Former film personality Uri Zohar dies at 86, after decades as ultra-Orthodox rabbi

Former actor and director Uri Zohar, who turned his back on the world of entertainment to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, died Thursday. He was 86 years old.

The Tel Aviv-born Zohar was known for his outsized personality and wavy, shoulder-length hair, and most of all for his 1960s bourekas films, heavily slapstick movies that poked fun at nearly anything Israeli, and in particular, the treatment of new immigrants to Israel.

He directed and starred in “Hole in the Moon,” “Three Days and a Child,” “Every Bastard a King,” “Big Eyes” and “Peeping Toms” (“Metzitzim”).

Zohar was lauded for his exploration of manhood and machismo, relationships and the impact of the military in his films.

“Three Days and a Child,” based on A.B. Yehoshua’s novel of the same name, became a classic of Israeli cinema, winning at the Cannes Film Festival. Several of Zohar’s films, including “Peeping Toms” and “Big Eyes,” were made with his close friend, singer Arik Einstein.

Zohar, however, disappeared from Israel’s pop-culture scene in the late 1970s to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, a move that was shocking at the time.

He was active in the movement to return secular Israelis to religion and only dabbled in film to create political ads in the 1990s for the Shas political party.

“I tested myself a few years ago,” said Zohar in “Zohar – The Return,” a documentary made in 2018 with by Dani Rosenberg and Yaniv Segalovich about Zohar’s life. “I said, maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I really was happy then.”

Rabbi Uri Zohar, known as one of Israel’s early film actors and directors, died June 2, 2022 at the age of 86 (Courtesy CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Einstein wrote songs about what Zohar’s disappearance felt like for him, including one dedicated to Zohar, called “Hoo Chazar be’Tshuva” (“He Returned to Religion”).

The two men’s lives remained intertwined. Einstein’s ex-wife also became ultra-Orthodox, and Einstein’s two daughters married Zohar’s sons, making the two friends grandfathers to the same children.

When Einstein died in 2013, Zohar eulogized him.

“You went around all of us,” said Zohar, “You are in the world of truth. I say goodbye to you, but we will not leave you. Privilege goes before you, all the good you have done. God wanted you to be close to him.”

Zohar was born in Tel Aviv, attending high school there before serving in an army entertainment troupe while serving in the army.

His first marriage to singer Ilana Rovina ended in divorce. He began wearing a yarmulke on a television game show he was hosting in the late 1970s, and was awarded the Israel Prize for cinema in 1976, which he declined.

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