Obituary: Orna Porat – a grand actress

Born Irena Klein in 1924 in Porz, a small town in the Cologne area.

Orna Porat  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Orna Porat
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Thomas Mann saw her act; Fernando Arrabal wrote a play for her; she founded the children’s theater in Tel Aviv that bears her name; she was an Israel and an Emet Prize laureate; she held keys to the cities of Tel Aviv and Cologne (and more); she had a fistful of honorary doctorates. But above all, she was an actress.
An actress who always took a rose to the theater because she wanted it “to be pretty.”
Was. Was. What an awful verb to use in describing Orna Porat. She, the woman of an “eternal is,” is no more. She died Thursday morning, age 91.
“She was a personality,” wrote former president Shimon Peres to her family. “An inspirational artist, and a cultural giant... who will never be forgotten.”
But let’s not turn her into an icon, not just yet. Let’s remember her wit, her versatility, her charm, her curiosity, her openness, her imp.
The get-up-and-go-itness of her. Her capacity to love – her family above all – travel, the new.
And, oh yes, her courage when she lost the love of her life to a heart attack in 1996.
Because that’s where it all started, in Cologne in 1945 when British intelligence officer Yosef Porat interrogated her, wondering why a couple of German girls wanted to go to Russia.
Orna Porat was born Irena Klein in 1924 in Porz, a small town in the Cologne area.
A Schiller play she saw on a school outing when she was 14 decided her career. Her first professional contract was with a “very socialist” Schleswig repertory company that jerked her into political awareness, and “I realized I could no longer stay in Germany when we found out about the camps at the end of 1944.”
Irena and her best friend, Hanni, had been helping Russian and Polish prisoners escape Germany, so Russia seemed an obvious haven. But when she met Porat she forgot about Russia. For her it was love at first sight, for him it “took him a bit longer,” she’d quipped.
They married and in 1947 came to Israel, to a new life and a new religion.
Yosef Millo, a director, recognizing talent when he saw it, took Orna Porat into the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv where she worked for 36 years.
Throughout her career, until he died, her husband was right there with her, feeding her cues, at rehearsals and always at her first nights.
Porat’s first role after he died was Zeruah at Habimah in Nissim Aloni’s Most Cruel the King.
But her roles, on stage and screen, have run the gamut; from Viola in Twelfth Night to the Rebbitzin Feige in Sheindele, from Shen Te/Shui Ta in The Good Person of Szechwan to the title role in The House of Bernada Alba, from Joan of Arc in the Shaw play to the title role in Schiller’s Mary Stuart.
And then there’s the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth.
She founded it within the Cameri in 1965 because “children need good theater, not intellectual pap that talks down to them.” It became the independently funded Children and Youth Theater in 1970, and she ran it for 25 years. When she retired it was named after her.
Now that she is gone it will be her legacy.
She’d nod at that, and then say, “What now?” She will lie in state at the Cameri Theater starting at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
Porat is survived by her children, Lital and Yoram, and by her grandchildren.