The First Lady of Israeli Culture: 'This Country Is Going Down the Drain'

'Even animals have culture. Here there’s nothing,' says celebrated Israeli actress Gila Almagor, who is coping with the demise of her life’s two great loves: husband Yaakov Agmon and cultural institutions

Gila Almagor this week. 'My whole world is upside-down.'
Gila Almagor this week. 'My whole world is upside-down.'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv
Lior Soroka
Lior Soroka
Lior Soroka
Lior Soroka

It’s already past noon, but Gila Almagor-Agmon has only just finished her morning coffee.

“My whole world is upside-down. It’s unbelievable. I’ll apparently have to learn how to breathe differently, to live differently,” she tells Haaretz in her Tel Aviv living room. Considered the first lady of Israeli theater and cinema, Almagor, now 81, has played countless roles since her professional debut at 17. A little over a month has passed since she lost her husband of nearly 60 years, theater producer and director Yaakov Agmon.

Her two small dogs, Tiny and Maggie, scamper to and fro, and Almagor talks about how they loved to sit on Agmon’s lap. On December 16, he died at 91 of lung disease.

“He died so quietly,” Almagor says, noting that they had asked to avoid invasive medical intervention. “We were with him from that morning until he returned his soul to the creator, and I stole his last breath from him,” she adds, seated on a balcony full of plants she had cultivated where Agmon liked to sit. He would look at the sea on the horizon.

Almgor at her hom this week. 'My friends are dying of hunger.'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

Almagor still finds it hard to leave her home.

She is thankful for the past year, in which they had time to enjoy each other’s presence. “I also said ‘this cursed coronavirus, there’s no work, my friends are dying of hunger, this whole country is going down the drain.’ And in retrospect, I find myself remembering it fondly – it was a gift. Two workaholics, who all their lives worked in this rat race, he’s traveling, I’m traveling, he’s managing the Habima Theater, I’ve got shows, and this insane life. And suddenly two older people are walled off in this house, listening to music, reading, being silent and having conversations.”

I gave out cash to actors, and connected them with a charity that leaves non-perishable food on your doorstep on Fridays and before holidays

Gila Almagor

One of the topics they discussed was their shared background of having lost their fathers. Agmon was born in Poland six weeks after his father died, and Almagor’s father was killed in 1939 by an Arab sniper in Haifa four months before her birth. She says that when she told her mother that the new man in her life had also lost his father before he was born, she replied, “that’s a match made in heaven, bring him over right away.”

“Sometimes we would talk about being orphaned, kind of as a joke, and that’s it,” Almagor says. “Suddenly, we found ourselves talking about the vacuum, about the wanting of coming into this world without having a father. He sat next to me, took my hand and say, ‘Gilush, we really are a match made in heaven,’ and hugged me as though we had just met a week ago. I’m getting emotional just talking about it.”

What’s the secret to such a lengthy relationship?

“It’s like a garden that you have to cultivate. You need to remove all the weeds, to fertilize it. He always knew somehow to make better moments out of crises. A crisis can be constructive, but that’s not enough in itself. From there you can jump, and go up a notch.”

Gila Almagor and husband Yaacov Agmon. 'We were with him from that morning until he returned his soul to the creator, and I stole his last breath from him.'Credit: HOT8

At the Kibbutz Shefayim cemetery, Agmon’s headstone, which is inlayed with pieces of blue agate stones from Brazil (chosen by their daughter Hagar and granddaughter Sophie), reads at his request: “The man who lived twice.”

He had explained this inscription to Yaron Fried in his biography of Agmon, published last year: “I crammed into one lifetime what many people do over several.”

“He lived the lives of five people, so full, rich, enriching and inspiring,” Almagor says of her late husband, who founded the Beit Lessin and Bimot theaters, headed Habima and the Cameri and established the Klezmer festival and the Theatronetto solo performances festival.

As opposed to Almagor, who was awarded the Israel Prize for theater, Agmon did not receive the venerated award. “It’s really unforgiveable. You say, wait a second, why not? And I know he was nominated a few times,” she says. She uses the opportunity to issue an appeal to President Reuven Rivlin: “Take a breath, Mr. President, and recognize the man’s deeds, that there isn’t a single corner of culture in this country that he didn’t have a hand in creating.”

