God, enlightenment and comedy TV
Riki Blich discusses religion, her family trials, her search for herself and life behind the scenes at Channel 2's 'Shorts.'
Not too long ago, Riki Blich returned from India. A picture of the Dalai Lama is stuck to the door of her rented apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv. "I returned enlightened," she says.
Her declaration was received with a modicum of doubt - not only because the characters she plays in "Shorts," scheduled to return to Channel 2 television tonight, also make similarly trendy statements, and they are supposed to be funny. The declaration was preceded by descriptions of complex relations with her own family, including her parents' religious transformation and her own distance from their Orthodox Judaism and, for a time, from them.
She insists she is serious.
"I have a secret plan to cross the lines myself someday, to become closer to my family. Because even if we die and discover that there is nothing, it's better to live a spiritual life. I don't mean crystals and muttering mantras, and also not a belief in a personal God, and certainly not in his representatives on earth. But it is good for a person to be God-fearing and to know that the day of reckoning is coming. It makes you a better person. I make sure to thank God every day for the things that I have.
"It began when I was in India," she continues. "I sat on a rock. Suddenly, joy just came to me. I wept because I was so happy."
Despite her declared fear of earthly representatives of a personal God and the conclusion that she is "an integral part of the cultural world," she makes statements that are less clear.
"I am still hesitant to become religious. Frankly, because it isn't convenient," and she quotes someone who is considered, in certain circles, to be a direct representative of the divine. "Rabbi Nahman says, 'You remember the Lord when you are in trouble and forget Him when you are doing well.'"
All of these responses may be a reaction to the difficulty she experienced in the Far East.
"I threw myself there alone," she recalls. "I was in the midst of a hysterical acne attack. I escaped to Dharamsala to be alone and arrived in an area that was more Israeli than Israel. There's falafel, hummus, and, everywhere you go, you hear 'The Fools of Prophecy' [an ethereal Israeli rock band]. As soon as I got to the main street, I heard someone screaming in Hebrew, 'Yossi, bring me the shawl.' I thought I was dreaming.
"People recognized me in a way that they don't recognize me in Tel Aviv. Everywhere you look, potheads are smoking their chillums. Everyone asks you, 'What courses are you taking? Meditation? Reiki? Aravida? Spirituality for a dime. I went back to Tel Aviv and felt anonymous."
Therapy with Mom
Blich, age 26, now lives with her boyfriend, a philosophy student, a few streets away from her childhood home. She never left Tel Aviv for more than a vacation. She attended school at the Tel Aviv School of the Arts and was in the second first grade class there. She always felt somewhat disconnected there because she was not from upscale North Tel Aviv and was not bussed to school, missing the lion's share of social drama, which took place on the bus, she says.
She then attended Thelma Yellin High School, where she experienced a transformation. Not only did she fail to apply to the Israel Defense Forces' Nahal Band, she did not enlist at all. At age 16-17, when everyone else received their draft notices, Blich was embroiled in major turmoil at home. Her mother became religious. Her father followed her mother's path. Her older sister became even more religious and eventually became ultra-Orthodox. Her sister, who had been a punk and "more extreme than me in her secularity," now lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with her six children and her sons all speak Yiddish.
"I didn't know who I was," Blich recalls. "I would go to school, to Thelma Yellin, a bastion of secularity, study existentialism and go home to philosophize with my mom about the Ten Emanations of the Kabbalah.
"I had gay friends and my mom would tell me that it was a defect that must be corrected - that it's one of the major sins. I had a really difficult time with that. Also in terms of politics, we are divided to this day. She believes that this is 'Our Land.' She isn't willing to hear that we engage in immoral acts. I know things that they are not willing to know."
During that period, she did not speak to her mother for half a year. She saw her friends "rotting" (her term) in military service. "One was a sprinkler specialist. Another one guarded antennas. I decided that the army did not need another secretary," she says, and adds, "I don't consider it to be a crime. The time has come to decrease the size of the army." Instead, she was a secretary in the civilian arena.
Her parents did not merely wake up one morning and repent. Their spiritual search began many years before they became religious. "I had already grown up in a home in which issues of faith played a role," she says. She remembers herself, from age 3 to 16, running around the Institute of Kabbalah Research. Her memories of the institute are not warm, to say the least.
She has now reconciled with her family. This happened after her mother treated her, using the technique of regressive psychotherapy. "A very noninvasive technique," Blich says. "I liked it because it was emotional rather than intellectual. We sort of went through a process of couples therapy together."
When she recently visited her sister with her boyfriend, she first explained to him which hands he could shake and which he could not. "We have to tell my sister's children that he is my fiancee rather than my boyfriend, because there's no such thing as 'boyfriend.' We have to play down the fact that we have known each other for a long time. They ask me if I'm Jewish and I answer that I am very Jewish - but that is simply not my path."
She says that, at the beginning of the process, her parents "became fanatic." She forgives this now and understands their motives.
"You found the answer, deciphered it, finally understand what you are missing and why we are alive. It's a big moment when you get the answer and you can't wait to tell others," she says.
