Battling the Demons, on Stage and in Life

Dafna Rechter, daughter of two Israel Prize laureates, talks candidly about her love-hate relationship with the theater and her complex family ties.

Zipi Shochat
Zipi Shohat
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Zipi Shochat
Zipi Shohat

Four years ago, actress Dafna Rechter announced that she was quitting the theater and her successful acting career. She provided no explanation for her move. Now she is returning to the stage as the lead in a new play by Savyon Liebrecht, "Horses on Geha Freeway," directed by Tzipi Pines at Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater.

"I simply got to the point where I have to make a living," Rechter explains in an interview conducted in the rehearsal room. "I didn't work for four years, I have a band of musicians to maintain and we aren't making a living yet from our shows. Like any band just starting out, we're waiting for people to come see us. We're slowly building our public. I hope we'll get to the point where we aren't losing money on gigs."

In a previous interview, you described your 20 years in the theater as one long nightmare of living in the dark and also likened it to a sensation of being raped.

"I want to make it clear that for me living in the dark was my own private thing. It has nothing to do with the people I worked with or the theater itself. It's a profession that I do well, I make a decent living at it, I maintain a home, support a child, so I work in it. But like any person, I too went through personal and internal processes; for the past four years I basically learned to walk, to talk, be myself. I'd been so disconnected from who I am and what I am, and because I'm a very closed person who doesn't know how to lie, something in me was terribly miserable. I got away from theater and acting because I needed that distance to find myself, to find my inner voice, my real, authentic thing."

And that distancing brought you closer to yourself?

"My eyes opened, I realized I'm not retarded and not stupid, and I can learn and do other things. I'm starting to like myself now, you see. Just getting started."

How did your announcement about quitting acting go over?

"Tzipi [Pines], the general manager of the theater, was always sensitive to this, she mothered and protected me and worried about me whenever I was having a hard time. When I told her, she said, 'Dafna, your mind is so set on this that I won't even argue with you. But know you have a home here, and that you can always come back.'"

Yet it was not Pines who offered her a role recently: The initiative came from Rechter herself: "I called her up and said, 'Look, I'm working with a therapist, give me a small part in a production that isn't going so well, so they won't notice me much.' And Tzipi told me, 'Let's talk, think.' I stewed, she stewed, and in the meantime I'm working all the while with a therapist who is a wizard; he really did a job on me. You see the difference. He helped me cope with my toughest demons - namely, coming back here, to acting."

How did you survive for four years without working?

"My father died and left us some money. I kept saying that I'm not touching that money because it's for my daughter, Zoe, and I worked like a mule. At a certain point, I said, what for? I'm sure my father would have said to me: Quit everything, use this money for living, for healing yourself, for recovery, for being with your child, for doing what you truly love ... After all, he loved me more than anything in the world, why would he want to see me suffer? So that's what I did. And at a certain stage, I said, that's enough, now we save it and don't touch it ... I still want something to be kept on the side, for a rainy day."

A special relationship

Dafna Rechter is the daughter of actress and Israel Prize laureate Hanna Maron and the renowned architect Yaakov Rechter, also an Israel Prize winner. As a young actress, she stood out in leading Shakespearean roles such as Desdemona in "Othello" at Habima Theater and Rosalind in "As You Like It" at the Be'er Sheva Theater. In 1991, Dafna Rechter won her first Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar, for her role in the film "Beyond the Sea." She went on to appear in other films, among them "Urban Feel," for which she picked up another Ophir Award in 1998. Her stage roles included "Mephisto," "Don Juan," "Three Sisters," "Ghosts," "Thrill" (which earned her the Theater Actress of the Year Award for 2006 ), and "Goodbye Africa," her last play at Beit Lessin, after which she retired from theater.

Throughout those years, she developed a special relationship with Tzipi Pines. They actually started off on the wrong foot at their first encounter: When 15-year-old Rechter auditioned for the theater track at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, Pines was one of the examiners - and rejected her. Rechter was not even interested in studying theater, but that made no difference because her mother insisted on it, she says.

Most of her roles were at the Be'er Sheva and Beit Lessin theaters, under Pines' management, but Rechter was sought after by all the major theaters. "When they would call to offer me a part," she says, "for example, from the Cameri, it would go like this: I would say to him, 'give me a moment,' and he'd already know that I'd be going to talk to Tzipi."

During what period in your career was this?

"All the way through. Every time they offered me [a role] from the Haifa Theater, from the Cameri, from Habima - I went to tell Tzipi, hoping that she would tell me to say no, because I really didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to stay home."

Rechter says she is in a different place today, a "cleaner" place where she is not dealing with anyone who isn't good for her, as she puts it. "What you see is what you get," she says in English, pulling herself up to her full height and spreading her arms out.

