acting," she concludes. "It's the same business wherever you are... But here, people know how to enjoy life, maybe because it's not taken for granted." u