Tea with Topol

By David E. Kaplan

If the 1999 movie ‘Tea with Mussolini’ with its all-star cast that included Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Cher was a treat, it was not half the treat for this writer as having  – in the flesh – tea with Topol, Israel’s iconic award-winning movie star. I enjoyed this experience in 2010 when interviewing him as the editor for the Hilton Israel Magazine and thought back to this encounter after reading recently that there are plans for a remake of the Norman Jewison 1971 music classic “Fiddler on the Roof”. The lead role of Tevye was played by the inimitable Chaim Topol.

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Tea With Topol. The writer (right) with Chaim Topol enjoying tea during the interview at the Hilton Tel Aviv in 2010

One could understand the mixed responses reflected in today’s media – from jubilation to questioning “Why?” and even the accusation of “sacrilege”. While most would welcome the perpetuation of the musical message of  Sholem Aleichem’s shtetl tales of ‘Tevye the Dairyman’ trying to marry off his daughters to the best catch – but a remake?

While today the role of Tevye is considered synonymous with Topol, back in 1966, preceding the movie, the young Israeli had to audition for the role in the West End production of Fiddler and what is more, he knew very little English!

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A Star Is Born. Poster of Fiddler on the Roof with Chaim Topol as Teyve.

“My English vocabulary at the time consisted of a few words such as “hungry”, “tired”, “where”, “when” and “how much?”

What did he do?

“I quickly found myself an English teacher in Tel Aviv and for four days underwent a crash course; learnt all the Fiddler songs in English and then presented myself in London.”

How did it “play” out, I asked?

“Well, the agent came forward and took me in to meet the producers and the director and announced: “Mr Topol is here.”  It was quite bizarre – I had all these people not only looking at me but through me. I was thirty years old, clean shaven with a short haircut and they were gaping at me – mouths open.  “Where is the ‘old man’?” they were clearly thinking. They felt cheated.

“Anyway they told me to hop onto the stage – they could surprisingly see I was young enough to hop –  and sing. And sing I did. I started with “If I were a rich man”, followed by “Sabbath Prayer,” “Tradition”, “Anatevka”, and finally with “Sunrise, Sunset” and it was clear where this was going. Well versed in auditions, they usually stop you halfway through the first song as they quickly make up their minds one way or another.

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Quintessential Tevye. Topol as Tevye the Milkman.

“They like you,” whispered the agent between the third and the fourth song and it was evident I was no longer auditioning but entertaining. They had made up their minds and they were loving it!

“Where it got even more bizarre was when I finished, and they asked me how I had perfected these songs. Where do you know Fiddler from?”

Now it was my turn to be astonished.

“Don’t you know that I have been performing Tevye in Tel Aviv?”

“No, first we are hearing of it.”

“So how come you invited me from the stage in Tel Aviv to audition here in London?”

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If I Were A Rich Man.Topol as Teyve appealing to the Almighty: “Dear God, you made many, many poor people.…what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.”

And then one of the producers said, “Well, my secretary had seen your performance in Sallah Shabati, for which you won a Golden Globe and suggested we try “the old man from Tel Aviv.”

And this explained their gaping mouths during the initial introduction. They were expecting an 80-year-old man not the image before them of abounding energy with a Mediterranean suntan!

Topol’s performance in Fiddler on the Roof, earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor and a nomination for the Oscar and the film went on to be seen by over a billion worldwide. “It was quite ironic,” notes Topol with his broad smile,  “that my portrayal of a Mizrachi Jewish immigrant in Sallach Shabati would lead to the most iconic Ashkenazi role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.”

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Movie Magic. The 1964 satire about new immigrants Sallah Shabati with Topol in the lead became the most successful film in Israeli history until that time.

As a young teenager in Cape Town, South Africa, I recall the impression Topol as Tevye made on my parents who had seen the West End production in London in 1967, days before the outbreak of the Six Day War. They raved about it but no less memorable was their recollection when Topol announced from the stage that this:

 “Will be my last performance as I am leaving for Israel – my country  is about to be engulfed in war.”

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Israel Calling! A young Chaim Topol at the time of the West End production shortly before the Six Day War in 1967.

Only a little over two decades after the Holocaust, the future of the Jewish people was again threatened and uncertain and the eyes of global Jewry was on the Middle East as Israel stood alone against the mighty armies of the Arab world about to invade from all fronts.

