NEW YORK — If you could combine Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey and Amy Schumer, you might end up with someone approximating the diverse talents of Rivka Michaeli, one of Israel’s best-known personalities, who will be making a rare appearance in New York City on September 1.
A mainstay of Israeli media for 66 years, the energetic 80 year old has worked as a comedian, an actress on film and stage, a singer on Israel Radio, and a talk show host on radio and television. She’s charmed multiple generations of fans — including Israeli-born actor, singer and composer Danny Maseng, who has known Michaeli for more than half a century, since he was a rising teenage star.
“She is a lioness, the Elaine May of Israeli comedy, popular, sharp-witted and knowledgeable. I cannot imagine Israeli broadcasting without her,” Maseng says.
How does Michaeli react to such extravagant praise?
“It’s flattering — and encouraging!” she laughs. Speaking from Tel Aviv, she adds that she likes it “more than when I hear bad remarks. Having performed since I was a child, I guess there should be some reaction.”
Born in Jerusalem in 1938, Michaeli first sang on Israel Radio at age 14, and later was under contract to the Israel Broadcasting Authority for nearly 40 years. Despite her deeply held political beliefs, she says she was “silent during the time I was officially a government employee. I couldn’t and didn’t speak out.”
These days, she feels no such constraints. Michaeli attended a recent demonstration of Israeli Arabs protesting the country’s new “nation-state” law, and has been in what she calls “a sort of quarrel with our culture minister, Miri Regev,” ever since the conservative Regev suggested cutting government funding for artists whose work “subverts the state.”
The dispute doesn’t seem to bother Michaeli, who says simply, “She started it.”
In fact, Michaeli has long been associated with Israelis of all political persuasions. One of her best friends was the late Naomi Shemer, composer of the classic “Jerusalem of Gold,” known as Israel’s second national anthem.
“We were always together,” Michaeli recalls, “and when we had political discussions, she would end up crying, because she and her husband were very right wing. But this is Israel, and we can still support and love each other.”
Michaeli even gets credit for one of the most memorable verses in “Jerusalem of Gold.”
“Naomi let me hear it before it went public, and I said, ‘I think you missed the Old City,’” says Michaeli. “She said, ‘No, I mentioned the Kotel.’ I said, ‘It’s not enough. My father was born there and he dreamed about it every night.’ So she added the words, ‘We have returned to the wells, the market and the square; the shofar calls on the Temple Mount in the Old City.’”
Although she won’t be singing “Jerusalem of Gold” in her upcoming appearance at Manhattan’s funky new cabaret club The Green Room 42 on September 1, Michaeli will reprise other songs Shemer wrote for her, including “Ein Li Rega Dal” (“Never A Dull Moment”), about how one reacts during a time when there is predominantly bad news.
She’s fluently funny in English, but Michaeli plans to perform songs and sketches in Hebrew that evening, while reminiscing about the legends she’s known and worked with over the decades.
Her visit to New York is also timed to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, as she has a son who lives in Brooklyn, a daughter in Boulder, Colorado, and four grandchildren. “My oldest granddaughter just got a scholarship to Brown University!” she proudly kvells.
Michaeli’s groundbreaking career, which includes being the first woman to host an Israeli television talk show, has been recognized in recent years with numerous prestigious awards, such as the lifetime achievement prize from the Israeli Film and Television Academy.
She shows no signs of slowing down, and even participated in a reality TV show called “It’s Never Too Late,” in which she and several other women, all over 70, went to Thailand, where they confronted daunting physical challenges.
She’s not particularly interested in summing up her remarkable life.
“I always think ahead, and I don’t remember how old I am most of the time. Sometimes, when I get out of a car, I can feel my age. Only my knees remind me that I’m 80,” she says.
What then is the secret to such longevity in a business that largely values youth and beauty?
Michaeli ponders that for a moment. “You know,” she says, “my point of view is that those who value youth and beauty are right! But I still seem to be in demand. I think I still have something to offer.”
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