"For a long time, they discussed nothing else. It was constantly, 'Praise the Lord,' the enormous joy, the glazed look. It wasn't about proselytizing. They wanted to share the joy and I didn't want the joy. I wanted everything that a girl that age wants - my sexuality, a profession, my intelligence, literature, and poetry. I couldn't talk to my mother about Dostoevsky because she hates him. In her eyes, he's sick. I wanted to tell her about something I read by Yitzhak Laor and she wanted to talk about Ben Ish Hai [Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad]."
During this explanation, she occasionally glances at the bookshelf, remembering her cultural heritage. She talks about poets that she likes and artfully quotes Natan Alterman. She has her father to thank for that, she says. Her parents immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1973. Her father is "a colorful figure with the soul of a poet." He introduced her to Gogol and Pushkin.
"There isn't a Russian who can't quote Pushkin," he told her. She embraced the message and projected it toward local poetry. Her father, in his secular period, freely translated Vysotsky's poems from Russian to Hebrew when they traveled together.
Ruhama Avraham and I
She is better at reciting poetry than singing songs, despite the fact that she was considered a relatively good singer at the Kibbutz Teachers' College, where she studied. "All of the others were tone deaf," she says.
The meeting with Blich took place during the Hanukkah holidays. Blich did not participate in any seasonal children's plays despite the fact that she is the right age, apparently can sing, and is a telenovela graduate. (Her starring role in "Ugly Esti" won her the Israel Television Academy award for best actress in a comedy series.)
She is both happy and sad that she did not appear. She is sad because of the large sums of money that actors earn from these shows, she explains. "When I go to pediatric cancer units, the kids don't go crazy over me like they do over the stars in 'Love Around the Corner,'" she says. She does not think that this is because of the adult target audience of the shows in which she appears: "Shorts," "Epidural" (a show reminiscent of the British "Smack the Pony" series, aired on Yes), and "Ugly Esti."
"I just don't have it," she says.
She is also critical of all the holiday shows. "A friend of mine asked me to come see her play a gorilla in 'Tarzan and Jane.' I sat down in the theater, and I didn't hear a thing for a long time - only the sound of rustling plastic bags being opened. Like the sound of the sea. Then, Yael Bar Zohar appeared on stage in a leather leopard-print outfit to the unanimous sound of adoring fathers - 'Ooooooh.' The kids know that she's sexy even before they understand what sex is. That shocked me."
On the other hand, the gorilla was really good, she notes.
"I didn't humiliate myself in the realm of acting," Blich says. "I didn't even do children's plays. I humiliated myself in all kinds of other areas in my life."
And she was also humiliated. The Ruhama Avraham and Assaf Harel affair exploded when she was a guest on his program. When Avraham sued over comments made on the show that night, Blich was named in the lawsuit as well.
"I felt like Citizen K roaming around the world - something really Kafkaesque. I was in court for half a year. Messengers came to my house to subpoena me. Harel snagged me. He was going to ask me something embarrassing and sexual. To save myself, I said something about oral sex and Ruhama Avraham. I used the joke to get myself out of the mud. The event made me mad because no one backed me up. There was a carnival atmosphere - I didn't initiate the joke at her expense. That's why I was acquitted."
The matter has been forgotten, for now. "Shorts," now returning to television, has already been taped. She is now appearing in the play "The Perfect Wedding," directed by Moni Moshonov, a costar in "Shorts." Yuval Segel, another "Katzrin" costar, also appears in the play.
This is not her first appearance on stage with Segel. "We are a bit like a married couple. We have inside jokes, conflicts, anger and sadness," she says.
As far as "Shorts" is concerned, she says, "In general, I am not wild about the sketch format." She adds, "I'm not one of those people with a stock of jokes." She likes the group sketches most, "when we sit around a table or in a support group. In my opinion, there should be a part like that in every episode."
She says she liked the Cameri Quintet, and calls it "laughs with a message." During rehearsals, she wages wars to defend sketches that she would like to see included in "Shorts."
"I criticize everything. Major figures like Moni have to persuade me that it will work. He tells me, 'It's OK. It'll be funny.'"
She vetoed a sketch in which Keren Mor chases a taxi screaming, "Are you available?" and the driver responds, "No. I'm married."
Despite that, Blich says, "Keren Mor can save anything. She can do an entire monologue describing the life-cycle of a tomato from the seed stage and it will be funny. The four of them can get away with a joke that isn't so funny. I can't." She fills the role of a "film actress," by her definition, in the "Shorts" cast. "Not extravagant - not as bold as my colleagues. I don't know how to do impressions or accents. I'm there to lend a believable foundation. If only Keren Mor and Shmulik Levi were there, it wouldn't end sanely."
Blich quickly earned her place in public awareness. She enjoyed the gradual exposure of her role as Esti in "Ugly Esti." She was not immediately familiar because of the disguise that she wore. Now, she is amazed to hear people speak about her on the street as if she were not there. "In front of my face they say, 'Hey, isn't that the girl from 'Esti' or 'Shorts'?' and there are celebrity hunters who say, 'She's my third today.' The unwritten code of silence on Shenkin Street has been shattered," she says.
In any case, this will not continue for a long time, she says. "I will not always be an actress - a director's tool," she says. "You can't live this way. You stop developing. You remain infantile forever."