People sit on crowded airplanes, returning from Dubai and New York. Where’s the logic here? To take an entire sector and kill it off – I have no other word for it

Gila Almagor

Agmon commented on the issue himself in a 2019 interview with Israel Hayom, in which he said he suspects he will not receive the prize because of a mark on his record. “This happened at the end of my work at Habima. The case has been closed, but there’s no doubt that there were those who enjoyed and celebrated the mess.” He was referencing a sexual harassment complaint filed by his secretary in 2005, a case that was closed six months later due to a lack of evidence.

“Look, there are always people with something to say,” Almagor says. “If you go into politics, or head any organization, tomorrow they’ll find something on you. But I think that this is so wrong and unfair because he was cleared of everything … the case was shut just as it opened. And it’s a horror show, a horror show someone frames you with.”

Gila Almagor. 'Theater nowadays isn’t political, almost completely not.'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

The show must go on

Another one of Almagor’s loves has been dying before her eyes for almost a year. As someone who until nine months ago took the stage nearly every night at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater, says the closure of cultural institutions is “a kind of death” to her.

“It’s terrible, something dies inside you. Because even at the toughest moments of my life, it was a life raft,” she says, “and now there’s nothing more difficult than what I’m going through.”

At one point in her career, Almagor went six years without a phone call or a job offer, until she wrote the 1985 book “The Summer of Aviya,” which recounted her childhood in the shadow of her mentally ill mother and thrust her back into the spotlight. She feels an endless devotion to her career and her audience.

“I’ll get up on the stage even if I’m dying,” she says dramatically but with full sincerity. In September 2019, she broke her shoulder during a show but continued performing. “I completed the act and I was sure I could continue until the whole show was over, but the ambulance was waiting.”

She believes it will take a long time until the audience feels safe returning to theaters. “Even after everyone is vaccinated, I imagine it will take time, months, until people will feel like they can sit safely, as they used to in the theater,” she says.

With frustration, she adds, “but they could reopen even today, with the open skies. People sit on crowded airplanes, returning from Dubai and New York. Where’s the logic here? To take an entire sector and kill it off – I have no other word for it.”

Where is the logic, really?

'people allowed [sexual harassments]. Everywhere, people permitted themselves to do everything. Listen, they would do fake auditions for actresses with meat grinders'

“There is no logic, I think it’s a crime, a crime, that the person in charge… the leader of the country that allows himself to cooperate with those who are choking off culture, to toss it aside as dead weight, what is that? How can he do that? Even among the animals of the jungle, I think, they have some form of culture. But here there’s nothing, and it’s terrible.”

Recently, with the vaccines and the green passport, they’ve said they’d reopen.

“Every day they invent something. What is reopening? Today they can reopen. Space people out one, two meters apart – three meters in larger theaters. But it’s possible, it can be done.”

It seems they’re not investing any thought in it.

“No, certainly not, now there’s an election and you have to be what they call ‘populistic’ and do things that photograph well. What can you take a picture of? A theater full of bald heads? It doesn’t photograph well.”

Gila Almagor in Assi Dayan's 1992 film 'Life According to Agfa.'

When Almagor speaks of “killing off an entire sector” she is speaking from the heart. She tells of how she learned from an early age to save for a rainy day, but after a guest appearance on the Ofira and Berkowitz TV talkshow this summer where she spoke of her peers who are going hungry, she received many requests for donations. Almagor made a precise registry of the money she had received and sent to needy actors and theater staff.

“I gave out cash to people, and connected them with a charity that leaves non-perishable food on your doorstep on Fridays and before holidays. Is that my job? What about the state’s responsibility?”

She has never been afraid to express her political views. She said that in 1983, while Israeli forces were ensconced in Lebanon, she insisted on participating in producing the play “The Trojan Women” with German director Holk Freytag.

“There’s no play more strongly anti-war than ‘The Trojan Women,’” she says of the work written by Euripides in the fifth century B.C.E. When the director asked her to temper her insistence, she replies, “I will stand on any soap box to shout out against the war, and I want to shout it from the stage.” She played the prophetess Casandra, a prophetess who proves that nobody believes her revelations.

