Tears of a Much-loved Israeli Clown

Actress Tiki Dayan has known much personal tragedy during her lifetime, a trait reflected in many of the mournful roles she has played on stage and screen. Now, though, she just wants to make people laugh.

An especially warm and deep relationship connects Tiki Dayan with her daughters. When she talks about them − the children of one daughter, say, or the advanced pregnancy of the other − her face lights up. Our interview, lasting several hours, is repeatedly interrupted by text messages and phone calls from them.

This close relationship, it transpires, is a long-standing familial pattern. “My lovely, wonderful mom was a woman whose influence on me can’t be described,” says Dayan. “When I was 15 I wrote her a letter of admiration. Now my daughters treat me the exact same way I treated my mom. The women in my family were always strong. They didn’t break and didn’t crack; they stood together.

“I was 24 when my dad passed away − it was two months before my wedding. My daughters were 28 and 26 when my husband Yair passed away,” she continues. “It’s incredible. I’m amazed that my daughters actually see me. People don’t see their parents as people. My daughters see me and I see them, and it’s a great joy. That privilege − to be in that situation where your daughters, or your mom, are the closest people to you and you always want to be with them ... there’s no greater privilege. Nothing can compare with it.”

Was it always like that?

“It seems so. It takes a lifetime to reach that. That’s what I learned from my mom, and my girls took it from me and put in into practice. It’s a dynasty of women and we are what we saw at home, really and truly. There was a [1998] series I played in, ‘Small Country, Big Man,’ by Avraham Heffner. I was a police inspector and basically played my mom: She ran the welfare office in the tent camps, and I would see her at work and just admire her more and more every day.”

Considering Dayan’s familial-female way of life, her latest television role has a somewhat ironic edge. Dayan also plays a mom in “The Plague,” a new drama on cable channel Hot 3. Yet the difference between the mother she plays, and the mother she really is, is even greater than the difference between Dayan’s appearance on a Sunday morning and the huge blonde wig and pink dress she wears on the program.

Created and directed by Yammi Wisler, “The Plague” employs a stylized, almost grotesque style, very different from the typical realism of Israeli television productions. The story is about a mysterious disease that attacks a residence tower for the rich, leading to its being closed off from the rest of the world. Like all its protagonists, Dayan’s role is exaggerated and stereotypical − a pushy, aggressive mom who tries to turn her daughter into a star.

“The Plague” is not Dayan’s only current project. The actress, with a rich and successful career behind her, is experiencing one of her most fruitful periods of late. She worked on Reshef Levy’s upcoming comedy-heist movie “Hunting Elephants” and recently returned from Beijing, where she appeared in the Cameri Theater’s touring production of Hanoch Levin’s “The Suitcase Packers.”

This month, rehearsals begin for a new production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” − whose title character is arguably one of the finest roles ever written for an actress. The play is expected to debut on the Cameri Theater stage this August. Besides all this, Dayan is also planning a comedy show with songs.

She will turn 65 next month. For decades she has been living in Jaffa, in a beautiful house hand-built by her late husband, Yair Ahi Ilan, who died in 2002.

While still a teenager, she began her performing career as a singer. A short time after her military service in an army band, she performed in Hanoch Levin’s “Queen of the Bathtub.” As well as appearing in many Cameri productions, she also went on to star in films ‏(including 2003’s “Sima Vaknin Is a Witch”‏) and such TV sitcoms as “Krovim Krovim” ‏(“Near Ones, Dear Ones,” 1982 and revived in 2005‏) and “Ima’le” ‏(“Mommy,” 2005‏). In the past two years she has also been in the Israeli version of “The Golden Girls.”

Her planned comedy-musical show came about as a reaction to the “heavy, dramatic roles” of recent years in which she has had to be “crying and mourning, it’s awful,” she says. “Now I feel like making people laugh and, fortunately for me, that’s my job. We used to call it ‘work on the side’ − today it’s called stand-up, and I’ve done thousands of evenings like it.”

Does this desire to make people laugh have to do with a sensation of lightness? Is this a good period for you?

“That’s true. We have to adjust what we’re doing to our situation. That happens of its own accord. When Yair was sick, I did [Hanoch Levin’s] ‘The Labor of Life,’and each night I would mourn on stage. Now when I’m like this, I feel like entertaining and amusing people.”

Dayan pauses for a moment and then adds: “We actors are lucky. We’re always being given the opportunity to examine situations. I practice and perform emotions that I may not have myself, but that other people have. It’s an ongoing struggle: with shyness, fear, things you’re not used to in your life. Lately I found out that I know a great deal about my profession and that I’m really good at it,” she says with a smile, unapologetically, “but besides that, I know nothing. Nothing. I know nothing about technology. I have no taste, no sense of direction, nothing. It’s awful. I was always sure I’d be an actress, because from a very young age I liked it when people laughed and reacted. I never had any hesitations, and that’s a great way of conserving energy.”

Do you sometimes wonder what will happen if and when you decide to retire?

“I treat my profession like a job. It’s not my life’s essence, it’s just a profession, one that I’m very good at. That’s all. I never had to hesitate and think, ‘What will I do? Should I be a waitress?’” − she pronounces the last sentence in the silly, pampered tone of a shallow teenager − “I’ve never wanted to do anything else and it came easily. I never did an audition. There was never anything I wanted and didn’t get, I’m always sitting on the sofa at home and things come to me. It was all so natural and easy. Why do I neglect my appearance?
What’s happened to me? What is it? Why don’t I lose weight like a normal human being? It’s unhealthy and limits the roles I can get, but I guess I don’t care.”

It seems that nearing the age of 65 and possessing a wealth of professional achievements do not resolve body-image issues and a general sense of unease in that respect. Dayan stopped smoking eight years ago ‏(after 40 years‏), she avoids white flour and begins each morning with a green-leaf shake drink, but none of this helps her to avoid occasionally taking digs at herself.

