Israeli film legend, Aryeh Elias passed away at age 94 today on Thursday, May 7. The veteran stage, television and movie actor, who was born in Kurdistan in 1921, was the first Jew to be accepted to the drama faculty in Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts in Iraq in 1941. He started his long acting career around age 10 thanks to his uncle’s theater house in Kurdistan.
In an interview with Israel’s Hinuchit 23 TV three years ago, Elias said that there was a huge uproar in the northern Iraqi Jewish community when he was accepted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. “No one understood how I was accepted because the academy examiners were Israel haters. But my name being Albert Elias, no one could tell by my name that I was Jewish.”
Elias’s delivery of the famous monologue by Shylock from Shakepeare’s The Merchant of Venice in Arabic won the judges over at the academy and he recalled that his acting skills stood out among the other actors.
Following the bloody Nazi-inspired pogrom, known as the Farhud against the Jewish population of Baghdad in 1941 after the British victory in the Anglo-Iraqi war, which left nearly 180 Jews dead, thousands injured and hundreds of Jewish business looted, and hostilities thereafter, Elias made aliyah to Israel in 1947.
“I had just got the role of my life, Shylock,” recalled Elias. “But following all the hostilities, the Zionist underground members came to the rehearsal and took me away.” At night, the members had arranged for Elias to hide in a truck on its way to deliver Baghdad dates to Haifa. “We would drive at night and hide during the day. At night the date honey would freeze and during the day, it would melt,” recalled Elias.
“I was so sad that I had to leave that big role of Shylock behind. My Muslim director back in Baghdad told me about the Habima theater [Israel’s national theater], but he didn’t know of the problem of the accent in Israeli theater then.”
In Israel, Elias’s Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) accent in Hebrew in the European dominated theater was deemed unacceptable for the Israeli stage at the time.
After he fought in Israel’s War of Independence, Elias received minor roles in The Kameri Theater but later he reached out to Arab towns across Israel, and performed on stage in Arabic in front of audiences including in Kfar Yasif, Kfar Kassem and Nazareth.
His big break came in 1965 with the role of the unemployed and alcoholic father, Levi, in the movie, “HaYeled Me’ever LaRechov, (The Boy Across the Street), an Israeli film that dealt with the difficult social issues facing Israel at the time. The movie was a nationwide success and was noted in international film festivals held in Venice as well as in Teheran.
Other movies for which Elias became famous for, included “The Police Man” (Ha’shoter Azoulai), “Snooker” (Hagigah B’snooker), “Kazablan,” “James’ Journey to Israel,” “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” among many others.
In 2013, Elias received a lifetime achievement award from the Israeli Artists’ association for his lifetime work at age 92. In addition to his acting career, he also worked to help disadvantaged and at-risk Israeli youth.