Topol’s rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset” took on a more poignant meaning as did the theme of the production.  For while Tevye must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wished to marry for love with each one’s choice of a husband moving further away from the customs of their Jewish faith and heritage, there lurked a far greater concern. Near the end of the musical, the Tzar’s constable arrives in the Shtetl of “Anatevka” telling everyone that they have three days to pack up and leave.

From Tevye in 1906 to Topol in 1967 the nature of Jewish destiny – from pogrom to war –  remained a crying constant!

Did Topol at the time realise that Fiddler would turn out to be such a success and the turning point in his career?

“No, not at all. Let me tell you a story. A well-known local TV producer in England, who was not Jewish, met me at a party just before the opening and said “Topol, if I had enough money I would buy the show and close it down. I would rather it closed before it opened. It’s not going to be good to present this image of Jews.” He was genuinely concerned.

“Then, after the rousing response of the opening night, he came backstage and said, “Yes, okay, you had a mostly Jewish audience tonight, so they laughed and cried, but wait until you are left with the normal theater-going crowd. I give you two months – tops, no more?”

“Well, after three months he brought his parents and they too cried and laughed and he came backstage with them after the performance and said, “Damn good, bloody damn good. Would you like to appear on my TV show and sing some of the songs?”

Not only his viewers but the people the world over enjoyed its universal appeal.

“It touched people. Think of it, we took the show to Japan, a totally different culture with a tiny Jewish community and the people there loved it. It is interesting the impact that entertainment can have on people.

“When I left on the El Al plane on the first day of the Six Day War with doctors and other returning Israelis, who do you think came up begging me with tears in his eyes to take him along?  None other than the same British TV producer who had initially dismissed Fiddler as too parochial and then inviting me onto his show! Something about Fiddler had changed his perceptions and perspective. Of course, I could not get him on that flight but that didn’t stop him. He found his own way and on the third day of the War, he arrived in Israel and stayed for six months.”

 Regarding an earlier war, Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Topol spoke about his part in another blockbuster, Cast a Giant Shadow, filmed in Israel and starring Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Senta Berger and John Wayne. “Even Kirk’s young son Michael Douglas appeared in this film, as a jeep driver. “

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Touch Of Topol. Class cameo role for Topol as Sheik Abou Ibn Kader (right) with Kirk Douglas (centre) in Israel’s War of Independence movie, ‘Cast a Giant Shadow’.

This film was also very personal for Topol.

“I was raised on kibbutz Mishmar David, named after the hero of this movie Col. David (Mickey) Marcus, an American officer who came to fight and command our forces in our War of Independence. His portrait stared at us every day in the cheder ochel (dining room). Most of the action and the tragic end of Mickey took place in the area where I lived.”

Topol took the part of an Arab, Sheik Abou Ibn Kader and “we had a scene where we were standing around a map that Mickey Marcus – played by Kirk – had drawn in the sand relating to an impending battle. Kirk was holding forth, “You will attack from here, and you will come in from there and so on,” when I interrupted by mucking up the map and saying something to the effect that you are talking nonsense. Someone then asked: “Why are you listening to him?”

My line in response as the Sheik was:

“If one of my men spoke to me that way I would take out my knife and make him a eunuch.”

Well, Yul did not approve of this line and made a noise by scraping something so that the sound engineer asked me to repeat the line. Again Yul made a noise, and this went on and on.

The director argued with Yul but you try stopping the man that led The Magnificent Seven! Everyone was laughing and in the end the director gave up as we could not waste any more time.

Time on a set is money.

Weeks later, after we finished filming, I received a call to come to London for one reason only – to dub over the one line: “If one of my men spoke to me that way I would take out my knife and make him a eunuch.” There is no shortage of reasons to visit London, but this was a first and I have no doubt will remain so!”

To the question of dealing with the trappings of stardom, Topol replied:

“Easy. Look at me. I am as you see me – a casual Israeli. I was not born into a tux (tuxedo). When I attended Hollywood parties, I felt I was on stage – another role to play. They probably thought me a bit of a bore as I never drank or smoked. Mia Farrow, who I co-starred with on The Public Eye, tried to get me to join her downing beers with chasers. I had to disappoint her. I preferred my mint tea just like I am drinking now.”

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Delightful Duo. A romantic comedy with Mia Farrow and Topol.

So while Topol has never throughout his illustrious career been short of good roles, the role that tops it all was without doubt, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

A billion people could not all be wrong!

