Still Captivating, After All These Years

In her latest role, as an old woman facing imminent death, Rivka Michaeli plays a person completely different from herself.

Rivka Michaeli gives an impressive performance in the title role of "Nechama," a film directed by Edit Sheratzki in which she plays an elderly woman who wakes up one morning knowing that it is her last day on earth. She has to deal with the people around her, who are either too busy with their own affairs or who brush her off scornfully and refuse to allow her to take leave of them and leave of herself the way she wants. In a world in which wrinkles shrink or disappear, in which signs of age are pushed off the screen in favor of taut skin, Michaeli faces the camera courageously, directly and proudly.

In "Nechama," which will be screened this month at the Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem cinematheques, not only are the marks of time on her body not blurred, they are even emphasized. The part requires this and the actress makes it possible.

Michaeli - Gali Eitan
Gali Eitan

But last week, sitting at a cafe in Tel Aviv, Michaeli was able to prove that in real life, her situation is very different from Nechama's. Although she complains of a crick in her neck as soon as she sits down, once the conversation gets rolling, it's clear that Michaeli is as energetic, vivacious and captivating as ever. And of course funny. Very funny.

She's 75 and still quick to laugh, so different from the character she portrays in "Nechama." She says the subject of the film didn't put her off, nor did the requirement that she give her wrinkles free rein and even emphasize them with special makeup.

"I wasn't trying to find a husband in the movie," she says. "It didn't bother me because that's who I am. I'd be happy if I looked different. It's pretty much a shock when you see yourself like that, but you know that this is what it is."

She wants it to be known that she didn't try to get the production team to blur her wrinkles. "I knew it was the whole secret of this film. On television, lots of times I say, 'Come here, what about the filter? How's the lighting? You're gonna burn my eyes.' But here that didn't happen. I just hope people will realize it's the makeup," she laughs.

Michaeli never wavered. As soon as she read the script, she knew she wanted to play Nechama. "I so much wanted to die at that time that it worked for me fabulously," she laughs again. "It was filmed two years ago and right then I was feeling pretty down, so it suited me to wake up in the morning and die at night."

The newspapers and the Internet were inundated at the time with reports of Michaeli's separation from her husband, Reuven Sharoni. "They even decided we had divorced," she smiles. "Guy Pines gave a list on his show of couples who had divorced that year, and I was there with many of the others. I think there were Rita and Rami, Datz and Datza, excellent company." She and Sharoni eventually started living together again but that news obviously got a lot less coverage.

Did her role in "Nechama" (a 52-minute drama ) spark new thoughts about old age and death?

"I have no new thoughts about old age," she says. "I make my acquaintance with it every day, in every joint of my body. It's something that attaches itself to you. The question is how you live with it."

And how do you live with it?

"With yoga, with qigong, with latching onto young people, hearing what they're talking about and hoping that maybe something, a smattering, will fall on me."

Once, she recalls, she met the late actress Hanna Rovina in a shop on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. "She was sitting on a chair like that, resting, and I said to her, 'Hello Mrs. Rovina.' I was so excited, I loved her so much, and I said, 'Hey there. How are you?' and then she looked at me and said: 'It's hard, when your body becomes the prison of your soul.'"

Particles of grace

Michaeli was born in Jerusalem in 1938, and by the age of 14 had already started singing on Israel Radio. She did her military service at the Army Radio and in the 1960s performed in her first show on stage with Yossi Banai. Over the years, she's performed in many shows, continued to broadcast on the radio, recorded albums for children, moderated Song Festivals and was twice called to the flag to host the Eurovision.

She burst onto television in 1974 as a member of the cast of the satirical program "Nikui Rosh" ("Head Cleaning" ), along with Tuvia Tsafrir, Safi Rivlin, Dubi Gal and others. One of the few women on the show, her tremendous talent made her recognizable in every home in Israel.

Several years later, she was given the most coveted job on the public broadcast station (the only television station operating at the time ): the host of "Siba L'mesiba" ("Reason for a Party" ), the most popular television program broadcast on Friday evenings, as well as its successor, "Sof Shavua" ("Weekend" ).

Over the past 20 years, Michaeli has appeared in many productions at Habimah and the Cameri theaters, she's acted in a television series and appeared in 16 films. Two years ago, she was awarded a prize for her life's work by the Israeli Film and Television Academy, and last year, she was awarded a similar prize for her contribution to radio at the annual convention of Israeli media in Eilat.

If at the outset of her career, entertainment and comedy were her primary niches, over the past two decades, she's veered toward drama. From entertainment programs, she moved to theatrical productions ("A Man is a Man," "Love Letters," "The Strange Incident" and many more ). She began making fewer appearances on television, and of late, her small screen roles have tended to be in dramatic serials ("Sabbaths and Holidays," "The Braun Girls" ).

In film, this transition is particularly obvious. The first film she appeared in was Ephraim Kishon's "Blaumilch Canal" (1969 ), followed by a series of comedies, among them "Salamonico," "King for a Day" and "King of the Baskets."

