He made Israel laugh: Actor and prankster Yehuda Barkan dies of COVID-19

75-year-old icon was known for 1970s cult classics and for his hidden prank movies

Jessica Steinberg

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Actor Yehuda Barkan in 2020 (video screenshot)
Actor Yehuda Barkan in 2020 (video screenshot)

Actor Yehuda Barkan, who died Saturday at age 75 after a battle with COVID-19, was a stalwart of classic Israeli comedy films and a master of practical jokes whose penchant for prank calls helped establish his 55-year career.

A beloved actor, producer and director, Barkan, whose family name was originally Berkowitz, was born in 1945 in the coastal city of Netanya to Yiddish-speaking parents from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Barkan set out on an acting career after his army service when he joined the Dizengoff Command Band, with former IDF band members who performed songs and skits. He attended the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts but was expelled after three months, said Barkan in a June 2020 interview for the Culture and Sports Ministry, because he didn’t have the patience to sit and learn.

He discovered his niche for practical jokes and humor on the Israeli radio show “Hamim VeTaim” when he and his fellow comics made live prank calls, finding a love for pulling peoples’ legs that would come to distinguish his entire career.

Barkan began appearing in films in the early 1970s, many of which were the basis for Israel’s “bourekas” films, the wildly popular and humorous cult classics that dealt with the ethnic tensions between Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Israelis.

From the set of ‘Hagiga B’Snooker’ with Yehuda Barkan (left) and Ze’ev Revach (right) (Courtesy official Facebook page of Ze’ev Revach)

One of his earliest film was “Lupo!,” an English-language Israeli comedy set in Tel Aviv, which the New York Times described as a film that belonged to Yiddish-speaking Second Avenue. The film starred Barkan, then 25, as Lupo, a middle-aged widower and secondhand furniture dealer.

“Under all those layers of make-up and charm, Mr. Barkan is, I suspect, an actor of real talent,” wrote New York Times critic Vincent Canby in a 1971 review.

One of Barkan’s next films, “Hagiga B’Snooker” (1975), helped immortalize the bourekas genre, thanks in part to Barkan’s character Azriel who tries to trick a rabbi into believing he is a religious Jew while his mouth is filled with bourekas.

The film starred the genre’s two founding fathers, Ze’ev Revach and Barkan, with a script largely improvised on camera.

In June 2020, Revach told the Kan public broadcaster: “Our mood was what made the film.”

“I knew it would make Yehuda laugh,” said Revach in June. “He was on the floor.”

In interviews, Barkan had also said that much of the script was ad-libbed on set.

“I don’t remember the concept of take two in film, almost everything was take one,” he said.

Barkan turned director in the 1990s with a series of comedy films called “Abba Ganuv,” in which he played a skipper and single father trying to gain custody of his son. The series introduced Barkan to a new, younger audience who fell for his practical jokes once again.

Barkan never left the genre, directing and producing hidden camera prank films, although the failure of his 1993 film, “Mehapeset Baal Al Arba,” forced him to file for bankruptcy.

In the early 2000s, Barkan became religious, married for a third time and moved to a religious community with his family. He ran into financial trouble again, when he was arrested by the Israeli Tax Authority on suspicion of tax evasion.

He found another lease on his acting career in 2010 when he appeared as the grandfather of a boy with autism in the critically acclaimed Israeli television show “Yellow Peppers,” followed by a small role as a rabbi in “Kipat Barzel” (“Iron Dome”) a 2018 TV series about a religious unit in the Israel Defense Forces.

Barkan’s penchant for practical jokes never stopped, from hidden cameras set to catch innocent bystanders getting squirted with a ketchup bottle, to “Matchmakers” a hidden camera show in 2014 about couples who don’t know they’re being set up on a date.

Barkan’s last role was in 2019, in a film “Love in Suspenders.” In the film, Barkan played a tough older guy who struggles to pay his monthly rent, and falls in love with a well-to-do woman his age, played by Nitza Saul, who appeared with him in “Hagiga B’Snooker” in 1975.

It was the last film Barkan appeared in, although he was filmed by the Culture and Sport Ministry in June 2020, speaking for 30 minutes about his life and career, referring to his religious awakening and his professional life in film.

The recording, released four months before his death, showcases Barkan’s eternal humor, his penchant for Yiddish accents and his love — as always — for practical jokes.

Barkan died Saturday of the coronavirus. He had been hospitalized at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center for the past few weeks.

Sending his “deepest condolences” to Barkan’s family, President Reuven Rivlin hailed him on Saturday as “a wellspring of joy, a great, multifaceted actor who was also large of spirit and full of generosity. We will return to the treasures he left Israeli culture again and again, and remember him with much love and with a smile.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Barkan had “great love” for the people and the country. Barkan, he said, “brought joy to generations of Israelis… He will be greatly missed by us all.”

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