Famed actor Yehuda Barkan was part of Israel’s story

Most of the country’s daily publications gave him extraordinary coverage – much more than for other cultural icons or prominent political or business personalities who have died over the past year.

DIRECTOR TZVI FISHMAN (right) with actor Yehuda Barkan at the event. (photo credit: Courtesy)
DIRECTOR TZVI FISHMAN (right) with actor Yehuda Barkan at the event.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Saturday night, social media was already teeming with reports of the demise of Yehuda Barkan, one of Israel’s most beloved actors, producers and directors.
KAN 11 hastily changed its program lineup to feature Barkan’s last interview with Roni Kubin, which he gave just before he fell ill with coronavirus. On Sunday, KAN Reshet Bet featured tributes to the iconic personality, including interviews with his contemporaries Sassi Keshet and Lea Koenig.
Most of the country’s daily publications gave him extraordinary coverage – much more than for other cultural icons or prominent political or business personalities who have died over the past year. Yediot Aharonot devoted almost the whole of its 24 Hours supplement to him – eight pages. He was featured on the cover of the supplement as well as on the cover of Yediot’s news pages. Maariv, Haaretz and Israel Hayom also featured ample tributes to the actor, who succumbed over the weekend at Hadassah Medical Center at the age of 75.
Shlomi Goldberg, who for most of the week reviews the morning papers in a pre-dawn broadcast on Reshet Bet radio, commented that for one moment everyone in Israel was united in mourning Yehuda Barkan. “Everyone loved him.”
A natural prankster who loved to trick people with improbable scenarios that were photographed by hidden cameras and then shown to the hapless victims of the prank, the charismatic Barkan was also a very serious actor, though better known for what were labeled “boureka” films, which were primarily parodies that poked fun at stereotyped Ashkenazi and Sephardi characters and the tensions that existed between them.
Nitza Shaul, a long-time friend who played in several of Barkan’s films, said that although he was basically regarded as a comic actor, Barkan was also a first-class dramatic actor. This opinion was also shared by Lea Koenig. In recent years he appeared in two separate television series, first with Koenig (Ahava Beshalechet) and then with Shaul (Ahava Beshleikes), each focusing on falling in love in the third age. Both actresses said he was a joy to work with, and thoroughly professional.
Koenig also noted how much he loved the profession, and how much he loved his audiences. “You can’t be a good actor if you don’t love the audience,” she said.
Born and raised in Netanya to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents from Poland and Czechoslovakia who never mastered Hebrew, Barkan wasn’t much of a student in school. His father’s Hebrew was so poor that he was unable to read Barkan’s school reports, and always relied on a neighbor to do so. The report on each subject was invariably Maspik (“Enough”).
“What does maspik mean?” his father would ask each time, and the neighbor would reply in Yiddish “Genug,” which satisfied Barkan’s father.
IN THE ARMY, Barkan joined entertainment units, and later continued to perform with some of his former army buddies. Keen to embark on an acting career, he joined the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts, but lacked the patience to study, and was expelled after three months.
This did not deter him.
He put his aptitude for practical jokes to use, and found that television audiences loved it. At the beginning of the 1970s, he began appearing in movies. Over the years he appeared in 30 films, as well as in various television series.
One of his best-known films, Hagiga B’Snooker in which he appeared with his good friend Zev Revah. Together with Moshe Edery – one of the most influential figures in Israel’s film industry, a producer, distributor, theater-chain owner and more – they wanted to produce a film that would tell the story of Barkan’s career, which at one stage appeared to sink into a bottomless pit, and then soared again. Barkan was happy to cooperate, but if this production becomes a reality, unfortunately, he won’t be around to see it.
Edery, who enjoyed a half-century friendship with Barkan, said that Barkan had been the biggest box office draw in Israel.
Barkan also had severe financial difficulties, and in 2008 was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion. A year earlier, one of his sons, Roi, was arrested on drug charges, convicted and imprisoned.
Barkan supported him and visited him in prison as often as possible.
Early in the millennium, Barkan found religion. In his interview with Roni Kubin, he said that to him a religious person is not necessarily one who prays all day, but one who loves his neighbor as himself. Indeed, after becoming observant and moving to the religious moshav of Beit Gamliel near Yavne, he did not sever his relationships with his secular friends, nor did his being religious create any problems for actresses with whom he appeared on screen. Initially they were unsure of themselves, but he always told them to go ahead and play their parts.
When Kubin asked Barkan who he would choose to play the star role if a feature film was made about him, Barkan thought for half a second and replied, Aviv Alush, who actually bears a striking resemblance to Barkan when he was young, and who recently starred in the religious genre television series Matir Agunot (Unchained).
In 2014, Barkan received the prestigious Ophir Prize as a Life Achievement Award. The most important prize, he told Kuban, was to go into a packed cinema to hear audiences laugh at the humor in his films, and watch them shed a tear over the sad parts.
Barkan was laid to rest on Sunday in the Rehovot cemetery. Due to Health Ministry restrictions, his family asked the public to refrain from attending the funeral. Otherwise, thousands would have been there.