Chosen by the sax

Four years ago Rechter began playing the saxophone. She says the instrument chose her, rather than the other way around. "I used to stand in the back at jam sessions, so I wouldn't be heard and wouldn't be seen, and I played. Today I can't wait to do my solos."

What does your brother, the musician Yoni Rechter, have to say about this?

"Yoni met with me at the start and said that I always had music inside me. He was at my show and enjoyed it. In general, we prefer to uphold the boundaries of where the family ends and the profession begins. I always paved my way alone. The saxophone is a terribly difficult instrument. But it's guitar I can't seem to get. I can't manage to strum a guitar, at the simplest level. On the other hand, I picked up the tenor sax and began playing ... Right now I'm not studying, I'm just playing."

When she met Naaman Tal, she was a novice saxophonist and he was an experienced songwriter-musician. "I came to jam sessions through a friend, I started playing. And then one day Naaman showed up, and I said to him: You've got something I need, and I won't leave you alone until I understand what it is and get it."

What did you mean?

"There was music in him, and he had this quiet, this spirituality. I saw something in him that I wanted ... in my life, which is quiet, patience, I don't know how to explain it."

And how did he react?

"He smiled and carried on. And I really did latch onto him, and we'd play together a lot. I constantly wanted to be wherever he was playing, we invited him to jam sessions, and we formed a very strong musical bond. We have lots of recorded sessions where he plays the piano and I'm on saxophone, for hours. We just played and played and played, and a bond of friendship formed; we weren't a couple or anything. I simply fell in love with his music."

When did you become a couple?

"After about a year. He's a lot younger than I am, 13 years ... He didn't think I'd want him - and I didn't believe he'd want an old fogy like me. And then at some point it suddenly came into being. It took a long time for it to get to where it is today. Because when it comes down to it, this is my first real partner ever ... My life began four years ago, when Naaman and I became a couple. We actually met almost a year earlier, so it's actually five years together, God help us."

The couple live together with Zoe, Rechter's 15-year-old daughter, who sometimes performs with them. They do their recordings at Tal's studio.

I presume you wouldn't want Zoe to become an actress.

"I don't want her to be anything she doesn't want to be. But at the moment there are clear signs that she's into music. She is amazing. But beyond that I mustn't talk about her; I promised her."

What mistakes that were made with you will you not make with her?

"I have a few clear things to say on this subject. For example, if my daughter tells me something, then she's right; it makes no difference if it seems utterly outlandish to me ... Ever since she was a baby, I've looked her in the eye. I speak to her at eye level, explain to her whatever she wants. Obviously, there is impatience at times; obviously, you sometimes say, 'not now.' But I'll explain later; I won't treat anything she says dismissively."

Your parents did not take you seriously?

"It would be more accurate to say that they had no strength and time for me. Quite early on, I figured out that I was alone in the world. My father was my best friend, but he was not at home most of the time in my childhood. What sort of kid was I? I spent a lot of time at the beach, in the yard, with animals. I wasn't in school much. By the time they noticed, it was too late."

You yourself are very busy. Do you have time for your daughter?

"There were years when I worked like crazy, and that was another reason why I quit the theater. During periods when I worked very hard, I got into this sort of loop where I had to make a living, to provide. But what came of that? I wasn't with Zoe."

Will you invite your mother to the new play you're in?

"I don't know. I imagine that she'll come, she knows there's a play."

You're evading answering.

"That is my answer."

Are you in touch with her?

"The contact is not very close. The truth is that we barely speak. I really did say 'goodbye' to whatever makes me feel bad, and 'hello' to whatever does me good."

Feuding actresses

When the Be'er Sheva Theater put on Ibsen's "Ghosts" in the 1990s, Rechter and Maron appeared together on the same stage. When the play was staged in Tel Aviv, a reception was held afterward. The two actresses, mother and daughter, refused to be photographed together and took up positions in different corners of the auditorium. Nevertheless, over the years Rechter has spoken adoringly of her mother and, at least in public, did not criticize her until recently.

Last September Maron gave an interview to the Gallery section of Haaretz. In response to a question about her daughter's retirement from the theater, Maron replied: "She's charming and talented and smart and unbearably stupid when it comes to what she's doing with her life. I have no other explanation. What is she doing now? I have no idea. She plays saxophone, music."

Rechter was hurt, and for the first time in her life hurled accusations at her mother - in a Channel 2 television broadcast. Rechter rejects my comment that, as the interviewer in question, I saw in Maron's words the response of a concerned mother in pain. "Do me a favor," the daughter retorts. "There's a big problem here. Look, it's a Rashomon story. No one is right and no one is wrong here. I'm telling you something simple: My mother - there are lots of wonderful things about her, she's an amazing person, she's done extraordinary things in her life, she's unusually strong. But she does not do me good in my life. As far as she's concerned, she's a wonderful and loving mother, and she will also say she has never hurt me ... she'll say all kinds of things."

