Israeli Women Who Led the Way in Arts and Culture
A wide array of female “firsts” in Israel have set standards, broken glass ceilings and been instrumental in helping shape the country throughout its first three-quarters of a century.
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Natalie Portman, the first Israeli to win an Academy Award, has always lived the life of a dual citizen.
The 41-year-old actress, named Neta-Lee Hershlag when she was born at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, was raised in the United States, attending Jewish day schools and speaking Hebrew at home, thanks to her Israeli father.
A ballet dancer and theater fan from an early age, when she was 10, she turned down a modeling opportunity to pursue acting. With her mother as her manager, Portman took her paternal grandmother’s maiden name as her stage name and began garnering small roles, including while enrolled at Harvard University, where she earned a degree in psychology. In 2011, she won an Oscar for best actress in the psychological thriller Black Swan.
As an adult, Portman began exploring her Israeli background publicly. She made her directorial debut with an adaptation of Amos Oz’s semi-autobiographical book A Tale of Love and Darkness, which she filmed in Israel and released in 2015. She gave her children, son Aleph and daughter Amalia, Israeli names.
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Portman has supported the Hadassah Medical Organization in fundraising video campaigns over the years and has spoken out against anti-semitism. She has also been vocally critical of some Israeli policies as well as some of the nation’s leaders.
“I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema and dance,” Portman said in 2018 when she refused to accept the Genesis Prize at an in-person ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.”
Dana International: Eurovision winner
Who she is: First transgender winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, with the song “Diva” in 1998.
Background: Age 54, Dana—whose legal name is Sharon Cohen—knew she identified as female from a young age and began performing as a drag queen before having gender-affirming surgery in her early 20s. An early dance album made her a hit in Israeli clubs, but she was initially banned from television and radio in reaction to claims that a transgender woman sends the wrong message to the nation’s youth.
Little-known fact: She wanted to become a singer since the age of 8, when she watched Israeli pop star Ofra Haza perform “Chai” at Eurovision in 1983.
Recent accomplishment: Filmed Viva la Diva (Dana Kama in Hebrew), a reality show produced by Yes Studios and Sting TV about her life.
Quote: “Live and let live—that’s what I want from people. I want to educate people to love others and accept them for who they are, not to judge.”
Shuly Natan: Singer
Who she is: First singer to perform Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold,” two weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, turning the song into a kind of national anthem of that time.
Background: Age 76; when Shemer was looking for someone to sing her latest song, her daughter heard Natan on a local folk radio show and knew she had the right voice.
Little-known fact: Natan’s parents were both Holocaust survivors who met in London and immigrated to Israel after the war when Natan was still a toddler. They spoke English and German at home, and Natan had a hard time with Hebrew as a child.
Recent accomplishment: Natan still performs with her partner, Abie Levi, a former paratrooper, singing songs with meaningful messages while he tells stories of Israel’s history.
Quote: “My mother told me to sit down,” Natan said, recalling the phone call from her mother while she was in the middle of her army service, passing on the message from Naomi Shemer. “It’s a good thing I sat down on a chair because I would have fallen over. Naomi Shemer meant exposure.”
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Jessica Steinberg is the arts and culture editor at The Times of Israel.