Life & Culture

Meet the Charedi boy who ran away from home and became a TV star

Israel Ogalbo fled his Strictly Orthodox home at 15 and lived rough on the streets of Tel Aviv


There are some great actors in the Israeli drama Beauty Queen of Jerusalem currently streaming on Netflix. Michale Aloni, Irit Kaplan, Itzik Cohen, all experienced stars. But it’s relative newcomer, Israel Ogalbo, who has produced the standout performance of this latest season as the psychologically disturbed and violent David Franco. 

Ogalbo’s own life story could merit a series of its own. Born into a Charedi family that he fled from, Ogalbo lived rough on the streets of Tel Aviv for over two years, experimented with drugs, worked in nightclubs, and entered and won Israel’s version of Big Brother.

We meet on Zoom; his agent advised that Ogalbo’s English was limited, and could I send him over some questions before so he could work on them. This he had done, diligently and translated everything he wanted to say. Inevitably we moved ‘off script’ and he kept charmingly asking if I understood. Ogalbo couldn’t be further away from the boy who once wore a black hat and payot as an Orthodox child in Bnei Brak. He’s toned and muscled, arms covered with tattoos, hair short and stylish. As we talk, it’s clear to see he’s a very serious man with a big heart.

Ogalbo was just 15 when he left the family home. “When I was young, ever since I can remember, I could not accept the fact that my past present and future are already known. 

“I don’t want to live with such restrictions and being told what to do all my life. I want to live my life and learn by my mistakes and build myself as a person. I remember asking my parents: ‘Why can’t I turn the lights on during Shabbat?’ My parents said: ‘Because God don’t want you to do this’. It didn’t make sense to me. Why? You know though in a Charedi community you can’t ask questions; you just must accept. So, it got to a point when I was 15, I just left. This is no reflection on my family, it was something I felt I had to do.”

For the next two and half years he slept either on the streets or in squats in half-built buildings. “I’m not so special," says Ogalbo now 32, “There were many other teenagers sleeping rough like me. Not just other kids from Orthodox communities but from all over. I made friends but, in that situation, you have to be aware all the time, you have to be sharp. There was always someone wanting to take something from you. The winters were hard and there were times when I didn’t eat for a while, I was hungry. Yes, there were drugs, there is always drugs on the streets.”

How does Ogalbo feel now when he sees people sleeping rough? “I want to help them. I give something, maybe food or money, all the time.

“I will never forget what it was like for me. I try to talk to them to say I think you can do something with yourself and try to guide them.”

He was recruited into the army for his national service and it was the making of him; “I was in a combat unit, it’s very good for young people because you learn discipline and self-discipline. The Israeli army know how to change you, to become very strong, mentally and physically, and to be disciplined. It changed my life. I’m learned a lot of myself.”

Still when his army service ended, he drifted, working in nightclubs in and around Tel Aviv. I tell him, I had heard he had been a stripper. He laughs a little. “No not professionally, just occasionally when I needed money.”

One night, a talent scout for the Israeli version of Big Brother spotted him and persuaded him to take part; “I wasn’t interested at first, but she said it’s like a lottery and if you win, your life will change. And there will be money. So I thought I would give it a go.”

He went on to win the show. “I asked myself the question ‘why did I win?’ and I believe it was my history,” he says. Ogalbo shared the story of his upbringing with his fellow housemates. At first his newfound fame didn’t sit easily with him; “It’s very scary. It took time to understand the new life. Sometimes your life changes but you don’t change, you have to jump up a level and get used to a new way of being.”

He acquired an agent after Big Brother and started auditioning for acting roles. His first role was David Franco in Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Franco initially seems like a good guy, but he suffers from the trauma of shell shock from his service as a soldier in the British army during World War II causing him to have psychotic bouts of violence.

Some of the most disturbing scenes in this season’s episodes of the show are when Franco severely beats up his wife, Luna. The scenes are distressing to watch and equally awful to film; “I don’t like David but I worked on his psychosis. It’s very complicated. It’s a physical work, I needed to do some breathing, almost hyperventilation. Then when I am almost dizzy, I can do it, I can get into David’s mind. I’m sweating it’s a physical effect. I’m working out the emotion.”

The two scenes took a full day to film when normally an entire episode is shot in a day, such are Israeli TV budgets. “There was total silence on set, I avoided eye contact with everyone, I couldn’t look.” The scenes were ‘choregraphed’ by a fight arranger so no actual physical contact was made, but still the movements were shocking; “We did about four takes and I felt uh, ugly inside. I felt like an animal.

“I told the director I don’t want to do another take. And I went outside and called my girlfriend and said to her ‘talk to me, I need you now’.”

The producer, Dafna Prenner, came out to see him; “She explained to me that we had to make it realistic because many women suffer violent relationships and if one woman frees herself from her situation because of watching our show, then it’s a good thing. I understood. So we finished the scenes in another couple of takes. Everyone went to hug Swell [Ariel Or who plays Luna] but she broke away and came and gave me a big hug. She is amazing.”

His parents haven’t seen any of his on-screen performances as they don’t have a television. Until two years ago he had no contact with them. “Now I have a very good relationship with my parents. Because I grew up and I understand, I need to accept them. Even if I don’t understand them, I need to accept them. And my parents accept me now because in a way they grew up and realised our differences don’t mean we have to be apart. They know I work in the television, but they have never seen me on the screen.”

He sees this as a mixed blessing as a film he made last year, In Bed, shows him having gay sex, taking drugs, and parading through the streets of Tel Aviv naked. “So I’m glad they weren’t able to see that!” 

The film, by Nitzan Gilady has an anti-LGBT shooting during the Pride parade as a backdrop to the action and follows three characters on a hedonistic weekend. 

For his role of Guy in In Bed, he spent six months preparing himself; “I don’t have technique when I am acting. I need to feel it inside. I do a lot of work before the shoot.

“For example, with Guy, months before filming I bought clothes, I thought he would wear, I dyed my hair, I listened to the kind of music I thought he would like and was dancing around my apartment. I read the script, probably a thousand times.”

Ogalbo is a success story; he has a nice apartment in Tel Aviv, has reconnected with his family and is happy with his girlfriend of a year, Daphna who is a fashion designer; “We have a very good relationship, she’s very special.” 

He’s currently auditioning for other roles and has hopes of a third series of Beauty Queen. If Lior Raz were to ask him to be in the next series of Fauda he would be very happy; “Everyone wants to be in Fauda,” he says laughing.

Summing up, he says; “One day on the streets is like one here. The same rules apply. You need to be very, very careful. Very sharp.

“On the streets, I learned there are people you cannot trust but it’s the same in regular life.  Now when I talk to people, I think about what they are saying and what they really want. I want to learn all the time and everything I have been through in my life is a lesson.” 

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is streaming now on Netflix.

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