King of culture

Celebrating his 78th birthday, yet another lifetime achievement award, and directing TheaterNetto again, Ya'akov Agmon doesn't have much to be modest about.

yaakov agmon 88 298 (photo credit: )
yaakov agmon 88 298
(photo credit: )
Like the man, his office furniture is just a bit larger than life. Ya'akov (Yankele) Agmon beams hospitably from his near-throne size armchair behind a massive, six foot long, 19th century oak refectory table with grouped chairs to match. Dolls from his large collection peek from the top of an equally massive breakfront along one wal. The other walls bear an eclectic mix of artwork and posters from past festivals of various kinds. The man himself is solid, always immaculately pressed and barbered, always an idea or two ahead, very much in charge and usually smiling. "You've come on a good day. It's my birthday," he says as he offers espresso while fielding calls from friends wishing him well. The cell-phone trills again, and it's his wife, actress/author Gila Almagor. "That was Gila," says Agmon proudly, "she's in Los Angeles, getting a Life Achievement award of her own." Of her own, because at the Israel Theater Prize Awards ceremony at the Haifa Theater on March 30, Agmon will receive a Life Achievement award for his contribution to theater and to Israel's cultural life overall. "It's not a moment for modesty nor for platitudes," he says in answer to the inevitable question of how he feels about it, and intimating that neither life nor achievement are by any means over. "Today I'm 78. Ten years ago IDF Radio gave me a life achievement award for my radio show Personal Questions; I'm still interviewing and next year the show will celebrate its 40th anniversary. So I'll relate to this prize cautiously. Everybody keeps telling me 'you deserve it.' What? Am I going to argue with them?" Agmon's career almost spans the life of the state. In 1958 he orchestrated Israel's 10th anniversary celebrations and this year he's once again the artistic director of the 17th TheaterNetto monodrama festival, an event that is his brainchild. In between, and usually doing more than one job at a time, he's managed the Cameri Theater (1958-62), produced the first Arthur Rubinstein international piano competition, created first his own theater Bimot (1964), then founded and ran the Bet Lessin repertory theater (1978-86), and then his own production company, Bimot 2000 (1989). He managed the state's 40th birthday party, and ran the Acre Festival (1991-95) - "the biggest theatrical laboratory in the country"- not to mention doing "Personal Questions" weekly on IDF Radio, writing articles and hosting cultural programs on TV. Of his penchant for overlapping assignments, Agmon says that "otherwise I'd die of boredom. I'm always working. I'm happy that my profession is my hobby and vice-versa." Then, in 1995 he got handed one of the largest challenges of his career. The Habimah National Theater, hugely in debt, was tottering on the abyss of liquidation "and they came to me and said, more or less, 'you've run the Cameri, Bet Lessin, Bimot. You have the chance to rescue and rebuild our national theater.' How could I refuse? Besides that, every time you close a theater, not only do you put actors out of work, you kill a little bit of culture." The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, and while Agmon's decade long tenure at Habimah had its inevitable share of controversy (such as the alleged size of his salary, or the lack for a while of an official artistic director), the national theater today is flourishing. His mandate, he felt, was "to reinvent the theater and to open people's minds to various genres." One of Agmon's greatest successes was "Bustan Sfaradi" (Sephardic Orchard), a lively, populist and initially sneered at musical depicting the life of Jerusalem's Bokharan community. Now its passed its 1000th performance. IT ALL started in Sokolov-Podlask, a town some 120 kms from Warsaw and from whence "they brought me here by force in 1893." The joke gets the expected giggle, and Agmon explains that his father died six weeks before his birth. He was the youngest of three children, and in his will, the father had written to his wife "when the child is four, take your three children and emigrate to Eretz-Israel." His father, Jacob Tikulski, had been a well-to-do merchant so the family that arrived in Jaffa had money. Malka Tikulski and her children settled in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv. "I always had to be number one," says Agmon, recalling that even at 10 years old he had everybody organized. A member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, he used to do all "the big holiday parades and activities, and as I grew up, I decided that it was either politics or the arts, and because politics disgusted me and I wanted to be the one making the decisions, it was the arts that got me." Given Agmon's enthusiasm for multi-tasking, creating Bimot in 1964 was a perfect solution "because, as a private repertory company, I could also do theater as well as events, and whenever I worked for the government, as I did at Habimah and at Acre, I'd freeze the company." But his favorite activity has nothing to do with theater and he started it unwillingly. When the then head of IDF radio, Yitzhak Livni, approached Agmon with the idea of a weekly interview "I didn't want to do it, but I agreed. We made a pilot with [actors] Haim Topol, Yossi Banai and [now Rabbi] Uri Zohar, and since then I've done some 2000 interviews. I call it my university because I learn so many things. I interview whomever I want, I have no agenda. It's an intellectual adventure, and of all my jobs, this is the one that gives me the most joy." What's important? There's no hesitation as he answers "the family, my six grandchildren, my work, to live life until it throws me out. People ask me 'why do you want to live so long?,' and I say I want to see how it ends."