Aharona Dayan, the Lesser-known Branch of Israel's Leading Family Dynasty

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

Aharona Dayan passed away two weeks ago at 4:30 in the afternoon. She lay in bed, covered with a red blanket, resting on flowery pillows. The big window was open and the trees were practically in the room. “She looked like Sleeping Beauty,” says friend Naomi Kulitz. “We couldn’t stop looking at her. She was a little pale, so we put lipstick on and she looked like all the serenity of the world had come over her.”

The funeral was held the following day, on Friday afternoon, at the family plot in Savyon where her parents, Baruch and Goldy ‏(Zehava‏) Malkin, and her younger brother Avi are buried. There wasn’t as big a crowd as one might have expected. “She left very specific instructions about whom to inform about her death,” says her friend Riki Aricha. “It was just her really good friends and family. It was intimate, lovely, respectful and very restrained.”

When cancer strikes suddenly in mid-life, you’re never prepared for it. You think of it as something that happens to others, so it takes you completely by surprise: when you’re right in the middle of things, and have much more to finish and take care of. But now you won’t have that time and you won’t be able to accomplish everything.

Dayan had some unfinished business with death. A love-hate relationship. She certainly did not want to die. Not now. But the human resources manager above isn’t always considerate of mortals’ desires.

“She had a wild love affair with life,” says her friend Ella Ben-Shach. “She was drawn to the edges and often tested the boundaries, but always came back with new insights. Even when she went really far once, she was very happy when she came out of it. Afterward, we were at a party and she was dancing with much excitement and said, ‘Ellushka, look how happy I am.’”

Dayan was born on Ibn Gabirol Street, Tel Aviv, in 1945. Her father was a very well-to-do contractor. She attended the Dubnov elementary school and then the Tichon Hadash high school. Her high-school friends remember her as the ultimate beauty icon, the queen of the class and the whole grade, and maybe of the whole school. Was she conscious of her great beauty? Her girlfriends say no. They say she was utterly without arrogance.

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Assi Dayan with a portrait of Aharona by Yoram Lukov.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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Aharona Dayan: Didn't play by the book. Credit: Yakov and Alex Agor
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Assi and Aharona Dayan on their wedding day, June 1967.Credit: Dan Adani/IPPA

But there are other views, too. When Dayan was in 11th grade, one of the new ninth grade classes had a few real beauties of its own. There was one girl in particular, Adith, who soon became the talk of the school. One day, Dayan saw another girl from that ninth grade class in the girls’ bathroom and asked her to tell her all about the new pretty girl. “I found it very funny,” says that girl from the ninth grade. “I knew Aharona from Dubnov, where she wasn’t such a star. The kids there used to call her ‘Fatty.’ I guess in the two years I didn’t see her, she really got herself together.”

When Aharona was in ninth grade, she met Assi Dayan, and from that time on, more or less, they were a couple. Assi only stayed in the school for one year ‏(“They threw me out of there, like every other school,” he says‏). Aharona stayed and graduated. “He was enrolled in school,” says Assi’s mother, Ruth, “but he didn’t really study.” Aharona, on the other hand, was a serious student. “When I met her she was tutoring kids, preparing them for the matriculation exam in math. We had a neighbor she taught. She was a very intelligent woman. Moshe and I really loved her. I stayed in close touch with her all these years. I’m in touch with all of Assi’s exes.”

During her army service, Dayan served in one of the institutions affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office. After the army she studied Hebrew and English literature at the Hebrew University. Assi joined her there, studying English literature and philosophy. They shared an apartment in Jerusalem, and in June 1967 they decided to marry. The wedding was set for June 14. Luckily for them, they didn’t have to postpone it; the defense minister made sure the war was over in time.

And then Yael Dayan told her parents that she also wanted to get married. A month before, in the lead-up to the war, she met Brig. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Dov Sion. “We decided that we would get married after the war,” says Yael, “but then we thought that it would be a bit much to have two ceremonies in one family, one after the other, so we did it together with Assi and Aharona’s wedding and added our guests.” The double wedding, held at the Dayans’ home in Tel Aviv’s Tzahala neighborhood, was photographed for all the newspapers and became a hot topic in the gossip columns.

The number of guests who attended is a matter of controversy. In his autobiographical movie, “Life as a Rumor,” Assi Dayan says that 7,500 people came. His mother says he is greatly exaggerating: “There were 2,000 people there from every community and religion, from the army, and all kinds of important folks. I don’t remember that we sent out invitations. All these people just came. It was very casual, in the field behind the house, no tables .... Under the chuppah stood Ben-Gurion and Paula and Arik Sharon, who was Dov’s best man. Rabbi Yehidia Frankel married Aharona and Assi and Rabbi Goren, because Dov was in the army, married Yael and Dov.”