On concluding the interview, how fitting on the walk from the lounge to the elevator, Topol broke into the Fiddler melody, “Sunrise, Sunset”.

“Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly flow the days,
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as they gaze…
Sunrise sunset,…”

 

 

 

 

While the mission of Lay Of The Land (LOTL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LOTL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

A Walk In The Park

While man is frequently at war with the environment, not so for Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan whose work is harmoniously in sync with its surroundings

By David E. Kaplan

Back on welcome “grandparent” duty following our release on parole from lockdown,  meant a return to one of my favourite parks – the Edith Wolfson Park on the eastern edge of the city of Tel Aviv. If its Tuesday, “we, the grandparents”, are usually there with our grandson. Perched high, the park offers a magnificent view of the city from its most iconic vantage – a massive sculpture by famed Israeli artist Dani Karavan. Called “The White Square”, the monumental work overlooks “The White City” as Tel Aviv is famously known because of its white Bauhaus architecture and is a complex geometric work that is an ode to the city itself.

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An Ode To Tel Aviv. Dani Karavan’s ‘The White Square’ at Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

If Tel Aviv is a city not so much to see but to experience then so to is Karavan’s sculpture where it is less viewed than it is walked, climbed, roller-skated and rollerbladed upon. I invariably join the “kids” in sliding down the sculpture’s colossal “sundial” on carboard as well as scampering up the large “pyramid”. The sculpture exudes physicality  – it is a metaphor for Tel Aviv of open-ended action befitting its reputation as “the city that never sleeps.” If you are generally “into art”, then visiting The White Square you literally, “get into” this art as you climb in, over, upon and through it!

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White Square Overlooking White City. The hill in the park with Karavan’s The White City is topographically the highest vantage view of Tel Aviv.

My first encounter with this monumental sculpture was of complete surprise. I came upon it with my first visit to the park in 2018 when my grandson, Yali, was only a few months old. I stared at the structure and thought, “Déjà vu – I have never been here before! Why is this massive sculpture so familiar?” And then I remembered that nearly a decade earlier, I co-wrote an interview with this sculpture’s creator – Dani Karavan, where he described this renowned work and I wrote about it including providing captions for photographs of what I now weekly ‘experience’.

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Structuring Dreams. Symbolizing fertility and peace, the olive tree in Karavan’s White Square at the Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

Dominating the sculpture is a 65-foot cement tower that can be see from afar as well as providing from the top, a majestic vista of the city. The tower symbolizes both the steel siren that once stood there and its function – security – watching over the city. The “migdal” or watchtower, is an enduring image that so characterized early settlement life in Israel as a state-in-the-making, providing security to its people working in the fields.

Beside the tower, is a large geometric piece composed of east-west facing shapes representing the surrounding urban neighborhood, much of it built in the Bauhaus style of architecture that has recognised Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Next to this is the pyramid-like structure symbolizing the tents lived in by those who built the city well over a century earlier, and then there is a dome-like structure with an olive tree at its center, depicting the orchards that surround Tel Aviv.

Lastly, there is the sun dial, possibly the most popular attraction as I can every Tuesday attest to, noting that it is used as much for skateboarding as it is for any other intended purpose.

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‘Time’ for Fun. Karavan’s Sun Dial (above) enjoyed most by skateboarders (below)

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Portrait Of An Artist

So who is this internationally acclaimed sculptor and Israel Prize recipient who lives in the same house in Tel Aviv, that “I  grew up in” and whose work can be seen across Israel, Europe, and Asia?

Karavan credits  being most influenced by his father when “I turned from painting to sculpture.” His father, Avraham Karavan, was the chief landscape designer for Tel Aviv from the 1940s through the 1960s.My father grew up in Manchester and I think he was very inspired by the English gardens. He always wanted to recreate nature – gardens as nature. I understand now that I am following in his footsteps: When I approach a site, I often develop the project in a similar way to his way of creating gardens.”

It is hard to escape his distinct style, which blends sculpture, architecture, and the landscape into unique and monumental pieces. Putting the question to Karavan that his work appears “as if you are sculpting the landscape”, he replied:

“That’s correct. This is what characterizes my work, which is rooted to a physical environment and not to an atelier [an artist’s workshop]. I was once privileged to meet the distinguished sculptor Henry Moore and observe him work in his environment – how he molded a model the size of a suitcase handle and enlarged it ninety-nine times its size. For me it is the opposite, because the large environment where I work emerges as part of my composition.”