Her appearance in Amos Guttman's film, "Amazing Grace," proved to many, including Michaeli herself, that she could also perform with great skill roles meant not for entertainment only, taking her career in a completely new direction. Since then, she's moved from comedies to dramas. She's appeared in Dover Kosashvili's short film "Im Hukim" ("With Rules" ), Amos Gitai's "Kadosh," Yigal Bursztyn's "Zimzum" ("The Glow" ) and Julie Shles's "Joy," which won her the Ophir Award for best supporting actress.

This new career path, explains Michaeli, was not her own idea. "I didn't initiate anything. I would never have volunteered for a role had Amos Guttman not suggested I do. He realized I was able to do anything, and when I said to him, 'They'll laugh when they see me on the screen,' he said to me, 'No, your eyes are sad enough.'"

Do you miss comedies and satire? "Sometimes, in a play or a film, a sentence sort of comes out that discloses the little imp still in me. But yes, I'm definitely happy."

There are few other performers who at this stage in their careers have had so much to do in so many fields. "I have attention deficit disorder, that's for sure. I don't know how to focus on one thing at a time, so I think this transition was right for me. Radio gave me timing and improved my Hebrew and my ability to take responsibility for things that come out of my mouth. Television gave me the ability to divide my attention, to hear one thing in my ear and say another, to look at the camera and at the same time kick the person sitting next to me, and the stage takes in everything, everything comes from it."

She insists she has no favorite area of performance, but when asked which chapters in her career she's especially proud of, she doesn't hesitate. "'Nikui Rosh,' on the one hand, and 'Amazing Grace,' on the other. 'Nikui Rosh' straightened out my head politically and, in a certain way, corrected the naive Jerusalemite in me, in the social and political sense. It also really helped me improve the timing of my delivery in comedies, my responsiveness and my ability to talk like an ordinary human being - that is to say, to talk and be believable. This made me a better actress. And 'Amazing Grace' - there were particles of grace on everything that had to do with that film, - the wonderful director, the role I played in it and the overall atmosphere."

Raising an outcry

The list of projects Michaeli is working on at the moment is so long, it's tiring to just name them all. She's been running around the country with the production of "A Warm Family," written by Anat Gov and directed by Edna Mazya ("We've already had 350 performances and the vans are still loaded" ), she's presenting a program on Radio 103 FM and is also starring in Assi Dayan's new film "Dr. Pomerantz," in which once again death hovers above, as she plays a woman bent on committing suicide.

Michaeli is also preparing for the start of rehearsals for a new Israeli television series that's based on the American "Golden Girls" ("All the actresses are unknowns. I'm the grandmother, my daughter is Miki Kam and along with us, there's Hannah Laszlo and Tiki Dayan. Give a chance to new faces - maybe we'll surprise someone" ).

What will happen if one evening the Cameri van that takes you and the other actors in "A Warm Family" starts heading in the direction of the new cultural center in Ariel?

"I will not perform there," she insists. "Now I'm already convinced of this. It was the response of our culture minister that convinced me that there is no way that I will agree to perform there. It is such an uncultured act to boycott actors and cut the culture budgets to punish them. After I read that two or three years ago the Ariel city council tried to evade paying taxes, claiming the employer tax rules don't apply there since it's outside of Israel, and then that the court forced it to pay - I thought that this was such terrible hypocrisy. It's time to raise an outcry."

When the controversy over the Ariel cultural center first erupted, Michaeli admits that she preferred to observe things from the sidelines and did not join her colleagues in their protest. didn't join the protest in the beginning, and I didn't sign the petition either, because I thought it was too harsh. I'm also not the type of person who signs things - remember, I'm a graduate of the Broadcasting Authority, where you don't sign petitions," she says. "But when I saw the harsh reactions from the right, I went out to demonstrate. I went out and I demonstrated on Rothschild Boulevard, and I found myself standing next to Uri Avnery, Yoram Kaniuk and Shulamit Aloni in a demonstration against racism. This was the first time ever that I attended an event like that."

The first time you've gone out to demonstrate?

"A demonstration like that, a small, focused demonstration, not one of Moti Ashkenazi's demonstrations."

Are you saying that since Moti Ashkenazi's demonstrations after the Yom Kippur War, you haven't been to a demonstration?

"I don't think so. They always take place on Saturday nights when I work," she says. "But the truth is that recently I was on a tour in Hebron with the human rights group, Breaking the Silence, and I cried there, I was so ashamed. I was also at Abu Dis, and I tore my hair out. You have to understand, my father who worked with [Revisionsit leader Vladimir] Jabotinsky. But this isn't a question of left or right, it's a question of just or unjust, moral or immoral. How can I walk through the main street of a ghost town and see that they've blocked off all the main entrances to the homes and the residents have to cross and go up on the other side and know that they've done this in my name? How can it be that there's a woman about to give birth in Hebron and an ambulance from Kiryat Arba isn't going to stop for her, so instead they have to call an ambulance for her from far away? How can it be that in my name they're dumping garbage into the home of an Arab who has been living there for hundreds of years? And now they're opening a culture center in Kiryat Arba, too."

There you obviously wouldn't agree to perform.

"Of course I would. Totally naked."