'If you come and offer me a great role saying ‘it’s really for you, it’s exactly you,’ I don’t want it'

Could such a political play be staged today? Is theater in Israel political enough?

“Theater nowadays isn’t political, almost completely not,” she decisively replies. “It puts out a show every now and then that comes close to making some political statement. The theater should also no doubt be the voice of the times, otherwise you’re just a puppet.” She says this applies especially to subsidized public theaters, “so that they won’t give the impression that because the theater is supported [by the state], it just does puppet shows and celebrations. Let subsidized theaters take flight and deal with things. If you don’t want to come and see it, then don’t. The theater has to stand up and do things. Certainly.”

Maybe theater will change now?

“It has to change. Even to do things that are smaller, less grandiose, and then you focus on quality. Especially in Israel, you need to introduce plays intended for a higher standard, and also have more folksy plays, but you have to do things. Theater must have something to say. When it’s a private theater, and an investor wants to invest in music festivals, that’s lovely. But if the theater is subsidized, you have to do both. People have to think that when they go to the theater, the show doesn’t end with the curtain coming down, because what kind of experience is that?”

‘Almagor, you’re funny’

If theater is dead, then as the playwright says, let television be television. HOT has launched a poetic comedy sketch series called “Transparent” with Almagor as one of its stars. Created by Eli Ben-David, Adar Marom and Omri Amit, the show features two contract workers played by Yuval Semo and Guri Alfi, alongside a gallery of unremarkable figures we would usually just pass by without noticing.

Almagor, who plays Semo’s impoverished and neglected mother, says that the days of filming were “like a ray of light” for her in this arid year. Director Ben-David asked to send her the script, but she told him, “Don’t send me anything, the answer is yes, yes, of course.”

Gila Almagor. 'In 81 years I managed to do a little bit, so if I had to leave the world today, then I would only regret leaving my daughter and grandchildren.'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

As someone known for her great dramatic roles, Almagor is happy to be on the set beside Semo, Alfi, Tiki Dayan and Eli Yatzpan. “They’re comedians, and suddenly there I am, and for years I’ve been waiting to do a comedy, years.”

She showed Agmon two of the sketches from the program, and he said to her, “Almagor, you’re funny. I’ve told you before that you’re funny.” She says that she “always looks to inject a little humor. Even in dramatic roles, you have to find something between the lines, you have to pull something out, it really makes the person more well-rounded.”

In general, she enjoys playing characters who are different from her. “If you come and offer me a great role saying ‘it’s really for you, it’s exactly you,’ I don’t want it. Maybe when I was a young actor. Today it doesn’t interest me. To reinvent myself, even when I’m 81 and still strong, these are the things that excite me.”

''I open the door and suddenly there’s a monster. He throws me … and I remember telling him, 'I’ll kill you, watch out'

In the past year, she has also put herself in the culture minister’s shoes in the successful series Kan Public Broadcaster series “Rehearsals.” She says that from the outset, it was clear to her that she wouldn’t be doing an impression of Likud’s Miri Regev, who previously held the position. “When they asked me to take the role, I said that I would do it, but it would have to be mine, not just an imitation of someone else. I think that put some force behind it.”

Seeing her on the show telling the playwright that her play “interesting, my ass,” and that movies are much more authentic, recalls the high profile row she had with Regev at the Israeli Theater Prize ceremony in 2015.

Regev, who had just entered the role of culture minister, had already managed to put out her doctrine regarding those working in the culture sector, whom she called “thankless and tight-assed” and blamed for the neglect of Israel’s peripheral locales.

Almagor didn’t take this lying down, and shouted at her during the ceremony: “For years, we’ve been crushing our feet in the periphery. What do you know about Israeli culture? You’re mocking us even before you’ve warmed your seat.”

“I was the first one to understand who this woman is,” she says, with satisfaction that “crushing our feet” has since become a figure of speech.

Almagor on the stage of Habima Theater. 'Even after everyone is vaccinated, I imagine it will take time until people will feel like they can sit safely in the theater,” she says.Credit: Gérard Allon

Have you come full circle with your role in “Rehearsals?”

