Yona Atari, veteran star of stage and screen, dies at 85

Yona Atari is survived by two children of her own, Dana and Oren. Her husband Uri Yaffe, who was an El Al pilot, died in 2012.

Yona Atari (left) with Matty Enav (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Yona Atari (left) with Matty Enav
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Yona Atari, the eldest of the three famous and highly talented Atari sisters, died early Monday morning at age 85. The first of seven siblings, she was the only one who was born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.
She was eulogized on Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
Netanyahu described Atari as “an outstanding talent,” adding that people of his generation had grown up on her, and that she was part of the Israeli tradition.
Regev called her “a cultural treasure” who was part of the pioneer generation of Israeli entertainers, and declared that she had won an eternal place in the pantheon of Israeli entertainment.
Yankele Mendel – the chairman of EMI (the Israeli Artists’ Association) which had given Atari a Lifetime Achievement award – said that she had paved the way for integrating acting with singing, and that she had been a loyal member of EMI since its inception.
Although the whole Atari family was musically gifted – something that has seeped through to the next generation – only Yona, Shosh and Gali Atari achieved fame. Shosh, an actress and popular radio broadcaster, died in April 2008 at the age of 58.
Gali, now 65, and a well-known singer and actress, won the Eurovision song contest forty years ago in 1979.
All three sisters appeared on stage and screen.
Yona Atari came to pre-state Israel with her parents when she was still an infant. The family settled in Rehovot and quickly expanded, but was very poor – so much so that Yona dropped out of school at age 10 in order to contribute to the income of the household.
At age 15, she left home for Tel Aviv to see if she could make a career out of singing, but returned after two years.
Her real break came during her stint in the army where she was a member of the Nachal entertainment troupe, some of who on completion of their army service formed the Batzal Yarok (Green Onion) entertainment group, whose icons included Uri Zohar, Ilana Rovina, Nechama Hendel, Zaharira Harifai, Gabi Amrani and Chaim Topol among others – and of course, Yona Atari herself.
She later starred in numerous musicales which were box office hits, and enjoyed an on-stage partnership with top-notch entertainers such as Yossi Banai and Ili Gorlicki.
In fact, she appeared with Gorlicki for more than a half a century, and he was at her bedside when she passed away. She had been ill for some time. The two appeared in more than a thousand performances of King Solomon and Shlomi the Shoemaker, and – counting other productions – had appeared together more than two thousand times. Gorlicki said that when she closed her eyes for the last time, he leaned over and whispered in her ear: “Yona, this is Ili. I love you. Go in peace.” She was the greatest stage partner, anyone could have, he stated.
In 1998, Atari starred in a film Absolute Justice which recreated the never-ending story of the Yemenite infants who disappeared from hospitals and kindergartens, and whose parents were told that they had died, but were never provided with death certificates, and seldom shown the grave sites.
The mystery of the missing children has never been resolved.
Yona Atari is survived by two children of her own, Dana and Oren. Her husband Uri Yaffe, who was an El Al pilot, died in 2012.
The public can pay its respects to Atari from 11 a.m. this morning Tuesday, at the Cameri Theater, where a farewell ceremony will be held at 12 p.m. noon. The funeral service will be at the Hayarkon Cemetery in Tel Aviv at 3:30 p.m.