Stage Animal / The undimmed presence of Orna Porat
Theater world pays tribute to actress on her 88th birthday.
It was an event I came upon completely by chance. As I was looking at the public Wall on Facebook on Friday, the mouse stopped at a uniquely powerful and very expressive close-up photo of Orna Porat's face. Alongside it, actress Idit Teperson had written the following status: "Today at 11:00 in the morning at Tzavta Tel Aviv, Orna Porat is 88. A great actress, a very special woman." Since I firmly endorse the second sentence in full, and for many years now the audience has not had the privilege of seeing Porat onstage, and I also hadn't seen her in the audience in recent months, I was glad of the opportunity to see the woman who has such an important part in the life of Israeli theater, whether in the many roles she played on the stage or by virtue of the Theater for Children and Youth she founded, which is today named after her. When I arrived at the Tzavta Club at close to 11:00 in the morning on Friday she was already there, in a white dress, supported by a walker and by the father of her granddaughter, her eyes piercing as usual and her voice steady and beautiful as ever, with her unique diction.
Then I also discovered that the whole event was a Kabalat Shabbat, a greeting of the Sabbath, held every week at the Tzavta Club, produced and edited by Nili Shichor, which becomes more elaborate from time to time as appropriate for a specific event, in this case Orna Porat's 88th birthday. At the start of the event, the regular moderator Liat Regev called upon Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who offered charming and brief congratulations. Poet Miron H. Isaacson, a regular participant in the event, spoke about the Torah portion of the week. After him came Noam Semel, director general of the Cameri Theater, where Porat spent most of her professional life; even if she was not quite one of its founders, she certainly was one of its personalities. With considerable charm, Semel told how in rummaging through the archives he found that Porat would take vacations from the theater not during the month of the break, nor even on the same dates every year. Eventually he discovered that Porat would take vacations to accompany her husband, Mossad intelligence man Yosef Porat, on his trips abroad. The couple of course never told anyone what they did on those trips. One legend: Porat was in Morocco at the time of the backstage meetings preceding Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
Semel recalled that one day Yosef Porat phoned Semel's wife, writer Nava Semel, and asked to meet with her, and thus it seemed he would lift a bit of the curtain on this story, but before the meeting took place he passed away. Noam Semel expressed the hope that Orna would yet tell the story. (In his eulogy for Yosef Porat, his commander in the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, said that though Orna was the actress, it was Yosef who knew how to play various roles in various costumes, according to Semel ). The actual date of the birthday was June 6. However, at the age of 88 what's a delay of a month and a half? In any case the event nearly did not take place: At the beginning of the week Porat was hospitalized, but she recovered. Some of the invited guests did not arrive: Batya Lancet, who has left the theater in favor of the ultra-Orthodox world and was supposed to make an exception and come to the event, but did not. (Among her other roles at the Cameri, Lancet filled in for Porat as Mary Stuart in Schiller's play about the queen of Scots when Porat replaced Hanna Meron, who had gone on maternity leave, in the role of Elizabeth. In that play I saw Porat on the stage the first time. ) Hanna Meron felt a bit unwell that morning and sent warm wishes and an apology via singer and actor Nathan Slor (the late poet Tirza Atar's son ), who sang to the audience and to the birthday girl a number of wonderful songs connected to Porat's stage career.
Among those who did arrive and took to the stage to congratulate the actress were Dvora Kedar and Miriam Zohar. Kedar, who was often onstage with Porat, said she feels sorry for anyone who never saw Porat in her great roles, like "Joan of Arc" in 1952 or "The Good Person of Szechuan" in 1995. She said she did not envy actresses who had to step into Porat's shoes in roles upon which she had left her mark. She also spoke about Porat's uniqueness as a scene partner who confronts actors on stage with a powerful presence that compels those who are ready to "go with her" to call up the best of themselves.
Zohar, who not long ago celebrated her 80th birthday, never performed together with Porat on the same stage. She said she hopes this will yet happen and Porat called out and signaled with her hand that this was possible, but not certain.
When Zohar arrived in Israel, and without knowing Hebrew or having ever studied acting was accepted to Habima, Porat was already a star. Born a non-Jew as Irene Klein in Germany, Porat was in the Hitlerjugend in her youth, studied acting and performed in Germany, converted to Judaism and came to live in Israel, without knowing the language, because of her love for Yosef Porat. Zohar was amazed by her success. She did not mention this, but Zohar is among the actresses who, according to Kedar, should not be envied: She played Mary Stuart at Habima in the 1980s, opposite Hanna Meron's Elizabeth. They became friends, though not especially close, she admitted, and they have become a bit closer recently thanks to their mutual friend, another very special woman, Dina Berniker.
