Chaim Topol hasn’t graced our screens since 1998, and for a good reason. That was the year the much-lauded actor began his charitable work in his native Israel with Jordan River Village, of which he is now chairman, an overnight retreat for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, disabilities and special needs.
The much-needed facility has helped more than 600 sick children since it opened in 2011.
“I’ve been dealing with children for 50 years,” says the actor. “They are a part of my life.”
In 1999, he enlisted the help of his close friend Professor Yakov Ramon, and together they reached out to Israeli doctors who specialise in helping children with debilitating illnesses. “It’s not enough just to want to do good,” Topol says. “You need to know how to do good. And the doctors knew how to do good. They directed us, told us what to do and we did what they asked us. Together, we built a village.”
Jordan River Village caters for children aged nine to 18, and has no religious limitations. “We treat Muslim, Christian, Arab, Jewish, Sikh and Palestinian children together, just as we do in our hospitals,” he says. “This is what we do in Israel.”
The village sits on 86 acres in the Lower Galilee on land donated by the state, and Topol, who recently turned 81, couldn’t be prouder of what it has have achieved. He spends two days a week there, interacting with the children, singing and playing with them. When asked how it feels to see the children enjoying themselves he says simply, “I cry.”
And how does it feel to see his vision come alive? “I cry some more.”
He adds: “The children have a wonderful time. These are very sick children, suffering from very bad illnesses. They never get to leave home. It’s an opportunity for them to become more independent.
“They meet other children who are suffering from the same illnesses, so they are not lonely in their misery. They share their experience, and they co-exist unbelievably well.”
One of the diseases the village caters to is an hereditary blood disorder called Thalassemia; 80 per cent of the sufferers are Arab.
“The first time we had a session for these children, we saw on the list that there were lots of Arab children, and the few Jewish children on the list were from ultra-Orthodox families,” Topol says. “We thought, maybe we’d made a mistake.
“So we called them and said, ‘Listen, you are welcome to come, but you have to know that you will be with mostly Arab children.’
“And the children said to me, ‘Don’t worry, they are good friends of ours. We’ve met them in the hospital and we know who they are. They are friends’. That is life. We deal with humans. There is no religion, no politics – your origin doesn’t matter.”
Topol grew up in pre-state Palestine in a Jewish neighbourhood in Jaffa, then an Arab city. At age 17, he joined Kibbutz Geva so when he joined the IDF at age 18, he was in an army unit “full of kibbutzniks”.
As well as being commander of his IDF unit, he started acting and producing sketches that would later become the Oscar-nominated film Sallah Shabati.
After leaving the IDF, Topol started a satirical theatre called the Spring Onion. “Anyone who wanted to be in my theatre had to join my kibbutz,” he says. “But then one of my friends was killed in an accident, and we couldn’t continue without him. He was one of us. So I founded the Haifa Municipal Theatre.”
Topol recalls how he came to play Broadway’s favourite Jewish father more than 4,000 times. The US producers of Fiddler on the Roof saw Sallah Shabati and invited him to audition in 1967, not knowing he’d already played the role in Tel Aviv.
“They asked me to sing and I sang If I Were A Rich Man. Usually, after two minutes, they cut you off and say, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’. But they asked for more and more songs and then they said, ‘How do you know all the stage positions and all the movements?’ They had no idea that Tevye and I were already old friends.”
In 1968, director Norman Jewison saw Topol on the stage in London’s West End and invited him to be in the 1971 adaptation. Only 34 at the time, Topol sat in the make-up chair for two hours every morning to be ‘aged’.
During a break from the show, Topol was “incredibly lucky” to star as James Bond’s wingman in the 1981 film For Your Eyes Only. It was “a joy”, he says, because Roger Moore was “so wonderful to work with”.
With more than 30 stage and screen credits, Topol was honoured with an Israel Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Ever humble, he accepted the award by saying, “Other people deserve it more.”
As for the future, Topol is too busy with the village to think about new roles in the next few years, but will he return to a familiar part?
“I will do Fiddler again when I am 85,” he teases. “How could anyone be sick of playing Tevye?”