“At the last minute my father invited the mayors in the West Bank,” says Yael. “It was the first time that they came into Israel.” After the wedding, Aharona and Assi went to London. She studied filmmaking and he began acting in the movies. After two years, they returned to Israel and settled in Jaffa. Their first child, Amalia, was born in 1972, and four years later came two more big hits: son Avner and the movie “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer‏.”

In the early 1970s, Dayan began working as a producer for Israeli television. This was in the days when there was just a single channel and the entertainment division created grandiose productions featuring many participants. There were lots of patriotic holiday specials. Aharona Dayan’s boss was Hanoch Hasson.

“She wasn’t a soldier with a neat uniform,” Hasson recalls. “She was unconventional. She had good ideas. I think she was the one who came up with the idea for the ‘Shirim Be’Tzavta’ program, and she did an amazing thing there. She made the place look much bigger by placing mirrors behind the artists. She brought a different spirit to the job. But she didn’t have an easy time with me, nor I with her.”

Why?

“She could have wanted Obama to appear [on TV], for instance. In her mind, there was no limit to what was possible. For Aharona, one plus one always equaled two and a quarter. She had good taste and she was super-creative, and in a square institution like the Israel Broadcasting Authority, to get out of that squareness you need to do a lot more. Like Alex Gilady, for instance, who used to turn over tables.”

Dayan didn’t go that far, but she did have her own mannerisms. “She would leave the television building in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, and she had to buy a newspaper,” says Hasson. “So she would stop the car in the middle of the street, at four or five in the afternoon, at the height of rush hour, and all the traffic would stop behind her, everyone honking their horn, and she would calmly get out of the car, go buy her newspaper and come back seven minutes later.”

She might also stop in the middle of the street for cigarettes. “She could stop the car in the middle of Ibn Gabirol,” says Omna Cohen, a television producer who worked with Dayan, “and run to buy cigarettes. And meanwhile all the traffic is stuck there. It wasn’t out of meanness, but distraction. It’s what she wanted at that moment, and she always did what she wanted. She had very good taste. She made beautiful programs. She had the power of persuasion.

“I remember that during the Yom Kippur War she produced the show for which Naomi Shemer wrote the song ‘Lu Yehi.’ Aharona managed to get Naomi into the car, and I know how hard it was to get Naomi to write, but Aharona did it and Naomi wrote on the way and finished right when they got to the Herzliya Studios. The whole country cried, and that was a great achievement for Aharona. I was very fond of her. She was different. She didn’t work by the book. She wasn’t an establishment type, but someone who comes out of nowhere and then gets up and leaves when he feels like it.”

Rotten luck

Dalia Gutman, Dayan’s good friend, met her in the 1970s while working in television, and their friendship lasted until the very end. “She is one of the few people I envied,” says Gutman.

“I thought she was much better than me at producing,” she adds. “She had superb taste in culture, art, literature and movies. She was very fragile and transparent. There were many times I knew she was on the edge, although in the last years she was in excellent condition. She was a wonderful friend. Not manipulative. She listened to you with total concentration, as if you’d just come back together from a nuclear war. She was original and authentic and never fake.”

She also smoked with the same passion and dedication she applied to everything else in her life. Practically nonstop. Three years ago she was diagnosed with throat cancer. She underwent radiation and the disease went into remission. Then 11 months ago she was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to her liver. “It was small cell lung cancer,” says Yael Dayan. “Not everything is from God. It’s up to us, too. The cancer she had appears in smokers 99 percent of the time.”

Was there a connection between the first cancer and the later one?

“The doctors say that the second cancer had no connection to the first,” says her daughter Amalia. “It was just rotten luck.”

In 1979, Assi and Aharona divorced. In his autobiographical film, Assi says his wife didn’t like the “burekas movies” he made. That she didn’t appreciate his artistic talent. It’s not clear if that was the only reason he started to cheat on her. He talks candidly about the young starlets who kept appearing by his side and about his inability to control himself.

Aharona took the children and moved into a house she had built in Ganei Yehuda. Avner was around three and Amalia was seven.

“Motherhood was very important to her,” says Avner. “At that time, career came second. She wanted things to be good for her children, for them to have friends, to be able to manage in life, not to have a situation in which it would be hard for them without her. She had this striking ability to build a network of people around her that she loved. She was a champ at networking, before anyone was using that word. I remember when we were small and people would ask us, ‘What does your mother do?’ And we’d say: ‘She talks on the phone.’”

Avner left home when he was 17. He needed space and distance from his family. First he lived in rented apartments in Tel Aviv and then Caesarea, and finally moved to Thailand where he lived for 14 years with his wife and daughter. For the past half-year he was back in Israel, looking after his mother.

Wasn’t it hard for her when you left Israel?

“It was hard for her in the beginning, but after a while she got used to it.”