I guess there isn’t a woman without an eating disorder.

“Exactly, one way or another. They give us hell, with the pictures and the bikini and the magazines. They give us hell.”

Why do you care? Why should you lose weight?

“To be more aesthetic, how should I know?”

You don’t feel that, in your position, you don’t owe anything to anyone?

“I suppose it doesn’t really prevent me from doing anything.”

Is there any role you missed because of it?

“If I think about it, I’ll probably come up with something, there’s no end to those things.”

Do you think a lot about your age and appearance?

“Zohar [Yakobson, the agent] took me aside during some event and said she didn’t know what I’d done to my face, but it looked great. I hadn’t done anything. On the one hand it’s a compliment, but on the other − hey, I haven’t done anything!”

So plastic surgery is out of the question?

“I actually like the signs of age. It annoys me that people are expected not to have wrinkles. Age is nice. Yes, this is my age. Should I put it off by three years? That’s insane! How will you look at me if, all of a sudden, I’m twisted and this isn’t my face − the one I know and the audience knows? I don’t understand that need. And it’s no solution since, can’t people see you did something, you idiot? It looks artificial and pathetic. I have no interest in it.”

It is not only Dayan’s approach to age that is unusual for her profession. Her career itself has been unconventional, from the very beginning.

“I finished the army [in the late 1960s] and right away I had a leading role in an Edward Bond play called ‘Saved,’” she recalls. “A powerful play about youth, with brutal scenes, very provocative. We did it at an experimental theater. I played alongside Dudu Topaz and after eight performances the censor banned the show, because of a scene where a baby in a carriage is stoned. Then I played in ‘Queen of the Bathtub,’ which was also problematic with the censor and caused controversy. At about the same time, I took part in ‘Capricorn,’ with Arik Einstein. I was 20 and a half and performing with Arik Einstein − it was incredible for me.
Then Peter James chose me for the role of Rosalind in ‘As You Like It,’ which is the most amazing role for an actress ever written in the theater. He didn’t mind that I was young, or fat, or that I was a bimbo from an army band.”

Do you see any difference in the treatment of actresses in particular, and women in general, then and now?

“I have no complaints about the treatment of women then. That reminds me of when people talk about ethnic discrimination: of course there was, but I’m a Mizrahi [of Middle-Eastern origin] Jew and I never felt it.”

Dayan says playwright Hanoch Levin was influential in shaping her worldview. “I did ‘Queen of the Bathtub’ right after the army. What did I know about politics? Working with him changed my life. Just meeting and being friends with him changed and influenced me, made me into a better person.”

Our conversation about the past revolves not only around appearance and calories, but also shifts to other subjects.

“I’m actually curious what’s in store for me,” she says. “I think that’s what keeps us awake. I’m always thinking, What’s in store, and what’s next? Since the heavy blow will come. They happen. The question is, what happens between one blow and another? In that time we should do the best we can − not be angry that there was a blow, not become violent.”

‘Why all this loss?’

In her youth Dayan lost her father and then her three brothers. Her mother died when she was 40. She tries to avoid the subject of the losses, and doesn’t want to speak about her husband either, replying firmly: “I have no wish or need.”

In light of all these losses, one can’t fail but to be impressed with her strength. “There’s no choice,” she says. “After Yair died, I went to a medium and asked her, ‘Why all this loss? Why am I always surrounded by disease and death?’ Talia [Shapira, her good friend and fellow performer], and Hanoch [Levin] also died, my entire family died, not one of them is left, and then my husband. She said that in a previous incarnation I was a midwife and I brought people into this world, and that my soul asked to accompany them in the other direction. I accepted that. It made me feel better.”

You felt it was right? That you accompany people to their death?

“Yes. I was with all of them, I consoled them all. But enough, leave me alone, I’ve had enough. A few years ago I tried Grinberg therapy, in which as the therapist touches you insights arise. One day a thought came to me that I was totally cursed. Everyone around me dies. I ran into Keren [Mor, the actor-comedian, another good friend] and sent her away. I said to her, ‘Go away so nothing happens to you.’ A week later I met my therapist again and she said, ‘That’s so stupid. You’re not cursed, you’re a survivor.’”

Dayan heaves a sigh of relief and places a hand on her chest, fingers spread out. “It’s true, I’m a survivor. What can I do? Is it my fault? I’m a survivor. They die and I survive for some reason.”

What’s the reason?

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s some kind of personal providence. I can definitely feel it. I’m sure of it. Someone up there is looking out for me.”

You do have a small army up there, after all.

She laughs: “I have a huge army. That’s the feeling, and I guess that’s what I convey. I’m always thinking that I feel I have a purpose, to fulfill my profession at this level. One day I reached an amazing conclusion. I’ve been blessed, fortunate, and it’s not my fault. I did nothing active for it to happen. Someone placed this talent here and there’s no point letting it get to my head. That really made me feel good. It was a kind of relief, thank God. In general I say ‘Thank God’ a lot, much more than most people.”

Do you believe in God?

“I don’t just believe, I’m amazed on a daily basis. Most of my family couldn’t walk. Dad and two kids [her brothers] had muscular dystrophy, a terrible disease. Walking, getting up − that wasn’t a trivial matter. It was something that required assistance. Every day I walk, going up and down the stairs of my house in Old Jaffa, I’m a little bit amazed. It walks, thank God! I walk easily. It isn’t over. I swim, play Ping-Pong − what is that? It can’t be taken for granted, and many people take beauty and health for granted. It can’t be taken for granted, and I’m always thankful. I’ve been blessed and fortunate, thank God.”

Ilya Melnikov
Eldad Rafaeli