Life & Culture

Interview: Dan Almagor

The split personality who is Israel’s myth-maker in chief


Last month, Israel held its 14th annual theatre awards, a red-carpet event with the kind of prestige enjoyed by the Oscars. As the great and good of Israeli showbusiness gathered at the Beersheba Theatre, eyes were on a 74-year-old lyricist and playwright who was nominated for one of the minor categories.

In the event, Dan Almagor failed to pick up the prize for best translation of a foreign work, but he was still a big winner on the night. That is because the Cameri Theatre’s version of Fiddler on the Roof won three awards, including best musical. And a huge contributor to that success was Almagor’s translation of the American book and lyrics, originally made in 1965 and subsequently revised by him into witty, contemporary Hebrew.

Almagor is a giant of Israeli popular culture, who has managed over the past 50 years simultaneously to be one of his country’s staunchest cheerleaders and sternest critics. He has composed 100s of Israel’s most popular folk songs, written dozens of his own plays, and translated the works of other dramatists — his Hebrew versions of Shakespeare’s plays are frequently staged. He was also the much-loved presenter of a 1970s television music series called I Sang For you, My Country, which still enjoys late-nights reruns.

But perhaps most of all, he is the man who brought Fiddler on the Roof to Israel. “I was the first Israeli who saw Fiddler on the Roof as a trial production, a couple of months before it was staged in Broadway in 1964,” he says, “and the musical’s first review ever — in any language — was my four-page article published in an Israeli newspaper. Since then, I have seen almost every prominent production of the play, whether staged in the US, UK or Israel.”

For him, however, the musical has taken on an added resonance since Israel’s incursion into Gaza. Had he won the translator prize at the Theatre Awards, he would have highlighted, in his acceptance speech, similarities between the IDF’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the Tsar’s soldiers treatment of the Jews of Anatevka.

“To this very day, tears fill my eyes each time I see the officer tell Tevye and the other Jews that he’s sorry, but they should evacuate their homes within three days,” he planned to tell the audience at the Beersheba Theatre. “Even a genius author such as Shalom Aleichem had never thought that the great-grandsons of Tevye and his fellow Anatevka deportees would one day discover a much simpler, humanistic, method to convey such a message: a phone ring and a recorded message, announcing: ‘You have 10 minutes to evacuate your homes.’”

It is a sentiment he had first articulated while watching the Cameri production: “In my opinion,” he had commented, “both the pogrom scene and the scene in which the Jews are being expelled from their homes should have been performed in Arabic.”

Almagor manages to combine a such a deep love of Israeli culture —he is, after all, the man who wrote The Falafel Song celebrating the country’s national food — with a critical view of its government’s policy towards the Palestinians. He is the first to acknowledge the dichotomy. “I’m Dr Dan and Mister Almagor,” he grins, referring to the character with the famously split personality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Almagor was born in Ramat Gan in July 1935 to Polish immigrants — his father had been a pioneer at Gdud Ha’Avoda, a socialist work group founded in 1920. His early songs, such as A Ballad for the Medic and Kol Ha’Kavod, celebrated Israeli macho culture and military heroism. But this celebration turned to satire as he grew concerned at the conduct of Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories.

After the outbreak of the first intifadah in late 1980s, he responded to reports of soldiers actions by writing a poem called We Shoot Children, Don’t We. “I suddenly realised that we’re doing there the very things which, as I was told throughout my entire childhood, were done to us Jews,” he says.

After he read the poem at a rally in a 1989 rally, he received dozens of death threats and his car was set on fire.

Some of his more satirical lyrics were too much for the Israeli authorities to take. “A few years ago, a friend from the Israeli radio told me that out of 40 censured old songs collecting dust at the archive, 37 were mine,” he says.

In recent years, Almagor, a gifted storyteller and an erudite speaker, performs and lectures on Israel’s cultural history to packed houses. They are interesting events, at which he questions the validity of the myths on which Israel’s culture is based, and at the same invites audiences to sing along to the songs he wrote which helped formed those myths in the first place.

At one such evening, at Tel Aviv’s Brodt Centre, Almagor illustrated what he regards as Israel’s deeply rooted racism by drawing parallels between early Zionists cruelty towards Yemenite Jews and present-day attitudes towards Ethiopian immigrants.

To reinforce his case, he played a rare video of a song he had written a couple of decades before about Yemenite Jews in 1900 being abused by a farmer in Rehovot, his own home town.

But then he rounded off the evening by getting his audience to join in a rendition of the patriotic ditty Le’Chayei Ha’Am Ha’Ze; ve’cama tov she’hu ka’ze (Cheers to this People, and how good it is that it is like this).

“I’m trying to have my say with a spoonful of sugar,” he smiles. “I speak of how generations of Israeli folk songs were mendacious. I see them as opium for the masses. We conduct horrible deeds, and then gather for a sing-along. We sing of ‘our teeny-weeny land’, of our ‘barefoot homeland’ and of an ‘orphan gypsy’ [a reference to a popular song] without even noticing that our land is no longer tiny and that it’s not us who are orphan wanderers.

“At large, Hebrew culture flourishes — literature, theatre, music, cinema, art. I love this. But I’m beside myself when I realise that people here nod at what they see or hear on news broadcasts, do nothing about it and then dare to call themselves cultural.”

“And yet,” he says, recognising the irony, “my wife tells me that I too hear on the radio how a Palestinian girl was shot dead, and then rush away to play my audience some patriotic songs.”

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