Her daughter Amalia also left home at 18, preferring to live in rented apartments while she did her army service and went to university. At age 24, she too left Israel and has been living for the past 16 years in New York with her husband, businessman Adam Lindemann, and their two daughters, Noa, 3, and Zohar, 5. She owns an art gallery on 77th Street with partner Daniella Luxembourg. The pair has another tiny gallery in the East Village as well as a gallery in London.

“It must have been very hard for Mom,” she says. “But she was very happy that I had my world and my privacy, and she was proud of my career. She didn’t make me feel guilty or give me the feeling that I left her alone. She was an unconventional mother. There wasn’t breakfast on the table every day or carpools to activities, the way I have now, but there was always unconditional love and lots of attention.”

Did you and your brother run so far away to save your lives?

“Yes, in the sense that there were things I wanted to do and I was afraid that if I stayed here I’d get caught in a kind of dynamic that I didn’t want, that my daily life would revolve around Dad’s last movie and what was written about him in the paper, and that I would have a lot less time to focus on the things that interested me. For me it was a lifesaver − the anonymity in New York. To be in a place where you have a choice, a place that lets you just be yourself without guilt feelings. My mother didn’t believe in rules. There were drawbacks to this, too, but one of the advantages was that we felt we could do what we wanted to do.”

Children sometimes want boundaries.

“I feel lucky, really, that I am who I am because of the independence I was given and because of the lack of boundaries. But back then I was jealous of my friends’ more conventional lives and I wanted to come home to the meatballs and chicken soup like they did. But she really felt that this wasn’t so important. Maybe she just couldn’t give it to us. I don’t mean technically, but psychologically. And it was the total opposite of the way she grew up. Her mother was a model housewife who really cared about cooking and keeping everything spic and span.”

Who fed you?

“We didn’t starve. We managed. We found alternatives.”

A social magnet

In the early 1990s, a dark cloud appeared in Dayan’s life and she went into a tailspin. Reality became illusion and illusion reality. Her charismatic and rational personality became sorrowful and tragic. The one who helped her in those days, aside from her many girlfriends, was the high priestess of the Dayan clan, Ruth.

“I was in Budapest at a conference for MS patients − I’m on the board of the organization − and I received a message that something was wrong, and I immediately returned to Israel. She was in Ichilov and I had her transferred to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and this was very important. She was there for quite a while, but she recovered. Her friends made sure that at least one of them was there with her every day. I’ve never met a person who was so popular. She was just a good soul. She even managed to come to the premiere of Assi’s biography in a wheelchair.”

During that time, says Aricha, now a director at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, it was hard for me to communicate with her. She often didn’t answer phone calls. And then I met a good friends of hers, Irit Razili ‏[who died 10 years ago‏], at one of the productions at Tzavta, and she said: ‘Aharona really loves you. Go visit her at Tel Hashomer.’ I went to see her and we were in close touch ever since.”

Talia Dayan, her former sister-in-law ‏(she was married to Udi Dayan, Assi’s brother‏), also became one of the dozens of close girlfriends who were drawn to Aharona. “One time I said to her: ‘Aharonchuk, if you came out of that big crisis, it’s a sign that somebody up there is watching over you and this miracle is going to happen to you again now. Unfortunately, I was wrong.”

“Her friends were her greatest success,” says Amalia. “There wasn’t a day in this entire year that she didn’t have 10-20 friends there holding her hand. Up until the last moment, she felt important and loved. This was her real family. It was fantastic and extraordinary.”

Nurit Geffen ‏(ex-wife of Yehonatan Geffen‏) was related to Aharona by marriage for a time and later became a close friend. “When we were related we weren’t that close because I didn’t have the time; I was busy with my crazy family. Later on we became very close and had many heart-to-heart talks. She was very smart and funny. She had the soul of a butterfly. Fragile and fluttering. She wasn’t at all captivated by the material things in life. And it’s impossible to say anything bad about her.”

When the cancer metastasized to her brain, Dayan decided to stop the chemotherapy treatments and just enjoy the sky and trees outside her bedroom window, and the cigarettes Aricha sneaked to her. “About a month ago, she asked me: ‘Riki, light a cigarette for me, the aide knows where they are.’ I gave her a cigarette and she savored it. After that I would light one for her every once in a while, and she got a lot of pleasure from it.”

“The last month was like a shivah,” says Ella Ben-Shach. “Hundreds of people came to say good-bye and she smiled her incredible smile and when she got tired we would close the door to her room. Once when she was in pain, we said, ‘We’ll give you something for the pain,’ and she just said, ‘Thank you.’ There was something very decent and modest about her, and at the same time she had these grandiose gestures. She was a one-woman show. Her presence was like a rare star that touches down on earth and then flies off to another galaxy. She possessed a combination of the spiritual and intellectual, and yet she was very grounded, too.”

How did such a beautiful and special woman remain single?

