Topol and Yehoram Gaon and me

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It is not every week that two legends of the Israeli cinema come to town.

Last Monday, Topol was at Town Hall in Manhattan for "Raising the Roof," the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene's tribute to fifty years of "Fiddler on the Roof," honoring lyricist Sheldon Harnick. (The Jewish Standard ran a preview of this performance on May 16. The Folksbiene's artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, lives in Teaneck.)

The 78 year-old Topol is known for his portrayal of Tevye in Norman Jewison's 1971 film adaptation of the stage classic. On stage on Monday, Topol sang an a cappella version of "If I Were a Rich Man." The rendition held the audience spellbound. It was absolutely brilliant.

Others appearing at the wonderful gala event were many of the actors who played a variety of roles in various film and stage versions of "Fiddler." (There also were some inevitable disappointments. The film's director, Mr. Jewison, and Bel Kaufman, the 103-year-old granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the Tevye stories, were set to appear as well. But Ms. Kaufman took a fall a week before the show, and Mr. Jewison's flight never made it out of Los Angeles. They were missed.)

Three days later, at the opening of the JCC of Manhattan's Israel Film Festival, Yehoram Gaon was honored for lifetime achievement in Israeli cinema. The renowned vocalist has acted in many Israeli movies, and he has produced musical film documentaries that have warmed the hearts of Israelis and Jews across the world these last 40 years. After being introduced by Academy-Award nominated director Joseph Cedar, the 74 year-old Mr. Gaon told the audience that the occasion truly was special. In Israel, he said, artists generally are recognized only when they are being eulogized.

Mr. Gaon admitted that he initially refused Mr. Cedar's request to take a small role in a 2004 film, "Campfire," but was convinced when the director sent him a bouquet of flowers, along with a note that said that some famous actors, like Frank Sinatra, had achieved greatness in their smaller film roles. Mr. Cedar noted that Yehoram Gaon represented "the collective identity of a nation." I totally agree with that statement.

Both Chaim Topol and Yehoram Gaon gained attention as film actors in Israel in the 1960s. Topol had parts in two early 1960s films, "I Like Mike" and "El Dorado," but his big break came with the 1964 "Sallah Shabbati" and his brilliant portrayal of an immigrant from North Africa who arrives in Israel with his wife and pack of children. The film, written and directed by Ephraim Kishon, was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, with Topol winning a Golden Globe for "most promising newcomer." For the fiftieth anniversary of its release, a restored print of "Sallah" is to be shown in mid-July at the Jerusalem Film Festival and it is hinted that it will be broadcast on TCM: Turner Movie Classics as part of its upcoming September television series, "The Projected Image-The Jewish Experience on Film."

"Sallah" was the first Israeli film to attract any real attention in this country, and Jews across America walked a little taller when they saw it on movie theater marquees.

Two years later, Topol was playing Abou ibn Kader in Melville Shavelson's "Cast A Giant Shadow."

Meanwhile, Yehoram Gaon, after leaving the army and the Nachal Entertainment Troupe, joined with Arik Einstein and Benny Amdursky to form a singing group called "Shlishiat Gesher Hayarkon" (Gesher Bridge Trio). Not so coincidentally, Mr. Einstein had performed with Topol in "Batzal Yarok" (Green Onion). Mr. Einstein, who died earlier this year, would later form "Chalonot Hagvohim" (The High Windows) and become one of Israel's great songwriters, actors and vocalists; Mr. Amdursky, who died in 1994, had been part of the group called "the Dudaim," along with Israel Gurion.

Mr. Gaon's first film role was with Mr. Einstein and Mr. Amdursky in the 1964 "Dalia Vehamalachim" (Dalia and the Sailors).

While Topol, a Jew of Ashkenazi descent, was playing a Sephardi in "Sallah" and an Arab in "Cast A Giant Shadow," Mr. Gaon, whose parents came from Turkey and Macedonia, seized on the opportunity to play a Moroccan in "Kazablan," a stage role he was offered while studying acting in New York in 1967. "Kazablan" would change the actor/vocalist's life; as he told me, he took on the part of this Sephardi Israeli, portrayed in the movie as a second-class citizen, as a lifetime role.

To this day, people greet him in the streets of Israel by calling out "Kaza!" and he waves back with pride.

Mr. Gaon's stage performance brought him immediate acclaim. He also has become an advocate for Sephardic music, and the Ladino romanceros that he recorded remain favorites today.

How interesting it is that both of these legends took their stage roles and turned them into two great cinematic performances. Topol came off the London stage as Tevye to star in Mr. Jewison's adaptation of the play, and Mr. Gaon played Kazablan in Menachem Golan's 1974 film version of the stage original.

Yehoram Gaon still performs, his music is a staple of Israeli radio, and he takes pride in being a citizen and spokesperson for the city of Jerusalem. Mr. Gaon's 1971 "Ani Yerushalmi" (I Was Born in Jerusalem) has him traveling on a carriage through the streets of the city, performing a variety of magnificent songs that were written by Dov Seltzer and Haim Hefer. In his 1989 "From Toledo to Jerusalem," Mr. Gaon traces his Sephardic roots in Ladino song and narration; five years ago, he made "No Longer from Jerusalem."

His achievements include playing Eli in the 1969 classic "Siege," the part of Yonatan Netanyahu in Menachem Golan's 1977 "Operation Thunderbolt," and Yoram in the 1982 television series called "Krovim, Krovim." He and his good friend Gila Almagor have been doing a great deal of theater together lately; he also appears in concert. I still remember when Mr. Gaon performed the song "Rosa" from Kazablan at the 1975 Golden Globe Awards. It was one of those special moments, watching the Israeli crooner on television across the world, zeroing in on an adoring Jean Stapleton, who was there as a nominee for her portrayal of Edith in the television hit "All in the Family."

Topol has had a brilliant acting career, and his performance at the Folksbiene gala makes it clear that he still can belt it out. The actor reprised his Tevye role in 1990 on Broadway; it is impossible to forget the incredible gymnastics he performed onstage. After "Fiddler" and "Cast a Giant Shadow," his most memorable roles were in Mr. Kishon's 1967 "Ervinka," the 1979 made-for-television "The House on Garibaldi Street," his role as Berel Jastrow in the 1983 and 1989 TV miniseries "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," and his incredible performance as Yacov Apfelschnitt in Jeroen Krabbe's 1998 "Left Luggage," a personal favorite. In 1979, Topol also was involved in creating the "New Media Bible"; he played the role of Abraham.

Topol and Yehoram Gaon represent the best that classic Israeli cinema has to present. They deserve our praise, and all the honors bestowed on them. Both men were pioneers, and they remain vibrant forces in creating the new Jewish culture that was the dream of the country's pioneers.