Life & Culture

Israeli star who lit up my sleepless nights

Battling with insomnia, Miranda Levy found comfort in Israeli films...and one particular actor


WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 25: Actor Lior Ashkenazi attends Sony Pictures Classics' 2012 Oscar Dinner at Andaz on February 25, 2012 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

It’s 3.57 am, and the first bird of morning has begun to sing. It’s been yet another sleepless night — I’ve had eight years of them — and the first, grey sounds of dawn tell me it’s time to give up for that night.

For the first few years of my Insomnia Crash (as I later dubbed it), I tossed and turned, moaned and despaired. But now — though I still feel like hell the next day —I’ve found a new, more positive strategy to get me through the endless nights. I pick up the laptop, and rummage around in the depths of YouTube. It takes a while, but I eventually find what I’m looking for: a film that always makes me smile.

The movie is called Late Marriage (Hatuna Meuheret). It tells the story of a good-looking Israeli couple — he’s an overly mothered son whose parents are desperate to marry him off, she’s an older single mother — in a bickering, unconventional, but sexy relationship. Late Marriage is 20 years old and not on Netflix or Amazon in the UK. In the poor quality YouTube video, the colours are too bright and the sound is fuzzy.

I normally watch an English subtitled version. But on this early morning, I can’t find it. So I watch the thing in dubbed Georgian.

But here’s the funny thing: I don’t mind all that much. For me, the main attraction of the film is the star — a charismatic actor in his 30s called Lior Ashkenazi. There is even a sex scene where you briefly catch a glimpse of his naughty bits, which makes it better still.

I now know that Lior Ashkenazi, who was born in Ramat Gan to Turkish immigrant parents in 1968, is a superstar in his native land. He’s been described as the ‘Israeli Cary Grant’ and has won three Ophirs (Israeli Oscars) for his acting. But back in the mid 2010s, I wasn’t aware of any of this.

Late Marriage was not my first Ashkenazi movie. Some months earlier, I was working my way through every Jewish-themed English language offering on Amazon Video, when I came across a subtitled film called Walk on Water. “While on assignment in Berlin, a homophobic Israeli intelligence agent with a licence to kill is tasked with killing a Nazi war criminal,” said the blurb. “However, he has a crisis of confidence after he befriends the target’s gay grandson.”

Blimey, I thought. Interesting.

Walk on Water turned out to be thought-provoking and good-hearted (if a bit cliché-ridden). But it was the Israeli lead — handsome, brooding, sarcastic — who transfixed me. I looked him up. This was Lior, then in his mid 30s. And so, my obsession began.

Twenty-four/seven wakefulness gives one a lot of time. So I dug out rest of the Ashkenazi canon. Probably best of all was In Treatment (Be Tipul), a TV series also starring the late Assi Dayan — later to be nicked and remade by the Americans — where Lior played an egotistical but emotionally complex fighter pilot. In films, he appeared to play a lot of cops. Another performance of note was as Micki in the sinister ‘comedy horror’ Big Bad Wolves. This movie is also worth digging out for the sight of Shulem Shtisel (Dovale Glickman) playing a creepy torturer.

‘Mid career’ Lior was not as straighforwardly hot as Late Marriage Lior, but he still had dimples, excellently quizzical eyebrows and a wry sense of humour. I’d watch films where he merely popped up in cameos — The Bubble (Ha Bueh), where he played himself, and Yossi, giving an amusing turn as a world-weary surgeon, about to be divorced. He stole the show. Footnote and Foxtrot (starring a more paternal, salt-and-pepper Lior) were acting tour de forces.

I was particularly taken by an interview Ashkenazi gave around the time of the release of Foxtrot, where he talked about preparing for his role as a bereaved father. “From two days before shooting, I did not go to sleep,” he said. “I got a kind of vertigo; I had to lean on furniture; I didn’t know what time it was. For two hours after work I collapsed, then I was awake again. It was more than the physical difficulty; mentally I got insane.” This was how I’d been living for much of the past decade: for a few days, Lior understood exactly what I was going through.

By this point — sorry Lior — I had begun to cheat on you. I’d discovered other Israeli actors, and of course the brilliant films and shows they appeared in. (There are only about seven actors in the whole of Israel, who pop up in everything).

There was Yehuda Levi (Yonna ‘Kinder’ Harrari in Mossad 101). Levi was gorgeous, snippy and eye-rolly, but the show itself — a kind of fictionalised secret agent reality TV show — was patchy. For me, the best programmes quality-wise were Fauda and Prisoners of War (Hatufim), which later morphed into the US series Homeland, starring Damian Lewis and Claire Danes.

I discovered the stunning Aviv Alush in a properly funny comedy series called Beauty and the Baker. And of course there was Michael Aloni, Akiva in Shtisel. I actually started watching Shtisel when its second ‘season’ came out in 2016. Aloni, with his shy smile and amazing blue-green eyes, was the initial choice, but I soon developed a part-time crush on Zohar Strauss, who played Lippe Weiss. Zohar also starred as gorgeous secular archaeologist Avri in Srugim, a kind of Modern Orthodox Friends, and a gay Charedi in another hard-to-find film, Eyes Wide Open.

The third series of Shtisel brings us up to the present day, mid 2021. After a long journey, my health has vastly improved. I have reclaimed my life, sleep six to seven hours a night, and have picked up my career as a journalist and author — in fact, my new book, The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned To Sleep Again is out this week.

Now I’m back in the world, I no longer spend my days obsessing about Israeli actors. In fact, I have a real life man of my own — an American playwright and sometime actor who, now I think about it, is not that physically dissimilar to Lior He’s also a kind of silver-maned bear with pleasingly mobile eyebrows.

Yes, I am back up and running, but I will never forget Lior Ashkenazi’s role in my recovery.

In February 2019, I wanted to see Foxtrot so badly, that I ventured out of the house to see it in the cinema — one of my first trips out for years. This was a real milestone. But more than this, I think, was Lior’s constant presence in my laptop. In all those years of darkness, he brought starlight to my desolate nights.


The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned To Sleep Again by Miranda Levy (Aster, £9.99) is published this week

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive