One of the great ladies of our stage is gone

Israel Prize laureate Zaharira Harifa’i passes away at the age of 83 after a long battle with cancer.

Zaharira Harifa’i and Anat Waxman in A Good Ending 370 (photo credit: Gerard Alon)
Zaharira Harifa’i and Anat Waxman in A Good Ending 370
(photo credit: Gerard Alon)
In a sad irony, one of the last roles Israel Prize laureate Zaharira Harifa’i played at the Cameri Theater was Hayaleh, a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy in Anat Gov’s witty, compassionate A Good Ending.
She received Best Actress for the role at the Israel Theater Prize awards in 2011.
On Wednesday, January 2, Harifa’i herself succumbed at Beilinson Hospital after a long battle with the disease. She was 83.
“To be an actor is to do gymnastics with the soul,” she once said, adding that for her an actor’s role “is to be truthfully the voice of the playwright, as I see it.”
She was that. In A Good Ending I wrote that Hayaleh had “declared war on her cancer,” and that Harifa’i played her “with a terrorized truculence.”
She brought to her roles both intensity and innocence. Her comedic timing was impeccable.
Speaking of her performance in Hanoch Levin’s wrenching Requiem, former Post theater critic Naomi Dudai called her “the artist of understatement.” Above all she brought an inner gusto with her onto the stage, the kind that cannot but infect the rest of the cast.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, winning swim prizes as a teen, Harifa’i decided to be come an actress after being cast as a ‘diaspora child’ in her school play.
She graduated from the then Cameri Theater School but her professional career really took off when Yosef Millo cast her as Grusha in Bertolt Brecht’s A Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Haifa Theater. She won the Clausner Best Actress Prize for that in 1964, winning again in 1973 for The Seagull and again in '78 for Hanoch Levin’s The Rubber Merchants.
Indeed, she and Levin worked together in some dozen of his plays including the uproarious Ya’akobi and Leidenthal – she played Big Tuches – that toured Europe and then La Mama in New York. She also starred in many films including The Policeman and Sallah.
In 1989 she won the Isaac Stern Prize and in 2001, the Meir Margalit Prize for her contribution to and life achievement in the theater. She received the Israel Prize in 2003.
Most of Harifa’i’s professional life was at the Cameri, from 1953- 58 and then from 1968 on. Latterly, encouraged by the late Gary Bilu, she turned to directing.
Yerma, The Master Builder and Ya’akobi and Leidenthal were among the plays she directed at Bet Zvi. She won first prize at the Acre Festival with Fragments in the late 90s and made her professional debut at the Cameri with Dvora Barron in 2000.
She is survived by her husband, author Shlomo Shva and by her actress/director daughter Aya.