She Just Keeps Going

After overcoming a serious illness and experiencing some lean years, radio legend Shosh Atari is now the star of a new and wildly popular TV series. But she's not impressed by her comeback: 'I've been hot for years,' she says.

The interview with Shosh Atari ran into an unexpected obstacle. It's hard to conduct an interview with someone you want to immediately adopt as a friend. I'd always thought of Atari as a loud and slightly threatening figure because of her old radio programs and especially because of the way she plays the bossy, tactless and mocking mother on the wonderful television series "Hakol Dvash" ("It's All Honey"). In reality, she is very witty, honest, sharp, touching, funny and much more intelligent than the characters she plays. "A brilliant stroke of casting," as the critics would say.

"They wrote somewhere that I've become hot all of a sudden," she says. "It's totally ridiculous. Is that supposed to mean I was never hot before? I've been hot for years. Nobody knows as well as I do what it means to go up and down on this merry-go-round of trendiness."

Filming of the series created by Yael Poliakov for Reshet on Channel 2 may have concluded back in November 2006 (a second season is reportedly in the works), but Atari is currently enjoying the fruits of her late blooming: She is invited to talk shows, receives clothes on loan from fashion designers and is talked about everywhere. Now all she's missing is a personal stylist and maybe an ad campaign that would make her a local diva, a la Hanna Lazslo, Margol or Odetta.

The popular thesis is that Atari, who underwent a kidney transplant about seven years ago, was a nearly forgotten 50-year-old radio legend who was suddenly and miraculously plucked back from oblivion. But Atari refuses to go along with the premise that she first had to have it bad, and then even worse, so that in the end she could have it good. "Tell me, what exactly can I do now that I couldn't do before?" she asks.

Self-satisfaction and arrogance are two traits of which Atari is completely devoid. She isn't even very pleased with her voice, which has thrilled generations of listeners, and tends to apologize for it on Radio Lev Hamedina about once a week. She would also prefer to look different, or at least that the effort to look good be less demanding.

"My whole life, there hasn't been a single night that I got into bed satisfied," she says. It's like giving up one sense, living without a sense of taste. Ever since I can remember myself, I remember all the effort I had to put in just to be able to leave the house. Face, hair, clothes. I'd also like to be more photogenic. I know that in reality I have an interesting face, but it doesn't come across well on camera. I think that a lot was ruined for me because I don't photograph well."

An awful childhood

From the age of 18, when she was selected from among hundreds of applicants to work on Army Radio, which at the time enjoyed media hegemony, Atari has been a household word. Yona, the sister who is 16 years her senior, was a star years before she was. "When I lived with Yona for a while, I'd be walking down Dizengoff Street and people would say to me: 'Are you Yona's sister?' And when I was first hired at Army Radio I was also known as Yona's little sister." Afterward, there was also the little sister named Gali.

And when you consider the fact that one of her big brothers, Yossi, "who has always been my savior, the one who keeps the whole family united, the father," has three doctoral degrees, and that all of the seven siblings have been successful in different ways, one can't help but be filled with admiration for their mother, Naomi. She married their father, Shalom, at age 12 in Sana, Yemen; by age 15 and a half she was already a mother, and at age 40 became a widow and the sole provider for seven children, all of whom turned out so well, without ever relying on government support of any kind. On the other hand, affection was not a commodity she dispensed with generosity.

"I don't remember any show of affection in my childhood, not even a hug," says Shosh. "To the point where even today, when someone hugs me I pull away quickly, before they can be the one to leave me."

The sixth of the siblings, Shosh was born in Sha'arayim. "My mother married a cantor and to help him make a living she got him a stall in the market. I would sit there by the piles of vegetables while my father taught me to read and write, and Torah. Everything I learned, I learned from him." When she was seven, her father died (at age 44) from kidney disease - the same illness that later led Atari to undergo a kidney transplant.

"I barely remember my father," she says. "But I remember that the day before he died, a doctor came to the house, gave him a shot in the leg and said: 'He won't last the night.' In the middle of the night I woke up from hearing the family screaming. I asked what happened and my mother told me that my father was dead. Yemenites leave the body in the house until burial and I was given the task of watching over the body. For two days, I tried to pull off a miracle, to bring him back to life by the force of my will. I thought that if I succeeded everyone would really love me and I'd be the star of the family. I talked to him, and I talked to God, too, but I didn't succeed. And that's when my faith in God ended."

