From Sex Symbol to Holocaust Survivor: 'Lemon Popsicle' Star Discovers Yiddishpiel

40 years after her breakthrough role made her a recognizable face internationally, Anat Atzmon talks about examining #MeToo values in retrospect, and playing a 95-year-old at 60

Anat Atzmon in Tel Aviv, today. "I really welcome #MeToo"
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Even today, at age 60, Israeli actress and singer Anat Atzmon doesn't mind that people still associate her mainly with the 1978 bawdy cult film “Lemon Popsicle”, which made her an international sex symbol. 

“It happens to every artist, even singers like Bob Dylan. It’s part of me and to deny it would be as if I didn’t love one of my fingers,” she says about portraying the teenaged Nili in the box-office hit (which German fans know as “Eis am Stiel.”)

“Among all the roles I’ve played, there are those that I like and those [I like] less. But I really love ‘Lemon Popsicle’, especially because I still get to be exposed to young audiences again and again, as it's screened all the time,” she adds.

The young Atzmon. "I was up, down, in the middle and on the sides"

Looking back now, doesn’t it bother you to see yourself in films which, by today's standards, would not pass the #MeToo test?

“There’s no doubt that today they give more space to women in culture and movies, maybe because they are afraid, in some way. They didn’t use to think in those terms – that a woman has equal worth and is not an object. Cinema suffered from these things, because of a distorted view and lack of education. #MeToo put things in their place after a lot of fighting and courage by women, and I really welcome it.

Atzmon, center, in the Israeli film “Dizengoff 99”
Jean Boffety
The trailer of 'Lemon Popsicle'

"It gives me as a woman a sort of moral protection that didn’t exist once. Even today, from the lofty heights of my age, when they don’t really harass me anymore, I feel it. Today I rode in a cab and the driver began complimenting me on my looks. It was a bit strange but he did it very respectfully; they don’t do it the way they once did. They were given a lesson, the men. Still, I don’t regret any role I once did.”

The Yiddish connection

Atzmon was born in 1958 in Tel Aviv. A decade after breaking into Israeli and international consciousness with hit movies such as “Lemon Popsicle” and “Dizengoff 99,” she took one of the most surprising steps in her career and accepted an offer from her father, actor Shmuel Atzmon, to appear in a play about the Holocaust called “Sheine Maidele” (Pretty Girl) at the Yiddishpiel Theater – in Yiddish. Ever since then, Yiddishpiel has been the center of her professional life.

Atzmon, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Poland after World War II, didn’t hesitate when playwright Dudi Ohana recently asked her to act in the one-person play he wrote about the Holocaust – “In Grandma Varda’s Parlor,” which will be staged at the TheaterNetto festival during Passover, in Acre and Jaffa. Directed by Mart Parchomovsky, Ohana's play is one of 12 monodramas being presented at the festival, which is celebrating its 29th anniversary.

Anat Atzmon, 2019. "When I was supposedly on top, I was a less happy person than I am today"
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The play tells the story of a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, Varda Zippori, who sports purple hair and tattoos. She accedes to her daughter’s pleas and invites a film crew from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to her home, to bear witness about her experiences.

Atzmon: “This play offers another angle on the Holocaust. Mainly on the subject of age: Varda is not what you would expect. She wants to talk about today, about a life that should be lived well. Not to deal with the dead but with life and what’s happening in Israel. She doesn’t want to cry.”

Anat Atzmon singing 'The Hope', at Israel's pre-Eurovision competition (The 'Kdam')

Weren’t you afraid to step into the shoes of a 95-year-old woman?

“As an actress, there’s nothing more interesting than doing something different. Maybe if the director had asked me to play a 75-year-old woman I would have been insulted, but 95? When I told a friend, she looked at me askance and said ‘Don’t do it,’ because she thought it would harm me, a woman who already uses anti-aging creams. There is something to that, but the actress in me wouldn’t let me pass it up.”

