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 here on Sept. 1.
A mainstay of Israeli media for 66 years, the energetic 80-year-old has been 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, such as Shivi, 50, of Hod HaSharon. “She was the soundtrack to my childhood. Every Saturday morning at 9 my dad would listen to a comedy hour on the radio. She was in most of the skits, her style and voice were instantly recognizable, and I memorized many of her lines. I quote them today to my own teenage daughters!”
Israeli-born actor, singer and composer Danny Maseng has known Mich-aeli for more than a half-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.”
How does Michaeli react to such extravagant praise? “It’s flattering, and encouraging,” she laughs. Speaking to The Jewish Week from Tel Aviv, she adds, “I like it more than when I hear bad remarks. After performing 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, “I 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 remarks, “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,” that is 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.” Shemer, she says, “let me hear it before it went public, and I said, ‘I think you missed the Old City.’ 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 show at the new Hell’s Kitchen cabaret club The Green Room 42, Michaeli will reprise other songs Shemer wrote for her, including “Ein Li Rega Dal” (Never A Dull Moment), about how one reacts to bad news. (7 p.m., 570 10th Ave., 4th floor, thegreenroom42.com, $20.)
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 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,” Michaeli says. “Sometimes, when I get out of a car, I can feel my age. Only my knees remind me that I’m 80.”