“Right after Assi she had a relationship with someone whom she really loved, and then he died, and after that her heart never lit up for anyone else.”

Fashion designer Tamara Yuval-Jones met Dayan when she was 20 and they were close friends ever since. “I made the dress she wore to meet Moshe and Ruth Dayan, and that’s how I got to be one of the designers at Maskit. I was their neighbor when they lived in Jaffa after they came back from London. There was a time when we saw each other a lot, together with the children. We went through a lot together. She was an extraordinary woman. Full of intelligence and charm, and breathtakingly beautiful. She didn’t need to study spiritual teachings. She was a wholly spiritual being, and also very intellectual. A lover of literature. She was very fond of Hebrew literature. Of Agnon, and Alterman.”

Dayan’s extensive family of friends now feels orphaned and defeated. As hard as they tried, nothing helped. Dayan, on the other hand, adopted a philosophical perspective, came to terms with death and didn’t quarrel with it. “She was like a Chinese sage,” says Ben-Shach. “A philosopher. Maybe because she’d studied Gershom Scholem. We talked about everything openly and without inhibitions. Other people were afraid to talk to her about it. She promised she would think about me from above, too. I asked her, ‘How will I know that you’re thinking of me?’ And she started to sing a song and said: ‘When you hear this song you’ll know I’m thinking of you.’ We quickly called my husband Ehud and he recorded the song. She had a magnetic personality. She never made any effort to be at the center of things; she didn’t organize dinners and events, but so many people loved her. I feel that I was privileged to know such a unique person.”

Assi Dayan also feels fortunate to have known her. “I am grateful that I was privileged to be the love of her life,” he says. “Our years together were my most beautiful and happy ones.”

And what was she for you?

“The best and sanest thing in the world. You don’t find people like that. I’m the only one who ever made her laugh. Me and this series. After she saw it, she cried all night. She was an incredibly brave woman – she only took morphine in her final days.”

No fear

The deep friendship between Aharona Dayan and Naomi Kulitz began more than 50 years ago. It started out slowly, via their mutual friend, Irit Razili. “I saw her one day when she came with Assi to a party, at age 15. She stood in the doorway, looking down, her head turned to the side, and I was just awed by her beauty. I’ll never forget that moment. I think she didn’t realize how beautiful she was when she was young. One time I asked her and she said: ‘I did notice that people gave me whatever I asked for, but I thought it was like that for everyone.’”

At the same time, she lacked confidence. “Her genetic makeup didn’t give her enough self-confidence for this life, and she certainly wasn’t arrogant at all. I don’t think she completely accepted herself. She knew that we thought she was wonderful, but when I would tell her that, she would say, ‘Oh come on.’ And when she couldn’t answer me anymore I said to her: ‘Now you listen and keep quiet,’ and I told her what I thought about her.”

And she didn’t want to die?

“No, she didn’t want to die. She had got a lot of pleasure in the last decade, especially since her granddaughters were born. She really wanted to live. On the other hand, she had the ability to accept her fate. Her doctor told us that she’d never seen anyone who accepted their fate with such sweetness.”

In her final years, Dayan was active in volunteerism. There were two main projects to which she was devoted. Seven years ago she founded a film club at the Weill Center in Kfar Shmaryahu and was responsible for running it. It was like a little cinematheque, with lectures and other activities. Pnina Rabinowitz, the center’s director, also became a close friend. “She was working as a volunteer, but she was really working at it full-time. I could go on about her all day. She came up with the idea for the club and the screenings of documentaries, and now we’re having a docu-art festival. She organized the speakers and took care of everything.

“She had a lot of expenses in connection with this, but she never asked for anything. Whenever I would offer, she would say: ‘Okay, you can pay for the cab.’ People really respected her opinion. She had excellent artistic taste. And she had this amazing quality where each one of her friends was absolutely dear to her. The one and only. She ended every phone call with ‘I love you,’ and you sensed that it was truly heartfelt.”

Her second volunteer project was establishing the board of directors of the Avshalom Pollak and Inbal Pinto Dance Company. “She was a good friend of my mother’s,” says Pollak. “And she was the driving force in setting up the board of directors in 2006. She brought all of her friends, including the chairman, Itamar Borowitz. She was an extraordinary woman in terms of her dedication and love. She had superb taste, an unusual ability to bring people together, and to convince people that she wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was thanks to her presence that many things got done.”

Amalia, Dayan’s daughter, has already returned to New York and Avner has returned to Thailand. Her friends here will try to keep her projects going and they will miss her terribly. Amalia recounts the final moments. “There was an incredible feeling of intimacy like nothing else. She was the ideal patient. She accepted the end positively, and in a way that was inspirational. Without the terror of the fear of death. She was not depressed and she knew just what was going to happen because we didn’t hide anything from her.” 

Aharona Dayan: Didn't play by the book. Credit: Yakov and Alex Agor

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