The household was ultra-Orthodox, and after attending the Bais Yaakov elementary school in Rehovot for a while, to which she used to make the hour-long walk each day alone, she was sent to the Einot religious boarding school. "You know what a religious boarding school is like? You have to pray in the morning before you eat, to pray hungry. It's outright tyranny."

Gali was sent away to the Hadasim school. "My mother had no choice. Somehow she managed to learn social work and she would leave the house at 6:30 in the morning and come back at midnight. I remember myself at age 7, 8, 9, taking care of Gali who was 4, 5, 6. Giving her a bath, making her something to eat. Eventually, our mother decided to send us both to boarding schools."

A year after she was sent to Einot, she managed to join her sister at Hadasim. Despite the closeness to Gali, she remembers the time in boarding school as miserable. What saved her was her addiction to reading, which years later was replaced by an addiction to television. "There's no childhood more awful than a boarding school childhood. It's the worst childhood a kid can have."

Even in boarding school, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in radio. On the "From Shelter to Shelter" radio station they set up in the school's shelter, she and Shimon Barak broadcast to the other students. But she wasn't especially popular, "and I also deliberately cultivated an image of being weird. Hadasim was a boarding school for the rich, and it was only by some sort of cunning that my mother managed to get us in there; since I felt like I didn't belong I turned my not belonging into an ideology. I was clever then, too, but I really forged my way there by means of my talent for storytelling. I would gather 20 girls around me and tell them these very romantic stories, and in return they would do my homework for me. They also thought I was very experienced and expert and had no idea that I was still a virgin and would be until after the army."

When she was 15, her mother remarried and so, when she left Hadasim, she went to live with Yona. Later on, she opted to live in a rented room in the apartment of an elderly woman on Dizengoff Street. "I didn't have the kind of home where you get a lot of hugs or where you could just come home and open the refrigerator and someone would do your laundry. So I really understand the children on 'Hakol Dvash' who don't want to leave home. It's a big house, everyone has space and privacy, it's so comfortable and pleasant there for the children - so why should they leave? If I had a house like that, I'd stay there as long as possible, amid all that affection and concern. There's so much time afterward for adult life. They say that children need to be prepared for life, that they need to be sent off to have independent lives - what nonsense. As if life is all about punishment and suffering. If it's good for them at home and it's good for the parents that they're at home, then why send them away?"

And you think that the mother you play is a character who gives affection and support? Isn't she overbearing?

"That's how it looks, but it comes from love. You know, I asked Poli (Yisrael Poliakov, who plays her husband) if they don't get mad at her when she says the kinds of things she says, and he said: 'No, we laugh. With her, it comes from good-heartedness.'"

And how do you, who never personally witnessed any model of a family with a mother and a father and a supportive home, succeed in playing the character of such a mother?

"Well, the same thing exists in every ethnic group. My mother had comments like those, too. But when I came to the first reading, everyone was already playing their parts and I started broadcasting with superb diction. So they sent me to an acting coach and by the second lesson, of the four I got, I got so into the character that it was hard for me to get out of it. Sometimes during breaks I would find myself making remarks to the crew in the same tone. Before they filmed the episode with the henna ceremony, I was so into the character that I was giving the actors who played the groom's parents these looks, until the actress finally came up to me and said, 'Tell me, did I do anything to you? Do you have something against me?' And Oded Davidoff, the marvelous director, told her: 'Don't be offended. She's just in character already.'"

'Everything annoys me'

From Army Radio, Atari went directly to Israel Radio and for years presented extremely popular programs on Reshet Gimmel, which was considered the station. Her specialty was pop music, "and I'm a little sorry about it today, that I didn't try to escape that labeling, because it was easy and convenient for me. Today I also regret that I didn't go in the direction of current events."

For 10 years, she also presented the television quiz program "Pitzuhim" on Educational TV, and later went to work for the regional radio station Kol Hamedina, where she served as program director and senior presenter. She also won a role in the theater, in the play "Yesh Li Kinneret" which was put on by the Be'er Sheva Theater in 2000.

"At Hadasim I was the lead actress in all the plays. I was a totally lame Cleopatra, for example. When Pini Amitai invited me to audition, I went, I was accepted and I started to act, but right then is when I got sick."

The same disease that had killed her father struck Atari as well. Until she found (after a long and torturous saga whose details cannot yet be revealed) a kidney donor in an Eastern European country, she was treated with huge quantities of steroids that made her so swollen "I had to keep bringing larger and larger clothes from home for each play." The drugs exhausted her and also caused irreversible damage, so that two years after the transplant she had to undergo another complicated operation on her back.