Berniker herself came onstage and read a wonderfully rhymed tribute to Porat and their friendship. Here it was already not a matter of culture, theater, profession or respect but rather "just" a matter of a special human relationship - one that is not simple and certainly not routine. Porat herself stood up at her seat in the front row, embraced Berniker warmly when she came down from the stage, turned to the audience and said in a clear voice, with absolutely no need for a microphone, that anyone who didn't have the privilege of Berniker's friendship doesn't know what real friendship is.
For the event, Nili Shichor screened films of Porat from Yehuda Stav's archive (in which Porat told about the first Israeli film she appeared in, still without knowing the language, as the mother in the adoptive family of an immigrant boy who holds a Kabalat Shabbat ), and from the Cameri archive - a scene from "Lost in Yonkers," performed on stage in 1981, in which Porat plays the tough mother and the young Idit Teperson plays her mentally disabled and rebellious daughter. Teperson herself spoke emotionally about how Porat was one of the reasons she herself became an actress, and elaborated on the special experience of allowing yourself as an actor to enter into Porat's sphere of influence on the stage.
Also screened was an interlude from the event in Porat's honor held at the theater that bears her name. She is seen directing, scolding and singing about how she had the idea of establishing a theater. The theater's chairman of the board, Micky Yerushalmi, also offered congratulations and recollected how Porat had "auditioned" him for a role in management before she agreed to him becoming chairman. (Because of Yerushalmi's role in Porat's theater, his spouse, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat - who was absent from the event, which was a pity - is precluded from involvement in the distribution of budgets to the theater. ) Porat got up from her seat, embraced him warmly and revealed to the audience that "he is the only person I have never fired." Yisrael Gurion sang to Porat from a production in which Porat in fact did not participate (a song performed at the premiere by the late Dudu Topaz ) and told about how at the first performance he came onstage at the Cameri as an extra ("Romeo and Juliet;" Porat was Juliet ) he didn't manage to pronounce the only word he had to speak: "Romeo." After the "Ro" only air came out of his mouth, because of unexpected nervousness. In the intermission Porat went up to him and said to him: "Young man! Learn by heart!"
Rami Baruch, who acted at the Theater of Children and Youth in a play about the life of poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, performed an excerpt from the play and told how he had sat next to Porat on a plane once when they traveled abroad with the production. When he saw the smile spreading across Porat's face as the plane sped along the runway for takeoff, he understood the energy that is capable of lifting a plane into the air.
It is both possible and tempting to keep talking about the event: The ending belonged to Porat's daughter Lital and her granddaughter Yuval-Or. Lital was adopted by the Porats when she was a few months old (her brother Yoram had been adopted two years earlier ). She was first taken backstage at the Cameri in 1958, during the play "Because of a Belt," a modern adaptation of "Lysistrata," in which Porat played one of the leading roles. Porat came offstage for a moment, saw her new baby for the first time, immediately took her in her arms and came out onstage with her, as in the next scene she was supposed to appear with a baby in her arms.
Lital Porat, now a lawyer, did a fine job of characterizing to the audience what it meant "to be Orna Porat's daughter," without blurring the difficulties, without prettifying the reality and without concealing the depth of the relationship. She told how she received orders from her mother to write a play for her and how the two of them worked together on an evening of Leah Goldberg's poems that Porat presented when she was 80, and Lital directed. As Lital told it, Orna is prepared to accept directing instructions and even to try them, but she usually knows what she wants and usually she wants the right thing.
Yuval-Or (who is named after one of the famous plays her grandmother performed in, "The Loves of Yuval-Or" ) is 15 years old and she too wants to be an actress. When asked why, she replied that it looks natural to her. She also contributed memories of her grandmother's ability to create for her grandchild an imaginary reality and to enter it.
And here something unlikely happened: Orna Porat herself came onstage and sat beside her daughter and her granddaughter. She told how she had taught them an old German chorale with words in Latin, "Dona Nobis Pacem" ("Give Us Peace" ) and the three of them sang it with three special voices. This was a magical moment, which could not have been planned or directed. And Orna Porat raised her hand with a pointing finger to remind us of the message in the chorale.
Everything at the event itself, and the moments from the history of the Israeli theater and life in Israel was sufficient and satisfying, and perhaps a bit too lengthy. It is a pity the moderator did not understand that interviews have a natural ending and there is no point or need to milk them. The event ended when Yuval-Or sang to her grandmother with playback that had lots of percussion (and it is doubtful this was pleasant to the grandmother's ears ): "Stay just the way you are."
It's just a pity that such a fulsome event for such a deserving person was held so much "off to the side," without appropriate media coverage, even if before an auditorium filled with an audience that is no longer young, of whose cultural lives Orna Porat was such a significant part. So let this report at least serve as testimony to it.