One example the artist cites is the large sculptured wall of the Plenum Hall at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Called Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, the wall depicts an abstract Jerusalem landscape, the surrounding hills, and the Judean desert. It is one of the most recognised works of art in Israel as it appears almost daily on TV screens as a backdrop as the people’s elected representatives take to the podium to address the Knesset.

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Art To Inspire. Considered Israel’s most recognised sculpture, Dani Karavan’s Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem in the Knesset Plenum Hall. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Another example Karavan cites “was my first big piece as a sculptor,” the Negev Brigade Memorial. Although a  monument to commemorate those who fought in the Palmach Negev Brigade in 1948, the artist is quick to add:

 “I am not an artist who creates memorials. I create homages.”

The late Uzi Narkiss, a commander of the Negev Brigade’s Seventh Battalion, had suggested to Karavan to build a lookout so that visitors could climb up and physically experience the landscape. Observing the surrounding hills leading down to the valley, the views of the rolling landscape, the folds of the ground, the rocks and the bushes, all emerged as the material of the final work.

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Movement Ahead. A precursor to the land art movement, Karavan’s Negev Brigade Memorial that pays homage to members of the brigade who fell fighting during Israel’s War of Independence.

Explains Karavan:

“I had to integrate the landscape of the desert, its particularities, in order to tell the story of this brigade. My father helped me to plant acacia trees, indigenous to the Negev desert. As water was scarce, he knew which trees should be used. He always kept in mind the water. The line of water I created as part of the monument is not only a symbol of life, but also a tribute to the Palmach Brigade who had the mission of insuring the water supply to the kibbutzim in the desert.”

It was a groundbreaking project. “Up until then,” continued Karavan, “site-specific environmental sculpture did not exist. To some degree, it is similar to architecture, where the architect designs specifically for a particular environment.”

Further explaining, he adds:

 “I am not a sculptor that seeks a place, but rather the place seeks me. Michelangelo said that the statue already exists within the stone; I say that the sculpture already exists within the environment. I just unearth it. This is essentially my contribution to the evolution of sculpture. I wanted that sculpture be something people can climb and children play on – that it will be full of life and not pieces where people visit once a year to lay flowers.”

Looking at the children playing all over The White  Square, he has succeeded.

“My works could not exist without people. I want them to experience the work and feel like it is embracing them. At the same time, I never try to impose the way people should interact with my work. The work itself inspires people and leads them to explore the different forms and spaces. The fact that children engage with my works is not because I designed it for that purpose, but because my works give them a sense of freedom to use them in any way they would like to, without aggression, without violence—in a peaceful way.”

While Karavan can mold material to articulate his dreams and visions, he laments “an inability to influence better relations with our Arab neighbors. My father arrived in Israel in the 1920s. He came as an idealist and I inherited that idealism. What better vision to work for than the pursuit of regional peace and happiness? If you ask what I still want to do, yes, I need to finish my autobiography, but also to collaborate with a Palestinian artist on a project toward peace.”

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Man And His Work. Dani Karavan

From time immemorial, the olive tree is a symbol of peace and I thought of this quote of the artist again when I saw last Tuesday perched in the middle of The White Square the olive tree – the sole vertical living organism amongst the concrete.  It was the right milieu to reflect on the artist’s 2019 response to the question “What is his hope for humanity?” from famed landscape designer Lily S. Kwong:

Karavan replied: “I hope people will be more tolerant of others and to each other. I hope for more education all around the world. I hope that in most countries, art will have a key role in people’s daily lives.”

I felt assuredly of the artist’s hope of art playing “a key role in people’s daily lives,” when watching my grandchild with all the other children ‘explore, engage and encounter’ at the Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.

 

Some of Karavan’s most important works:

A Walk In The Park1Negev Brigade Memorial, Beersheva, Israel

 

 

 

A Walk In The Park7Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem – Knesset wall relief, Jerusalem, Israel

 

 

A Walk In The Park3Kikar Levana, Tel Aviv, Israel

 

 

A Walk In The Park4Culture Square, Tel Aviv, Israel

 

 

A walk in the park7The “Path of Peace” sculpture by artist Dani Caravan. An environmental sculpture which is one of the attractions of Nitzana

 

 

A Walk In The Park5UNESCO Square of Tolerance – Homage to Yitzhak Rabin, Paris, France

 

 

A Walk In The Park6The Axe Majeur, Cergy-Pontoise, France