Varda and Esti Zakheim
At 80, Varda is a classic lady, elegantly attired and with a hairdo to match. She would like her daughter, Esti, 47, to look like her.
Varda and Esti were born in Tel Aviv − mother in 1932, daughter in 1965.
Both live in apartments in Tel Aviv − Varda in the city center, Esti in the upscale northern neighborhood of Bavli.
Varda has a younger sister, Adina, who retired from Bank Leumi and works as a volunteer in Lilach, an association that helps at-risk youth. In addition to Esti, she has a son, Roni, 59, an importer and businessman. Another son, Danny, a performance artist, died in 1994, at the age of 36. Esti’s husband, Alejandro, 51, who has an M.A. in Jewish thought and Jewish philosophy, works in solar energy. Esti has a son, Uriel, 13, and 6-year-old twin girls, Tamar and Naama. Varda has five grandchildren.
Shoes on shoulders:
Varda’s parents, Esther and Moshe Frankel, were pioneers who immigrated to Palestine from Odessa in 1919 on the ship Ruslan. Other passengers included the poet Rachel and historian Joseph Klausner. They settled on the dunes of Tel Aviv, worked in the orchards and built roads, and carried their shoes on their shoulders so they wouldn’t wear out. “My father worked with [Tel Aviv] Mayor Dizengoff,” Varda says. “He was the city’s first director of tax collection. He also worked with Mayor Rokach.” Varda’s father went on to found Magen David Adom, the countrywide emergency ambulance service.
Parkas and primus stoves:
Varda attended a teachers college, worked for two years as a kindergarten teacher and then did professional training to become a volunteer, an activity she has pursued ever since. “Before the Six-Day War we formed a group of 10 women and did volunteer work for the army,” she says. They raised funds and held exhibitions to help the Israel Air Force purchase the first Phantom warplane. But when it turned out that the money would be about enough for two screws, they used it to buy a set of power generators for army bases in the Jordan Rift Valley. “We heard later from people who served there that it was very important,” Varda says. “We also bought parkas and primus stoves and all kinds of things.”
Taking from the rich:
Varda’s motto was: Take money, given voluntarily, from those who have and give it to those who don’t. She was head of the social-welfare committee in the Tel Aviv municipality, helped integrate new immigrants from Russia, assisted the refusenik Ida Nudel, aided disadvantaged children, established a hostel for released prisoners in Tel Aviv and was a founder of Inbar, an association that aids people who suffer from rheumatic diseases. She is currently chairperson of Lilach, which runs seven centers for children aged 3 to 12 from troubled families in Tel Aviv. “They get a hot meal and do their homework,” Varda says. She has received the president’s citation for volunteering, been recognized as a “distinguished citizen of Tel Aviv” and been awarded a citation from the Social Affairs Ministry for three generations of volunteers: her father, herself and Esti.
The happiest day in Varda’s life, a present for her birthday. The whole family was wildly happy at the birth of a daughter after two boys. Her older brother, Roni, who was 12 at the time, ran through the streets singing, “I have a sister, I have a sister.”
Esti at school:
She was a good student, not outstanding. “I didn’t really try. Being occupied with myself and with social issues was more meaningful,” Esti recalls. “I switched schools in the seventh grade and crashed. It was a prison. In the 10th grade I switched to Thelma Yellin [a high school of the arts in Tel Aviv].”
“I could breathe at Thelma Yellin,” Esti says. “I met people like me. That absolutely saved me. In my senior year I had a ‘wonderful’ teacher who said I would never be an actress. That finished me, and I didn’t do the auditions for the army troupes or theater. Later, I saw the teacher on the street one day − this was after [she had appeared in the films] ‘Passover Fever’ and ‘Afula Express.’ She came over to me and said, ‘I always knew you were a marvelous actress.’”
Rebel with a cause:
During the first Lebanon war, when she was in 11th grade, Esti was one of the founders of the youth movement of Yesh Gvul (an anti-occupation organization) and its spokesperson. She was interviewed in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’ir but asked that her surname not be published owing to an unwritten agreement she had with her parents, both staunch Likud members. The paper did as she asked, but a large photograph of her appeared with the caption, “Esti, the driving spirit.” “I came to school in the morning and the principal said, ‘How could you do this to me? You are my right hand,’” Esti relates. “And I said, ‘I am your left hand.’ I immediately called my mother and told her to hide the paper so dad wouldn’t see it. But they went out in the evening and all their friends clucked their tongues: ‘Your daughter, your daughter.’ When they got back he threw me out. He said, ‘You are not my daughter.’ I went to my aunt’s and for a month negotiated my return home. We had a special relationship, for good and for ill. That wasn’t the only time he threw me out.”
