Chaim Topol, who passed away on Thursday at age 87, will be eternally remembered for two roles of folkloristic figures of diaspora Jews with shaggy beards and disheveled clothes, that crowned him as an international star: Sallah Shabati, the oleh from Iraq who struggles with his alienated new home in 1960’s Israel, and Tevye, a Jew who struggles with antisemitic Russia in the late 19th century. Both roles were written by Eastern European Jewish satirists – Ephraim Kishon and Shalom Aleichem.
Both films, “Sallah Shabati” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” feature vivacious and authentic older Jewish men, and in both, the title role was carried so successfully by a relatively young Sabra, who grew up in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin, which nowadays is experiencing a cultural comeback reminiscent of NYC’s SoHo in the 1970s.
Topol’s artistic career was launched in the early 1950s, when he joined the IDF’s Nahal entertainment band, together with his future wife, Galia, and his partner in so many future projects, the late Uri Zohar. The band’s repertoire featured a sketch by newcomer Hungarian satirist Ephraim Kishon, about this Iraqi oleh who applies his traditional Jewish values to dealing with Israeli reality. In 1964, Kishon produced and directed the film “Sallah Shabati” with Topol as Sallah, which was an incredible success in Israel and awarded Topol the 1965 Golden Globe. He was also nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film.
In 1971, Topol was picked to play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he had performed successfully on the London stage. Topol was chosen over Zero Mostel, who made the musical a hit on Broadway. Topol once again won the Golden Globe award and was once again nominated for the Oscar, but this time not as a foreign actor but as a front-row nominee for best actor.
Topol starred in 24 major films in Israel and abroad. He died in his Tel Aviv home after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. He and Galia had three children, two girls, and a boy.