The transplant, which was performed in New York, and the countless complications that followed, forced her to stay at home without working for four years. "I finally went to apply at all kinds of stations and wherever I went I was told: 'Send us a disk with your program. Send us tapes of your voice. I remember saying to Gali that it was hard for me to believe that it was possible to fall any lower than I'd fallen."

The family supported and helped her, of course, and to fill her time she also sat down to write a novel. It was her second attempt. The first, which she began at age 26, was eventually shelved. "And since then I always told myself that one day I would write a book. And one day, it was a Saturday night, I suddenly had the first sentence in my head and I sat down and typed out the whole novel with one finger and I never felt so happy as I did during the time I was writing the book. I don't know why I don't write another one. You know, writing is a great joy. But I didn't continue with it after that book. I developed this unexplained laziness."

"Secrets and Lies" ("Sodot Veshekarim"), which was published in 2004 by Yedioth Ahronoth Press and achieved notable success, is a novel with autobiographical aspects, witty language and very juicy sex scenes. At one point, the heroine describes herself as "Super-Vagina" - which couldn't be further from the personality of the author herself.

"There's nothing I hate more than 'vagina talk.' I can't stand those kinds of endless monologues. I hate exaggerations, lack of logic. In general, there are lots of things I can't stand. It annoys me that the Electric Company advertises even though it has no competitors. It annoys me that a man like Katsav pretends to be innocent. I'm annoyed by all kinds of extremists who would kill their children for the sake of their ideology. I'm annoyed by people who speak faulty Hebrew. I'm annoyed by men who think that the mere fact that they're men means that they know something I don't know, that it makes them smarter. For 6,000 years they've been running the world and look what a lousy job they've done. I'm annoyed by liars and cheaters. By condescending mechanics who think they can cheat me just because I'm a woman. I'm annoyed by animal experiments. I'm annoyed by people who, when they see me feeding cats, tell me to 'worry about people first' - as if by feeding a cat I'm causing some person to starve to death at that very moment. Everything annoys me."

Which is why, she says, she decided long ago to stay home as much as possible, apart from going out to work and to family gatherings. She doesn't leave the country much either. "I found that I don't have anywhere to travel to. I despise Europe. Europe is full of mold. They tell me that Paris is nice, but I hate the French with all their refinement and their turned-up noses. I've stopped going to New York, too. I've discovered that I prefer buying clothes in Israel."

She has a very pleasant house ("Don't you dare write - 'her well-kept apartment in North Tel Aviv,' she warns) that she shares with her cat, Roxy, with whom she also shares her love for gadgets, especially telephones and computers. In the cat's case, this means an electric litter box that emits a very nice odor in her (the cat's) room. Happily for her, she is otherwise alone. When she was 40, she married Ami Ushpiz, who was 11 years younger than she, "as a consequence of social pressure, and only as a consequence of social pressure. The first two weeks I really enjoyed saying 'my husband,' but after a few months I was anxious to get divorced." The two separated after six months.

For the same reason, "mostly social pressure and the mantra that was drummed into me that if you don't have children, you're not a real woman, you're totally defective," she also underwent 12 attempts at artificial insemination, without success. "The truth is that I never felt that burning desire. I never had any physical impulse to give birth. But apparently every other woman except for me does have that burning desire, and so they have children. Today, I can't imagine myself with children. Children are something that changes your whole life. It's a heavy responsibility. I like to play with my nieces and nephews, but then I also like to go my own way afterward. I love to snuggle and play with babies, and then go on with my own life."

Her experiences with romance and relationships left her with the feeling that she wasn't really cut out for that. "I was always too good. I'd take care of men, spoil them, understand them, and always, in the end, they'd leave me for younger women who treated them much worse." She is especially outraged by the Don Juans who "at age 70, when their entire bodies are held together by metal pins, are all bronze and tan, and they have these little white wrinkles around the eyes and do sport all the time and I don't know what they take - maybe anabolic steroids to build muscles, and they look awful and all of a sudden they have a 25-year-old girlfriend and then they go and write a book about it to boot. I have wonderful male friends. One of them, for example, is looking for a woman who could be a supermodel and is smart and traditional at the same time. You know the type? A man can be 40 or 60, but instead of me he'll always prefer a girl who hasn't passed the age of 28."

So why did you get married?

"With me, it was also because my mother was on her deathbed and I promised her that I'd marry. Earlier, before she gave up on me, she would say things like 'Don't marry a divorcee.' Later on, she was ready to see me marry a prisoner, just as long as I got married."

