Almagor’s never ending summer

Listening to Gila Almagor reel off some of the projects she has up and running right now, it is hard to believe it was ever any different for the 71-year-old "Queen of Israeli Cinema."

Gila Almagor 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gila Almagor 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Gila Almagor is an Israel Prize recipient and has appeared, and continues to appear, in theater productions across the globe.
More than anything she is known for writing and starring in an autobiographical play, and later movie, called Hakayitz Shel Avia (Avia’s Summer), which began life in the mid-’80s and is still running close to a quarter of a century later.
Fittingly the 25th anniversary performance of the play will take place at Hechal Hatarbut in Yavne, in conjunction with Holon-based Meditech Theater. In a neat turn of events, the Yavneh venue is run by Nahum Langsam who oversaw the original production of the play.
“When I turned 70 I received honorary doctorates from Ben-Gurion University, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot,” says Almagor, gushing like an over-excited, and enthused, teenager.
It was another milestone celebratory event at the latter research establishment, jointly organized with Habima Theater, that spawned a new and somewhat unlikely artistic venture for Almagor at this year’s Israel Festival.
Yoav Ginai and Ehud Hitman wrote a song for her, for her to perform at her 70th birthday bash in Rehovot, called “Hametziut Hamakbila” (The Parallel Reality). It was about her personal life, and her stage work.
Suitably encouraged by her brief but successful musical vignette, Ginai and Hitman proceeded to write a whole program of musical monologues for Almagor, which she will perform as the “Omedet Baruach” (Standing in the Wind) show, on July 16, at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, as part of this year’s Israel Festival.
In fact, Almagor had misgivings about both the Rehovot event and the lyrical birthday gift from Ginai and Hitman.
“I hadn’t sung in years,” she recalls, “and I was scared stiff to perform it, but I eventually got the courage to do it.”
The shebang itself was even more problematic for her and meant she had to deal with a deep-seated trauma.
“I hadn’t marked any birthdays since I turned 10, when no one turned up for my party,” she says.
That sad childhood event, and many others of equally damaging effect, were eventually chronicled by Almagor in a book she wrote in 1986 called Hakayitz Shel Avia.
In the book she tells the story of growing up as the only child of an emotionally disturbed Holocaust survivor mother who was widowed before Almagor was born. The book soon became a play and was eventually turned into a highly successful movie of the same name.
It was an extraordinary change of fortune for Almagor who, prior to writing the autobiographical tome, and starring in the long-running theater production had, to say the least, been down in the dumps.
“I hadn’t had any work for six years,” says the actress.
“I’d called God knows how many directors and producers but no one was interested. I was at my wits end.”
THE CRUNCH came one day when her husband, Yaakov, came to meet her when she returned from a trip.
“He was holding a newspaper and I could tell by his face that something awful had happened. I thought someone had died,” Almagor recalls.
In fact, there was an article in the paper about a new Israeli movie mentioning the name of the lead actress.
“I had been offered that part and the director gave it to someone else. I couldn’t believe it,” says Almagor.
“That really knocked me. I didn’t leave the house, or brush my hair for five days. I hardly got out of bed.”
It was Almagor’s then-12-year-old daughter who brought her back to an even keel.
“I’d walk her to the door and she’d go off to school dismayed and scared by my behavior. After five days I realized that I was doing to her what my mother had done to me. So I shook myself out of it and got down to work.”
That “work” was the cathartic venture of writing the book.
“I had to get my demons out,” declares Almagor. “We all have our baggage and I had to exorcise mine. If it hadn’t been for my daughter I don’t think I’d be around today.”
Almagor is very much around and, at the age of 71, is as busy as she has ever been in her five decade-plus professional life. She has put on Hakayitz Shel Avia in China, the US, Taiwan and London’s West End. Everywhere she takes it she says it strikes a chord.
“It is my story but it’s also a universal one. After the show in Shanghai a woman professor came to my dressing room crying, and told me she’d had a similar childhood to mine. And the same thing happened in Denver, Colorado, when a Vietnamese-born American woman said she’d lost her father in Vietnam and, like me, had looked for him. It is very moving to get that kind of response.”
Today Hakayitz Shel Avia is part of the Ministry of Education-sanctioned school curriculum.
“I love putting the show on for children and parents,” says Almagor.
“They sit there together, with the parent hugging their child. That is something that will stay with the child their whole life.” Sadly, Almagor did not enjoy such warmth as a young girl, but she is certainly doing her best to spread the good word.
Hakayitz Shel Avia will be performed at Hechal Hatarbut in Yavne at 7:30 p.m. on May 11. For tickets and more information: (08) 932-0000