Esti did her compulsory military service at Army Radio as a producer and editor of newsmagazines and of Rafi Reshef’s popular morning talk show.
On her own:
The teacher’s judgment was still ringing in Esti’s ears when she enrolled in the criminology department of Bar-Ilan University. She also registered in the theater department of Tel Aviv University and was accepted. She obtained an undergraduate degree in acting and a master’s in directing, before spending a year at ALRA, the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, in London. “That was a place that really suited me,” she says. “A place with a quest. We had classes in a castle in south London and I discovered that I was considered a good actress without them knowing me from before or knowing anything about Army Radio or about Danny Zakheim.”
On the fringe:
In London she directed six plays and cowrote a play with a girlfriend, the daughter of a Nazi soldier, titled, “A Spoonful of Anger.” It was produced in a Covent Garden fringe theater and got good reviews. Back in Israel, she taught and directed at the Performing Arts Studio founded by Yoram Loewenstein and at Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts. One day director Shemi Zarhin called and said, “I want you to be in ‘Leylasede,’” a film he was about to direct (whose English title is “Passover Fever”). Then came “Afula Express,” and Esti became a film star of the new wave in Israel. But there was no love lost between her and the Israeli theater establishment. “I suffered terribly in the repertory theater,” she says. “I have a hard time with their choice of plays. I don’t think it’s theater − it’s an entertainment channel. I prefer to teach at theater and film schools. I have been performing with Dalia Shimko’s ensemble theater and at Tmuna [an alternative theater] for many years, and that makes me happy.” She also did a master’s in group moderating at Lesley College and studied psychodrama at Seminar Hakibbutzim College.
The illness that killed Esti’s brother Danny Zakheim, a pioneer of performance art in Israel, remains a family secret that is not spoken of, even though it eventually became known far and wide. “In the months when Danny was sick I put on 30 kilos and I have been carrying that on my back ever since and can’t get rid of it,” Esti says, emotionally recalling their joint performances. One example is the Bavel (Babel) Party: “We founded a virtual party that ran in the 1984 Knesset elections. On Fridays we campaigned, moving from one cafe to another like two leaders. We used all the hallmarks of a political party. We had a logo designed by Danny, we kissed babies, we had a jingle and on election day there was a big celebration on Sheinkin,” a trendy Tel Aviv street.
Esti met her husband, Alejandro, on a blind date that could be called matchmaking. He is religious-lite, she says, putting on phylacteries every morning and preferring not to travel on Shabbat. “Thanks to him I understood that this cart is also mine,” she says, referring to Judaism. “I am reading and taking an interest. I’ve received something very spiritual that suits me deeply and emotionally, and I learned to make compromises. I keep a kosher home, and outside I eat what I want.”
It started by chance. A friend got married in Cyprus, threw a party in Tel Aviv and asked Esti to emcee the event. Afterward another friend asked her to conduct a marriage ceremony for him and his partner. Since then she has been marrying couples in alternative weddings. “It’s in some way a tikkun [repair] to my wedding, in which I was very bored and was not moved by a ceremony that symbolized nothing for me,” she says. “I conduct marriage ceremonies without the rabbinate and without God, only between the two partners.”
Getting on each others’ nerves:
Varda: “It’s hard to put a finger on it. She is so sweet.” Esti helps her mother: “Look at her, she is a lady and she has a ragamuffin daughter who has to be persuaded to put on lipstick, wear something human and maybe lose weight.” Varda snaps into action: “She is terribly messy in her appearance. I think one should always leave the house looking tip-top, especially Esti, who is famous.” Esti enters the ring: “Her choices irritate me. You don’t see, you don’t hear, everything is hunky-dory, the main thing is not to stir things up, and I am a professional stirrer.”
Varda finds nothing to regret. Esti does it in her place: “I think I needed more limits. I made a lot of noise in order to be seen, because Danny was overbearing and took up a lot of space − he wanted me to be the admiring little sister. For example, I would get home at midnight, barefoot, wearing a galabiya, and they would always back me up. I had to raise the volume of the rebellion so I would be noticed. I think I was trusted too much and given too much freedom.”
I will never be like my mother:
In terms of protecting the children: “When my father shouted at me and threw me out of the house, my mother did not take a stand and did not protect me,” Esti says. Varda does not regret this. “I was also angry at her and preferred to be on his side,” she says.
Reflections in the mirror:
The resemblance between them is visible in the sensitivity, the caring and the tear ducts. They both cry over the slightest thing. And the differences? “I use a sense of humor as a defensive tool, and my mother is in denial,” Esti says.
Most important thing in life:
“Today I say it’s all health,” Varda says. Esti: “Health and luck.”
Varda wanted to be a nurse. Esti is fulfilling her fantasy in full − she always wanted to act and direct.