At 70, there's no stopping Almagor

Celebrating a milestone birthday, Dan Almagor reflects on the diverse and distinct career that's made him a cultural icon.

dan almagor 88 298 (photo credit: )
dan almagor 88 298
(photo credit: )
Amazing things routinely happen to prolific writer, lyricist, and translator Dan Almagor. Like the current run of his best known play, Once Upon a Hassid, which is doing standing-room-only business in Belarus. Two days before opening night, he received an invitation to the Minsk premiere. Shifting around engagements (and there's never, ever any lack of those), Almagor bustled off to the airport, was delayed for hours, and arrived in the midst of a snowstorm. He and his guide hurtled through the formalities and the blizzard, arriving at the theater one hour and 20 minutes after the scheduled start of the play to find the entire audience awaiting him. He was then greeted with a standing ovation. Almagor, who has been celebrating his 70th birthday all year, will have yet another birthday bash at the Herzliya auditorium on May 25. The event will pay tribute to lyrics he's written over the years that have become part of the Israeli canon; songs such as "Lighthouse", "A Day Will Come", "My Jerusalem" and "Hebrew Language Difficult Is." Shortish, rotund, curly headed, gregarious, witty, indefatigably energetic and engagingly chatty, Almagor is so talented in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start when describing him. Listed in alphabetical order, he's a host, lyricist, performer, playwright, researcher, teacher, translator and university professor. Just a cursory look at a typical schedule leaves one panting. For instance, last Thursday he returned from a whirlwind Hamlet fundraising trip to Washington DC. Friday he translated three Neapolitan songs and rehearsed for three upcoming performances. Saturday he lectured on "The Yiddishe Mama in Israeli Folksong and Lore," and Sunday there was a concert in Ra'anana and another in Tel Aviv in the evening. What keeps him running? Speaking to the The Jerusalem Post, Almagor admits he doesn't really know. He's "just a guy who can't say no." He also genuinely enjoys what he's doing, and that definitely includes performing - an activity that developed over the last decade. Typically he'll plan and host an evening, and then appear with veteran performers such as Israel Gurion, Izhar Cohen and Moshe Beker, or with new talent, like singers Keren Hadar and Yonit Shaked-Golan. "I remember myself as a wunderkind," he says unflinchingly, "so I am thrilled to discover new talent." Almagor was born Dan Shmuel Elblinger in Ramat Gan in 1935, but grew up in Rehovot. His father Ze'ev, "an exciting combination of laborer, farmer, intellectual and poet," was an agronomist, a pioneer who'd immigrated from Warsaw in 1923. "It all really started when I was in grade school," recalls Almagor. After walking 15 kilometers each way to and from work, "Father would sit at the kitchen table until the wee hours writing his poems and songs and working on the dictionary of agronomy he was compiling. Every Friday at school I would recite one of his poems for Kabalat Shabat (welcoming the Sabbath). One Friday he said 'I don't have one. You write your own.' So I did." His restless energy found an outlet in creative projects throughout his school days and on into his army service. They ranged from organizing, writing and producing all the school events from holidays to parties to end-of-year shows, to writing, editing and then copying his own paper, Etonenu (Our Newspaper) which he'd then distribute to the five subscribers on his street at a halfpenny a copy. On November 29, 1947, the day the UN voted on the partition of Palestine, "I stayed up all night to write a special edition that I delivered at 5 a.m. I scooped even the New York Times," chuckles Almagor. From 12-14 he was the area sports correspondent for five daily papers and the radio, a career that was halted abruptly when his bicycle was stolen while he was on assignment. His interest in theater began when he was 12 after watching rehearsals of the now defunct Chisbatron, and crystallized when Chisbatron composer Haim Hefer, now 80, kicked him off the bucket he was standing on to see over the fence. Almagor started writing and then translating seriously for a living in 1956 when he came out of the IDF, where he served in the Gadna while simultaneously attending university. It was a marathon that culminated in a doctorate from UCLA in Hebrew and English literature in 1968. During that time he also taught at five universities, as well as writing and translating of course. He's done translations/adaptations (more than 100), like the The Fantastiks, My Fair Lady, A Comedy of Errors, and most recently Hamlet and The Producers. He's collected multiple awards, and some of Israel's best performers have made his lyrics famous. But at least one of his poems is infamous (if you're on the right of the political fence) - the song he wrote and read at a rally in 1989, the first anniversary of the first intifada that erupted the year Almagor had taken charge of Israel's 40th anniversary celebrations. "We Shoot Children, Don't We" provoked an orgy of anti-Almagor fury including death threats, and that culminated in the torching of his car and home. His central dilemma was and remains "a personality split between love of Israel and fiercest criticism of its policies vis-a-vis the Arabs and the territories. There has to be a way of reconciling love of country and all that's in it with moral criticism of what we're doing here, and I try to do that in my shows." Yet, he insists, "I'm a teacher in my soul. I want to share my knowledge and love of Israel as expressed in its songs with others." And he finds no contradictions there. Yes, Almagor actually does rest now and again. From July to October he and his wife of 46 years, Dr. Ella Almagor, visit their daughters and the grandchildren in London and the San Francisco area. Every morning starts off with an hour-long sunrise walk among the dunes. "It's a head-clearing way start to the day."