Famed actor-turned-rabbi Uri Zohar dies at 86

Zohar was one of the most distinguished directors and entertainers in Israeli history, who became religiously

URI ZOHAR is the subject of ‘Zohar: The Return.’ (photo credit: YANIV LINTON)
URI ZOHAR is the subject of ‘Zohar: The Return.’
(photo credit: YANIV LINTON)

More often than not, when cultural icons from the entertainment industry change their lifestyles and opt to become religious, they fade into anonymity. Not actor Uri Zohar, who went from being the secular king of Tel Aviv’s bohemian society to becoming religiously observant and an outspoken champion of Orthodoxy.

Zohar died of heart failure at age 86 on Thursday morning.

The rabbi might have preferred anonymity as he delved deeper and deeper into religion under the guidance of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak Zilberman, a haredi Orthodox follower of the Gaon of Vilna. But former colleagues and fans who were aware of his amazing talents as a filmmaker, actor and television host would not allow him to completely disappear from the limelight.

He was invited as a guest panelist to various conferences of the newly religious. He helped produce some of the campaign films for religious political parties, and there were retrospective festivals for his films in Israel and abroad. His opinions on certain issues were often sought on radio and television, because his commanding personality would guarantee that the program would be a hit.

Uri Zohar's life

Uri Zohar's ‘Big Eyes.’ (credit: David Gurfinkel)Uri Zohar's ‘Big Eyes.’ (credit: David Gurfinkel)

The son of Polish immigrants, Zohar was born in Tel Aviv in November 1935. He did his army service in an entertainment troupe, and later studied philosophy at Hebrew University.

He was also extremely vulgar, both in the films he made and in the way he spoke. His best-known films were Every Bastard a King and Metzitzim (Peeping Toms).

He was at his peak in the entertainment scene during the 1960s and 1970s. When Israel Television went on air, he became a program host.

 Funeral of Rabbi Uri Zohar, June 2, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Funeral of Rabbi Uri Zohar, June 2, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Zohar’s transformation was gradual. The first major sign was when he began wearing a kippah on camera. In the late 1970s, he moved completely away from his secular milieu to immerse himself in Torah.

Unlike many newly Orthodox, he did not forsake his secular friends, especially Arik Einstein, who also became one of his in-laws.

Having himself walked the path from secularism to religious observance, Zohar was extremely active in the movement to persuade secular Jews to introduce religion into their lives. Much as he tried to avoid anything related to his former life, its remnants still clung to him. In 2018, Zohar agreed to appear in a documentary about his life with Dani Rosenberg and Yaniv Segalovich.

In 2012, he was named an Israel Prize laureate but declined to accept the award.

Israeli radio and television stations honored his memory on Monday by giving plenty of airtime to people who wanted to eulogize him. There was also a flurry of eulogies on social media.

Among the many who eulogized Zohar was Chief Rabbi David Lau, who in adult life befriended the former actor. Lau said that Zohar was always happy with his lot, was a great lover of humanity, and was always willing to help those in need.

President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu were also among those who paid tribute to the entertainer-turned-rabbi.

Herzog expressed his deep regret upon hearing of Zohar’s passing. The president described him as a man of culture and one of the great creative figures and architects of Israeli cinema who made important contributions to Israeli cultural and spiritual life.

"Uri was an inseparable part of Israeliness in all of its variations, a prickly, deep-rooted Israeli with an enormous spiritual world and a beating Jewish heart."

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

Netanyahu recalled Zohar as “one of the greatest Israeli artists – an actor, screenwriter and director who shaped our cinema. His contribution to Israeli culture will be remembered for generations.”

Zohar was laid to rest on Monday afternoon at Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem.

It is anticipated that hundreds will flock to his home on the capital’s Zichron Yaakov Street to offer condolences to his family.

Zohar is survived by his second wife, former actress Eliya Shuster, who played in the movie Big Eyes (which Zohar directed), their seven children and many grandchildren.

Two of his sons are married to the two eldest daughters of Arik Einstein from his first wife, Alona, who became religious around the same time as the Zohars. She remained closely connected to them until her death in January 2006. Einstein died in November 2013. Zohar’s youngest son, David, is a Degel HaTorah representative on the Jerusalem City Council.