Life & Culture

Dudu Fisher: the Israeli star who wanted to be a dentist but became a superstar

The singer/actor is celebrating his 50th year in showbiz - but, as he tells the JC, his life could have gone in a very different direction


Actor and singer Dudu Fisher is looking out of the window of his apartment across to the beach at Netanya. “It’s like another world,” he tells me, almost in disbelief, “people are swimming in the sea, enjoying the beach, you wouldn’t believe we are at war!”

Before the Hamas attacks of October 7, Fisher was touring the theatres of Israel with a show to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a performer, shows that are all now cancelled. Now he’s experiencing the war first hand as he travels around giving shows to hospital patients and people who have been evacuated from the south of Israel.

“To hear these stories first hand, it’s shocking. I don’t know how they are going to continue their lives,” he says sadly. “You know their physical injuries may heal but the injuries to their minds and spirit will take a long, long time to heal.”

He tells me of a rabbi he had met in a hospital the day before. “He was in Sderot in the south.

He heard some shots outside the synagogue and went outside. He couldn’t see anything, but as he turned around to go back inside, a sniper shot him in the back. He crawled back into the synagogue and lay there bleeding for over an hour. It was a miracle they got him out and to the hospital. The bullet passed two millimetres from his heart.

Thankfully he is now recovering but…” His voice tails off. “Look, you ask me how I am, I’m like every Israeli and every Jew around the world, in shock.”

Fisher was born in Petah Tikva in 1951, the son of a Holocaust survivor. He likens the current situation to the Shoah. “It is like that except this time it didn’t happen in Europe but here in our own backyard. I think these people are worse than the Nazis, the things they did with children and babies, and women. This lot are like Satans, they don’t want us here and that’s it.”

His father Michael, came from Dubno in Poland (now in Ukraine). “There was a Christian family there hid 16 Jewish people there for 18 months.

"This is an incredible and amazing story. At the beginning they hid in the roof and from there they could hear the troops marching across the town and the shots, nobody really survived in the town.”

“My father never really talked about it much, but I know it deeply affected him all his life.”

His father died several years ago but his mother Miriam, who is now 93, lives in a nearby care home. Fisher collects her every Friday when he is in Israel to bring her home for Shabbat. “She is aware of everything going on and it’s terrible for her to have experience this at her age.”

Growing up, despite his father’s background, the Fisher house was a happy home. His parents ran a hotel in Tivon in northern Israel.

“I was singing, always singing. My parents were singing all the time. My mother was a good singer, but she was not a professional. We used to sing on Friday night, and other nights.
Then my grandfather, who taught me everything I know about Jewish music, he used to take me to his room and teach me.

“He had no plan to become a professional singer. His ambitions were quite different.

“I wanted to be a dentist! Look, you never see a poor dentist! I’d seen them driving round in Jaguars and such and thought that was what I wanted. I had always sung but you know, singing was a hobby, not a profession. I’d already signed up for a dentistry course at the University of Jerusalem.”

But then he went to a friend’s wedding. After singing the shehecheyanu for the bride and groom at the wedding, the then president of Winnipeg Synagogue, Morris Hirsch, approached Fisher and asked him to be the guest cantor for the High Holy Days in Winnipeg.

“I told him I was going to be a dentist. He said ‘Are you crazy? With your voice, you’re going to be inside the mouths of people for the rest of your life?’ He offered me $5,000 and a return ticket. We shook hands and so my life as a singer began.

“I still didn’t know that I realised I had a voice. ?? I sang in the choir when I was in the IDF but really it was only when I began singing as a cantor. It was then that I understood that singing was my life.

"This new chapter began when Fisher was 22, when he became the cantor at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, and this year he celebrates 50 years of bringing cantorial, Chasidic and Yiddish music to audiences across the world.

Another chance moment many years later, was also life-changing. By then he was a professional singer and had recorded many albums. On a visit to London in 1986, his late cousin Shirley took him to see Les Misérables.

“I was blown away and thought it was magnificent. Even though I had never done anything like it, I knew I wanted to play Jean Valjean in Les Mis!”

On his return to Israel, by sheer coincidence, the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv had scheduled Les Misérables for the next season. With no history of musical theatre performance behind him, Fisher won the role and played it for three years.

The show’s producer, Cameron Mackintosh, invited him to take part in the Royal Command Performance for the Queen in London in 1988. Afterwards he told Fisher he wanted him to play the role in the West End.

“I said I would be delighted, but there is only one thing, I can’t do Fridays or Saturdays. I explained as an Orthodox man I cannot work on the sabbath or indeed on the holy days.” Mackintosh asked him to leave it with him.

