Shraga Friedman (February 25, 1924 – July 12, 1970) was a versatile artist of many talents, who left an indelible mark on the Israeli cultural scene. An actor, who felt at home in both dramatic as well as comedic roles, writer, translator, director and star of a variety of radio programs, Shraga’s creative force was manifested on the stage, screen and radio.
Born in Pre WWII Warsaw, he and his family were forced to flee their Nazi-invaded hometown in 1939, making their way through Vilna, Moscow, Odessa, Istanbul and Beirut, before finally landing in Haifa in 1941.
Shraga attended Herzliyah Gymnasium in Tel-Aviv (named after Theodore Herzl, the visionary of the State of Israel, where Hebrew was the teaching language), taking part in the school’s drama group. He later served in the Watchmen forces, performing with their entertainment troupe. In 1945, he was accepted to the first class which had just opened at the dramatic school of Habimah National Theater – one of the first Hebrew theaters in the world. One of his classmates was a talented actress, also a refugee who had fled Nazi Germany, named Shoshana Ravid. She later became Shraga’s wife and mother of their three children – Danny, Amos and Yael.
In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Shraga, together with a few of his Habimah classmates, created a military entertainment troupe, of which he was the artistic director. From 1947, when he was 23 years old and until his death, at 46, Shraga acted and directed at Habimah, performing in dramatic productions like “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “Cry The Beloved Country”, “The Caine Mutiny”, “The Visit of the Old Lady”, as well as musical ones, like “Three Penny Opera” and “Oliver”. Having served as assistant to directors of renown like Harold Clurman, Leopold Lindberg and Lee Strassberg, who visited Habimah from Europe and the United States, enabled Shraga to expand the scope of his stage activities, and become a director. He co-directed musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof”, Yiddish shows by the comedy duo of Dzigan and Schumacher as well as the Burstyn family (featuring Mike Burstyn and his parents), and a rich repertoire of original Hebrew plays. His deep, mellow baritone is also heard on more than 100 radio plays and records, including “Peter and the Wolf”, “A Soldier’s Story”, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and many others. Well-versed in both Hebrew, Yiddish and English, Shraga co-translated plays like “My Fair Lady” from English into Hebrew, translated “Fiddler on the Roof” from English into Yiddish and the poems of Itzik Manger from Yiddish into Hebrew.
Following his death, at the age of 46, from a sudden heart attack, the family established a fund in his name at the drama school of Beit Zvi – which now also bears the name of his wife Shoshana, who had since passed away – which offers annual awards to outstanding drama students.
In “Actors Epilog”, the noted Israeli art, theater and film critic, Uri Kessari, remembered Shraga’s astounding ability to adapt with great flexibility to every genre, format, style and character he was called upon to portray. In “The Visit of the Old Lady”, Shraga was cast in a tiny role, which turned into a performance that every beginning actor could only learn from. As Casca, he stole the show from Julius Caesar. Kessari points out how masterfully Shraga built his characters, much like an architect would build a house. He could humbly “shrink” himself when playing next to Sophia Lauren, in the film “Judith” (which was filmed in Israel), or go wild in “Hello Dolly”.
Michael Ohad, head of the Drama Department at Kol Israel (the original Israeli broadcasting service) recalled how Shraga was the first to prove that Yiddishkeit did not die with the establishment of the state of Israel. Yet, when an independent producer offered him the role of Tevye, in an international production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, Shraga had to decline the offer, out of loyalty to his home theater, Habimah.
Shraga’s friend, Professor Michael Feldman, remembered how euphoric Shraga was when he first listened to the American record of “Fiddler”, which he had just received: “His face lit up, and you could see how in his mind he envisioned the entire production as he would put it together.”
His death occurred in his car, while driving to a rehearsal, where he was to be the one in charge. But, when he felt that his heart “was trying to say something”, he changed his course, drove himself to the clinic, where he was no longer in charge. He died behind the curtains, with no audience, no cheers or ovations. As Kessari wrote, “Up until the moment before last, Shraga the director still directed Shraga the actor.”