And what about work with people who are younger than she? “He [Ohana] told me that he grew up on my work and remembered some esoteric series that I did, which I no longer remember. At first he didn’t dare approach me and in the end he screwed up the courage. That’s wonderful! What do we work for? Everything is transient, and if somebody who grew up on something and remembers and thinks it’s good – well, I rest my case.”

What may have captivated her most about the work with Ohana is the inspiration he received for writing the play from his Moroccan grandmother. “He experienced the Holocaust as a child in school,” says Atzmon. “Due to the fears it caused him – he also feels that he’s second or third generation [of Holocaust survivors]. It can’t be helped, in our country many people grew up on those foundations.”

TheaterNetto will stage three plays this year whose plot is directly related to the Holocaust – perhaps because the date of the festival is close to that of Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of them, “Yossl Rakover Talks to God,” will star none other than Anat’s 90-year-old father Shmuel, the founder of the Yiddishspiel Theater.

“It happened by chance. He knew that he would be doing it long before I knew I would be participating. I’m going to play a woman of his age,” she says.

Would you like more roles in films?

“Movies are a matter of supply and demand. A director has to see in me the character that he wrote. I’ve gotten roles in some very strange ways – from people who recommended me or from someone’s friend who saw me. There’s no point in investing effort to promote yourself for roles in film, unless I sit down to write something for myself.”

There are quite a number of songs in Atzmon's own repertoire, but it is surpassed by far by that of the king of Israeli music – her partner, Danny Sanderson, one of the most famous artists in the country, and a member of the legendary Kaveret rock band. They’ve been together for over a decade, albeit living separately.

The young Anat Atzmon and her father actor Shmuel Atzmon.
Alex Levac

“As one of Danny’s songs goes, there’s enough air for one or two states – so there’s also enough air for one or two homes,” she smiles.

Atzmon has two children, Liam and Elad, from her previous marriage to actor Dan Turgeman, and in her opinion they are “liable” to choose a career on stage. She calls everyone, including Danny’s two children (director Adam Sanderson and actress Dina Sanderson), “my family.” They have a joint WhatsApp group called “The Sandersons.”

Is it possible that you neglected your music because of your relationship with one of the best-loved musicians in Israel?

“The truth is I did neglect the music a bit in recent years, even though I still sing on stage. But it’s not related to him. I’m very proud that people like Danny’s music. When my children were little, I had CDs of Kaveret in the car and we would sing his songs all the time. Who knew then that this is what would happen, the connection with him?”

Back to 1991 Eurovision 

At a time when Tel Aviv is preparing for Eurovision next month, it is nice to remember the fact that Atzmon too has a place of honor in the local history of the international song contest. In the late 1980s and early '90s, she competed in the pre-Eurovision competition in which the Israeli representative was selected, singing pop tunes – which showed the public that Atzmon was not just a talented actress but also a good singer. In 1992, she came in second in the local contest with the song “Hatikva,”(The Hope); even to this day, there are Eurovision fans who still think that it was a shame the song was never played outside Israel for European ears.

After losing out that year to Dafna Dekel, Atzmon filed a lawsuit claiming Dekel’s winning song “Zeh Rak Sport” (It’s Only Sport) was 17 seconds longer than the three-minute limit for the contest. But Atzmon lost in court too. She doesn't like to talk about the incident but does say, “I learned something else from my attempt to reach Eurovision: They accepted me as a singer, until then I was just an actress."

Atzmon. The truth is I did neglect the music a bit in recent years
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Atzmon is not sorry that she is no longer as famous today as she once was. “In this profession," she explains, "there are ups and downs. I was up, down, in the middle and on the sides. I know every corner and from every corner I've tried to improve.”

And she admits, “When I was supposedly on top, I was a less happy person than I am today, when I’m in the middle. And even when I’m down I feel that I’m learning a lot. Ultimately, when I act today on the stage, I feel the most alive. It is there that my impulses, the sadness, the joy and the craziness are completely let loose.”