I'm not right for it

Her mother's death, after the first Gulf War, was the big trauma of her life. "Even though my father died when I was little and I sat next to his body, he died peacefully. With my mother, I witnessed the terrible battle she waged with death and I also feel guilty about her death because I didn't believe her. She suddenly started to forget things and to complain. Since she had complained her whole life, it was like the boy who cried wolf. I'd tell her, 'You and your complaints again.'

"She died in order to prove to me that she was right. For two days she lay on the floor at home and didn't answer the phone, and on Sunday when she finally answered, she just grunted. Yona and Gali and I came and took her to the hospital and there in Ichilov, for days, the doctors treated her with contempt. To this day we won't speak with the doctor who treated her and who would shout at us not to cry because it disturbed the patients.

"The last night, we all sat beside her and we saw her soul leave her. I wish I could have asked her forgiveness for not believing her. Her death is the trauma that will never leave me. Since then, I tell all my friends: Do something now for your parents, talk to them now, because afterward it will be too late. My poor mother never enjoyed a single moment in her life. She struggled her whole life."

And you?

"I always found something positive in everything I went through, in every part of my life. I always saw a ray of light. My illness wasn't the hardest time for me because fighting is something I know how to do. I accepted the illness with a fighting spirit. I know how the body can betray you. I remember that after my back surgery I couldn't get up, and I thought: This can't be, it's my body, I decide about it. In the end, I got through it because there's always something positive to see, too.

"Sometimes today, when I think about the little girl I was, I feel sorry for that girl. My childhood made me what I am today, and maybe that's why it's so hard for me to accept love, because I'm afraid it will end. But when I look at that same little girl, I also admire her willpower, because I always knew that only if I read and studied would I be able to come out of it and that's what I did. I constantly read and studied."

Six months after the publication of her book, she received another offer to work for Radio Lev Hamedina, and since then she has been broadcasting a program there every morning, "Now Shosh." She also decided that the time had come to hire an agent and she engaged the services of Dana Litvin, who had just left the Levana Hakim agency. Litvin was the one who suggested she audition for "Hakol Dvash."

"She argued with me for two days. I told her it wasn't for me, that I wasn't right for it, that I'm fat now. And also when I came out of the audition I told her that I didn't think I'd done very well and that I was sure I wouldn't get it. That evening she called me and said: 'You won't believe it, but Poli wants to meet with you again.'

"I went to the meeting and I really hit it off with Poli. We started talking about illnesses. He showed me his scar and I showed him mine and we kept on like that, but he won. He has more scars than I do. We did a few scenes together and there was really good chemistry between us, and before I knew it there were negotiations about money and then they told me, 'it's all settled.' I got the news here one morning and I was so excited I couldn't sit down. I called my sisters, I wanted to tell everyone, but I also didn't want to because I had this fear that it still might not actually happen. Experience had taught me that things can always go wrong. I was used to bad surprises. With men, too, I'd always think - Maybe he's the one? And then the disappointment would come. But this time, in the end, it really did work, and I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it and what an honor it was for me to act with Poli."

Her renewed success and fame are spurring her to keep staying home. "You know that when I started broadcasting on the radio it took me a very long time to realize that people were also listening? When I was being filmed for the show I didn't take into account at all that people would also see it. Suddenly people come up to me when I've just taken a bite of food at a restaurant or when I'm talking on my cell phone, and ask for an autograph. So I deliberately try to make it uncomfortable for them, but it doesn't dissuade them.

"There are also some who, in their attempt to flatter, end up being insulting. They say: 'You used to be pretty. You used to be thin.' Every week the hairdresser would tell me that he remembered what a knockout I was when I was young and I finally said to him: 'You think you still look the same as you did in high school?' People don't see themselves and when they meet someone they know from television they also believe that like on television, the person can't hear them. A couple of teenage girls can be standing right next to me and talking about me as if I can't hear anything."

Doesn't it please you that after a difficult and dreary time you've suddenly been plucked back from oblivion?

"No. What good does it do me that people have remembered me? What does it get me? What sort of fame is this exactly, and what causes it? Look, if the work is excellent as it is in this case and if you become famous thanks to talent or hard work, then great. But I have no desire for fame per se. I have no desire to be famous for the sake of being famous. I've been in the public eye since age 18. The public's love is the most fickle thing there is. There were hard times and I got through them, and afterward there were more hard times. I was in the dregs for three years and then I was hired for this job. Everything could repeat itself. I don't feel like I was in the swamp and I don't feel that I was plucked out of it. My whole life, I've just kept on going." W