In the interview, she spoke about you in connection with quitting theater.

"But what came out in the end is that all my siblings are incredible and wonderful, and I'm retarded. From her perspective, only if I am in the theater is it a sign that I'm okay. I no longer feel the need to defend anyone. If my daughter decides not to do something and decides to do something else instead, I'll tell her, 'Hey, you know what, you're really good at this; if you want to go back to it, great, you'll be wonderful. I'm very happy for you that you're doing what you love.' Instead of giving me grief for what I'm doing, and not understanding, and not listening ..."

Daphna's siblings are Amnon Rechter, an architect, and Dr. Ofra Rechter, a mathematics professor; her half-siblings, from her father's previous marriage, are musician Yoni Rechter and illustrator Michal Levit. When asked about contact with them, Rechter answers reservedly: "I'm not in touch with the family that much ... I'm not willing to say to which category my siblings belong."

The complex relationship with her mother is reflected in a song Rechter wrote called "Thank You," which became her first single. Among other things she is grateful to her mother for teaching her not to be like her. The song contains such lines as, "I used to feel worthless / Now it's my turn to turn my back on you / I used to beg you to stay home / The moment the door slammed the monster came / No more howling / No more neglect / No more empty promises."

Rechter: "You need to know how to say thanks to those who taught us what we don't want to be, and that's what I'm saying in the song. I am not a person who settles scores. I am not a person who bears a grudge, who's vengeful. I really am saying thank you. It isn't a cynical song. If you listen to it, there's a children's choir there. It's a happy song."

She was a daddy's girl, she admits: "I felt protected with him ... I felt that always, no matter what, I've got my dad. After he died [in 2001], I had no choice, I had to grow up."

If you were to meet your father now, what would you say to him?

"I think we would talk as though no time had passed."

Asked whether she would have an easier time coping if her father were alive today by her side, Rechter replies in the affirmative, but adds: "It's possible that I would have distanced myself from him too at some stage. Maybe not completely, because we used to talk on the phone like four times a day and meet all the time. But it could be that at a certain stage I would have said to him, 'Listen, let me be on my own.'"

'False alarms'

Rechter's decision to stop acting a few years ago was not her first. "Never once during any of the times I left or tried to leave acting did I really understand why I was doing it. I did it because I couldn't take it anymore, because I had to get out. Recently I found a box with notes from the time I studied at Beit Zvi [the acting school in Tel Aviv]. In one, which I sent to my friend and roommate, I wrote: 'I am going to the place where I most don't want to be.'"

But at Beit Zvi, Rechter actually met with a very sympathetic reception. "There, all of a sudden they didn't see me as crazy, didn't treat me as a misfit. That place embraced me all of a sudden. Gary Bilu, who was the head of Beit Zvi, was suddenly the big bear that gives me a hug in the morning."

It sounds like a contradiction: You didn't want to be in a place where you're loved?

"Everything is contradictory in this profession. I got a big hug from the theater too, but I wasn't happy there. It begins and ends at the same point: The problem is with me - not the people or the surroundings. I don't like an audience, don't like standing on a stage. I don't like people messing with me, don't like people peeping. I like to be alone."

In one of her attempts to escape the theater, she went to New York. Before going she shaved her hair off. She says that she informed the theater of her trip in advance, and felt she would not be coming back: "But it was different that time, because I didn't really understand what I was running away from. The shaved head was a symbolic act, like being born again. I came to a meeting with Tzipi at Beit Lessin and she screamed, 'What have you done to me?' And it was so symbolic, because it's like I belong to the theater. Wasn't my own master. I say this out of the process I have undergone as a human being, of self-discovery.

"I know all the actors don't really get what I'm talking about, because actors really love what they do and really want to be actors. They really want to stand onstage and have people listen to them and see them, and interview them, and they want more roles and more roles. And I don't. I refused interviews. I hated it."

Might your return to the theater also be viewed as a kind of return to yourself, self-acceptance?

"That's precisely what I'm working on now with my psychologist and on my own. I want to get to a point where, as far as I'm concerned, the theater is a job, that I get up in the morning, go to work, come home and carry on with my life as usual. I don't have to love every single moment there, but I throw myself into it, because it's a profession that I'm good at; I do everything I'm supposed to do. But right now I'm still coping with the demons."

What are these demons? How do you cope with them?

"These demons are what cause me, for no reason, to cry when I'm here in the theater. The inner sensation is one of a war - that I'm going to die. But I've learned to treat these sensations as false

Daphna RechterCredit: Zohar Shitrit



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