“To be honest I was in turmoil,” says Fisher. “I so desperately wanted to do it and Cameron had also said he wanted me for Broadway too.” In a story worthy of Sholem Aleichem, Fisher tells how his mother suggested he go see the Lubavitch Rebbe for advice; “I wasn’t even sure if he would even know what I was talking about,” says Fisher recounting the tale. “But he did and knew all about Victor Hugo who wrote Les Misérables.

I told him, ‘I don’t know what to do and I’m going crazy. He took my hand, and said to me in Yiddish ‘Hold your Jewishness strong. Don’t give up. Don’t say, ‘OK, I’ll work Friday night.’ Hold your Jewishness strongly. Don’t be shy to say that you don’t work Friday nights and Saturday matinees. Be proud to say it.’

“Two weeks later I heard from Cameron, and he said, ‘I’ve sorted it out, you’re coming to London!’” Fisher went on to have sell-out runs in both New York and London as Jean Valjean with another singer taking the role on Friday and Saturdays. He became a massive musical theatre star on both Broadway and in the West End.

Since then his voice has filled the world’s greatest concert venues, from Carnegie Hall to Wembley Stadium. Throughout his busy international performing career, Fisher has become one of Israel’s most renowned musical ambassadors.

Most recently we’ve seen him turn his skills to acting in the hit Netflix series Rough Diamonds, focusing on a Chasidic family in the diamond industry in Belgium.

“We filmed in Belgium, and it was a big issue because I was doing another production here in Israel at that time. I had to go every Sunday for a couple of days, for several weeks, and then come back to do my other project. It was very difficult. But it was great. I really loved every minute of it. We had great writers; a great director and it was really fun!”

In Rough Diamonds, Fisher played Ezra Wolfson, the patriarch of a family involved with a group of criminals.

There is talk of a second series and though Fisher’s character met an untimely end, he says that’s not a problem; “When I spoke to them, they said, ‘No way that we’re not going to bring you back’. They are thinking in memories, dreams or something. I have other offers for acting now and I really want to do more.”

You can’t help but imagine him as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. “I would love to do it and maybe one day it will work out.”

He compiled a show called Never On A Friday about the complications of playing in commercial theatre as an observant Jew.

The show ran off Broadway and toured the US. His personal life has been less easy than his professional life. Fisher is divorced from his first wife, Tova. They have three children and seven grandchildren together. He and his second wife Tali, who have a son, are now separated.

“She’s a producer and we met working. We started working together and we fell in love. But it didn’t work out. There was a big gap in age between us. It’s another generation. But we’re still good friends.

"She’s actually producing my new show for my 50th anniversary on stage. So, we’re working together. She lives not far away from here. We are happy and blessed to have such a great, great, great kid.”

Their son is seven-year-old Shmuel Michael. Fisher calls him Shmeichel. “It means smile in Yiddish and this kid is always smiling.” he says, clearly a doting father. Shmuel, like most other children in Israel, is not going to school at the moment but having his lessons on Zoom at home.

Fisher is relishing late fatherhood. “When I was young, I didn’t really have that time with my older kids. I was always away touring and performing. They are wonderful, wonderful, kids. Really, I’m so proud of them my Ofir and Liaran and Shirley. They gave me seven wonderful, beautiful, grandchildren. I’m very, very proud. Some of my grandchildren are older than my son though!”

I tell him a story of being out with an opera singer and how she wouldn’t get into a taxi because it smelled of smoke, she was so worried about her voice. “I drink, I smoke, I eat,” he says laughing.

“I pray! I really don’t know. Look, I’m still taking lessons with a teacher for voice production. And that’s all I do. I’m not really giving it too much thought. I’m so busy with concerts and recordings and all kind of stuff. Maybe I’m not singing so high as I used to. But still, it doesn’t take away the excitement.”

One big change he has noticed is the material he sings.“Promoters used to want me to include lots of Yiddish songs in my repertoire,” says Fisher having recorded more than a dozen albums in Yiddish. “But now they say, ‘You know we love your Yiddish songs but maybe just include one or two.’ Sadly, it’s dying out as a language.”

Fisher has a busy year ahead with several cantorial commitments and hopefully resuming the 50th anniversary tour, which he is planning to bring to the UK in 2024.

I ask him if the war makes his afraid. “No, I’m not. We haven’t had sirens yet in Netanya but
I know once Hezbollah start from Lebanon, it will be different.

"But I’m thankful we have America on our side. Only the other day there were missiles being fired from Yemen, but an American warship nearby stopped them. Biden is amazing, it was such a surprise to so many people.

When he came here he met people who had been at the Supernova Succot gathering and he was crying, they had to bring him tissues. It’s good to have America as a friend right now, it gives a sense of security.”
Fisher is optimistic for Israel’s future.

“I’m not afraid, I know it’s something from the above, I don’t know what God is planning. You know, from the Holocaust the State of Israel was born. Only the future will tell us what will happen next.”

Rough Diamonds is streaming on Netflix.

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