Tribute to Mizrahi icon Ronit Elkabetz z’l

The career of actor and director Ronit Elkabetz, who died in April at the tragically young age of  51 after a battle with cancer,  is assessed by Raya Morag in this Haaretz tribute.  Her strength of personality reflected her ability to empower submissive Mizrahi women in particular, giving them control over their destinies. 

To describe the contribution of Ronit Elkabetz – who died at 51 on April 19 – to Israeli cinema, we need to invoke the term “persona.” A persona comes into being when, at a certain moment in an actor’s work, the different characters he has played coalesce in the viewer’s mind into one imaginary entity, which is also identified with the actor’s actions, behavior and appearances in the public arena.

At a certain point in the audience’s consciousness, Elkabetz’s cinematic-stage presence in the characters she played – such as the ostracized sister in Shmuel Hasfari’s “Sh’Chur” (1994); the divorcée whom the younger, still unmarried Zaza loves in Dover Koshashvili’s “Late Marriage” (2001); the prostitute in Keren Yedaya’s “Or” (2004); the resident of the remote development town in Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” (2007); Viviane in the trilogy she codirected with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz (“To Take a Wife,” 2004; “Shiva,” 2008; and “Gett,” 2014), and a raped woman in Michal Aviad’s “Invisible” (2011) – became intertwined with her extra-cinematic figure and created a new image, a persona.

On the surface, it seems as though most of her films (both those she either created herself as screenwriter and director, and those in which she simply acted) saw her playing characters who are on the margins of Israeli society, and dependent on the benevolence of patriarchal figures and subject to ethnic and religious strictures. But at the same time, these characters are fed by Elkabetz’s persona. As such, even when they embody excruciating defeat (as in “Or,” when Ruthie’s daughter is unable to extricate her mother from the cycle of prostitution), or tragic victory, which they achieve at the price of their sexuality (as at the end of “Gett”), they assume, through Elkabetz’s persona, a subversive power that turns the family-social-institutional order inside out.

By means of her ability as an actor to make her persona the prime driving force of the characters she played, Elkabetz succeeded in becoming the bearer of tidings both for women and femininity in Israeli cinema, and especially for Mizrahi women (referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin).

It is not only a case of resistance to the consignment of the Mizrahi woman to being poor, uneducated, identified with domesticity and family, shackled by tradition, and so forth. The point is that in the course of representation that aspires to portray this depressing reality and rail against it, Elkabetz’s persona declares the presence of a Mizrahi woman who is educated, modern, secular and the master of her body, sexuality and decisions. As such, women’s rights to

autonomy, to their body, to divorce, to property and more, spring forth from the intensity and power of Elkabetz’s persona.

Elkabetz: Mizrahi woman breaking the shackles of tradition

The writer is an associate professor of cinema studies in the department of communication and journalism, and head of the Smart Family Institute of Communications, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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One Comment

  • When I heard that Ronit Elkabetz had died this spring, I was sad because I was not aware of her long battle with cancer. After her enormous success with the film Gett, I thought everything was OK for her. She was a very talented woman, whose beauty rivals by far that of the cinema Greek Irene Papas and the iconic Italian Anna Magnani.

    I knew that her parents were from Essaouira (Previously Mogador), Morocco, a very rustic and once beautiful Atlantic coastal town. As a film maker herself, I wished Ronit could have taken her mother and herself on a return documentary journey to Mogador to retrace the footsteps of her Mizrahi Jewish ancestors who were the predominant population before the exodus and the devastating in-migration of Arabs from the hinterland.

    But, maybe Ronit and Shlomi (her brother film maker)thought about this documentary project, who knows, regardless it would have been a challenge anyway because of the hurdles the authorities would have erected in terms of fees and bureaucratic entanglements.

    Rest in peace Ronit.


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