“I have, certainly. Listen, I am only afraid of God. But it made me so angry. You came into the job yesterday, learn, look at what this circle that you’re entering is doing.”

As for the current culture minister, Chili Tropper, she is a little more forgiving. “He’s a charming man, very affable. I don’t know how much power he has in this government, with this Finance Ministry. [Agmon] would sit here and say ‘Why aren’t you flipping tables over!? I don’t get it.’ I would like to meet with him.”

Speaking of “Rehearsals,” Almagor, like the character played by Agam Rudberg, insisted on playing the part of Nina in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in her youth.

Almagor likes the role played by Agam Rodberg in the series, insisted on playing Chekhov’s Nina in her youth. “You’re Nina!” I tell her and she’s amused.”

Shaike Weinberg, then head of the Cameri Theater, she says, told her at some point that they would be putting on “The Seagull,” and she said she wanted to play the role. She did play Nina under German director Leopold Lindtbergh in 1974. “It’s one of those difficult female roles by Chekhov,” she says of the young woman who dreams of being a successful actress and endures bitter failures throughout the play. “I know what it is to fall, the scratches that it leaves. I’m a living person.”

‘You can pay a compliment without being handsy’

In recent years, with the flood of MeToo stories in the cultural world, Almagor also shared some difficult experiences.

For example, the brutal rape scene in 1971’s “The Highway Queen,” which nearly crossed the line between acting and reality, or the attempted rape she experienced in her youth in Paris at the hands of “a very well-known Israeli artist” who escorted her to her hotel. “I open the door and suddenly there’s a monster. He throws me … and I remember telling him, ‘I’ll kill you, watch out.’ I scratched him in the face and told him, ‘Now go home, let your wife ask you [where you got that from],’” she recounts.

“When I first started out so young at Habima, and everyone was so much older, you’re walking around with a braid, a flower who didn’t come from Russia or Europe, but someone completely local, a cactus, they drool. And I had to kiss an actor on the stage, and he would slip in tongue,” she tells of one of the many instances of sexual harassment she managed to fight off in the theater.

“And the thing is, people allowed this. Everywhere, people permitted themselves to do everything. Listen, they would do fake auditions for actresses with meat grinders – they’d put some rag on her and pretend they were filming them. Terrible things.”

She thinks that the MeToo movement is “one of the important things that has happened, this revolutionary change,” but regrets that it has created distance between the sexes. “You can’t even compliment a woman or say she’s pretty, because tomorrow she’ll say you sexually harassed her. You also lose something … why are you getting dressed up and putting on makeup and going out into the world? You want to be complimented, to look your best. You can tell a woman she looks lovely without it having sexual connotations, without being handsy.”

Almagor isn’t afraid of getting older. “Because I do what’s called a retrospective, in 81 years I managed to do a little bit, so if I had to leave the world today, then I would only regret leaving my daughter and grandchildren.”

But she agrees with writer Philip Roth, who “said that it’s very true that old age is a massacre. The body betrays you. Yesterday I could do things, today it’s different. I need to put cream on my elbows and never stop working on my body. Thank God my brain is still working and clear. I read a lot. Reading is also very good exercise for your memory.” During the pandemic, she began studying Italian and a little Spanish and French. “I’m challenging myself, because my father was apparently a language genius.”

What more would she want to do? To memorialize Agmon’s work. She took the reins of the the Theatronetto festival into her hands, and hopes its festival will be held on schedule in April. “What else? I would also like to go to Japan, I’ve never been there. Dubai interests me less.”

What do you think about actors making signs of aging disappear?

“Sure, why not? The wisdom is really in the dosage, because there are some cases that are pathetic. But there are almost no women in show business in America or Europe… Meryl Streep is so beautiful, she has strong bones and all. Even she, a great character actress and all, she needs to keep her forehead clean.”

At the same time she identifies with Italian actress Anna Magnani’s remarks that she has earned all her wrinkles with integrity. “I was 16, I was 17, and then I was 80, and now I’m even older,” she says, adding “What more can I do that won’t be pathetic? Maybe I’ll do it, too. Just like how you try to maintain your body and soul. If tomorrow you tell me there’s a pill that, I don’t know, makes your skin firm, then maybe I’d take it – why not?”