Former film personality Uri Zohar dies at 86, after decades as ultra-Orthodox rabbi

Known for his 1960s lowbrow comedies, Zohar underwent a transformation in the 1970s and turned to religion; PM: Zohar was an ‘integral part of Israeliness in all its shades’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Uri Zohar (left) and Arik Einstein in 'Peeping Toms,' Zohar's 1972 film about  an aging hippie. (YouTube screengrab)
Uri Zohar (left) and Arik Einstein in 'Peeping Toms,' Zohar's 1972 film about an aging hippie. (YouTube screengrab)

Former actor and director Uri Zohar, who turned his back on the world of entertainment to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, died Thursday. He was 86 years old.

The Tel Aviv-born Zohar was known for his outsized personality and wavy, shoulder-length hair, and most of all for his 1960s bourekas films. These were heavily slapstick movies that poked fun at nearly anything Israeli, and in particular, the treatment of new immigrants to Israel.

He directed and starred in “Hole in the Moon,” “Three Days and a Child,” “Every Bastard a King,” “Big Eyes” and “Peeping Toms” (“Metzitzim”).

Zohar, however, disappeared from Israel’s pop culture scene in the late 1970s to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, a move that was shocking at the time.

Zohar was eulogized by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who described him as “an integral part of Israeliness in all its shades.”

Bennett said Zohar was a great figure in the worlds of acting, culture and Torah as he “brought hearts together.”

Thousands gathered outside Zohar’s home in Jerusalem before marching to the Givat Shaul cemetery in the afternoon to pay their final respects.

The funeral was attended by prominent Haredi officials, including the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri. Unlike funerals of other Haredi public figures, however, the crowd was relatively diverse and included many women, secular and religious alike, according to a Ynet report.

Zohar’s son Ephraim eulogized his father at the funeral and described the “loving” relationship he had with God.

“Last night, you went to prepare for the prayer as you’ve done for the past 45 years. You were going to talk to God and he gave you a great hug, a hug of two lovers… You didn’t shy away because you’re honest and loyal, as you’ve always been. From the moment you met your love, he was the only thing you cared about. What do we have to cry about? You have finally found peace,” Ephraim said.

Zohar was lauded for his films’ exploration of manhood and machismo, relationships and the impact of the military.

“Three Days and a Child,” based on A.B. Yehoshua’s novel of the same name, became a classic of Israeli cinema, winning at the Cannes Film Festival.

Several of Zohar’s films, including “Peeping Toms” and “Big Eyes,” were made with his close friend, singer Arik Einstein.

Rabbi Uri Zohar at his home in Jerusalem, undated (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

After becoming religious, he was active in the movement to return secular Israelis to religion and only dabbled in film to create political ads in the 1990s for the Shas political party.

“I tested myself a few years ago,” said Zohar in “Zohar — The Return,” a documentary made in 2018 with by Dani Rosenberg and Yaniv Segalovich about Zohar’s life. “I said, maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I really was happy then.”

Einstein wrote songs about what Zohar’s disappearance felt like for him, including one dedicated to Zohar, called “Hoo Chazar be’Tshuva” (“He Returned to Religion”).

Family and friends gather outside the home of Rabbi Uri Zohar on June 2, 2022 in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The two men’s lives remained intertwined. Einstein’s ex-wife also became ultra-Orthodox, and Einstein’s two daughters married Zohar’s sons, making the two friends grandfathers to the same children.

When Einstein died in 2013, Zohar eulogized him.

“You went around all of us,” said Zohar, “You are in the world of truth. I say goodbye to you, but we will not leave you. Privilege goes before you, all the good you have done. God wanted you to be close to him.”

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