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Valerie Harper: ‘Jewish in my heart’

Valerie Harper“Hello, is this Miss Valerie Harper?”

“No, this is Val. Are you my little interviewer? Hi darling. Listen, could you do me a big favor and call me back in exactly five minutes? Thanks, hon.”

After the minute hand makes five rotations, the California number is redialed.

“I’m so sorry,” says Harper, who answers the phone quickly. “We’re having an estate sale. You know, selling this and that. Here, let me close the door.”

The 69-year-old actress’ voice is the spitting vocal image of Rhoda Morgenstern, the popular role she honed to perfection on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1974) and the spinoff “Rhoda” (1974-1978).

Rhoda, a wisecracking, secular New York Jew, was perhaps the first female Jewish character of her kind in television history. Not merely a comedic device for laughs, she was a star in her own right.

Harper, who is not Jewish — a fact that continues to shock her fans — continued plying her comedic and dramatic acting talents on stage, screen and TV after her run as Rhoda concluded.

In 2006, Harper starred in the first Broadway touring production of “Golda’s Balcony,” playwright William Gibson’s one-woman tour de force about the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

The following year, she took center stage in the critically acclaimed film version of “Golda’s Balcony,” directed by Jeremy Kagan.

The road from her birthplace in Severn, NY, where she was raised in a Catholic-Methodist home, to portraying these iconic Jewish women was not a great leap for Harper.

“I always had this neshama for some reason,” she says, intermittently suggesting a price to a woman helping with the estate sale. “Living in New York, I always had Jewish friends. And they have been my closest friends. They are my chosen family.”

When she auditioned for Rhoda, Harper incorporated traits from Penny Anne Green, with whom she danced professionally in the early years, and her stepmother Angela Posillico, who had an Italian accent.

“Jewish New Yorkers are very similar to American Italian New Yorkers,” she says. “They share a certain attitude, a joie de vivre, a ‘don’t mess with me’ kind of thing. It’s great for the comedy mill.”

Harper attributes Rhoda’s edgy and often self-deprecating sense of humor to the show’s writers. “The writing was fantastic, the jokes were wonderful. I just learned how to deliver them.

“You bring to the role what you know to be accurate, authentic,” she says. “And you hope you’re not doing anything over the top. I was just lucky the material was so good.”

As for her decision to tackle “Golda’s Balcony,” the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history, Harper says it was “a no brainer.”

She could perform in a great play written by William Gibson, “one of the world’s greatest playwrights.”

And there was Golda Meir herself.

“Golda’s sense of humor was so sharp, her commitment so deep. There are visionaries in this world who can inspire people. Then there are the people on the ground, the grunts who do the work. She was both.”

Valerie Harper preparing for role as Golda MeirHarper will be in Denver Sunday, Aug. 24, during the Democratic National Convention, at the National Jewish Democratic Council’s open house and reception, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at St. Catejan’s Church on the Auraria Campus.

The film “Golda’s Balcony” will be screened at the event.

Harper’s physical transformation into Golda Meir required a three-hour makeup session before every performance, in addition to studying tapes and listening to the prime minister’s speeches.

“I tried to replicate her, but I didn’t want this to be a caricature,” Harper says.

Additional help, both subtle and pragmatic, came from her Jewish friends.

The dancer Penny Anne Green, one of Harper’s role models for Rhoda, was married to a sabra who knew Meir personally.

“He knew how she moved, how she smoked. He tutored me in the Hebrew pronunciation and the American Hebrew accent.”

Actor Ron Rifkin, who is married to Harper’s close friend Iva, instructed the actress in Ashkenazic Hebrew (which Meir spoke), Yiddish and certain prayers.

Harper dove into Meir — her witticisms, her family, the world she faced, the country she sustained — and emerged with a brilliant portrayal that earned praise from critics and audiences alike.

That Meir is much more than a character Harper inhabited on stage and film is evident in her insights into the woman, which flow like a Faulknerian narrative.

“The great thing about Golda,” she says, “is that her life absolutely chronicles the history of Jews in the 20th century: the pogroms in Russia, the huge wave of people coming to America — ‘your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ She was eight years old when she came here, during the burgeoning days of socialism in America.

“She ran away to Denver so she could get an education — now, who runs away for an education? She was in the third aliyah to Israel in the 1920s: malaria, mosquitoes, Arabs shooting. Then she was building the state, which was interrupted by Hitler’s horrors.

“I look at her life and see her standing on both feet for her singular purpose — the way things should be done on Planet Earth. It was all done in the spirit of tikkun olam, you know?”

Switching to Meir’s Wisconsin-laced English, Harper quotes a famous Meirism that didn’t make it into “Golda’s Balcony”:

“I can understand that the Arabs want us dead. But do they really expect us to cooperate?”

The actress laughs.

Valerie Harper as Golda Meir“Golda wasn’t religious,” she says. “But boy, was she culturally on the mark.”

Harper, who studied philosophy and social work at Hunter College and the New School for Social Work and went on her first UJA mission to Israel in 1976, has a theory about current anti-Israel sentiment.

“The world is angry that they lost their fall guy,” she says. “There’s a new guy in town called Israel. It’s still ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but with more ammunition. And I’m not talking about guns. Israel is a real power at the table of nations.

“Somehow, they kept themselves together without their own land. Are there Sumerians today? Phoenicians? No. Israel’s existence is miraculous. Brilliant.”

Someone opens the door to Harper’s room, inquiring about the price of some furniture.

“You decide,” Harper defers politely.

“Sorry,” she apologizes. “I’m talking so much! What else do you want to know?”

Throughout her career — and long before it — Harper was a committed activist. The inequities of human existence burned in her brain.

Today she’s involved with The Hunger Project, Save the Children, AFRICARE, OXFAM, and is a founder of LIFE (Love is Feeding Everyone).

She’s also a longtime supporter of women’s rights.

Harper, who says she has always been a Zionist “without even knowing the meaning of the word,” was a little girl when her mother first taught her the importance of a Jewish homeland.

“It was 1947,” Harper says. “We’re at the kitchen table, and my mother is crying. She said, ‘Valerie, something terrible happened in Europe.’ I didn’t understand, so she explained it to me in a way that I could.

“‘Valerie, what if all these cars drove by the Harper house one day and stopped at the home of Ellen Eisenberg’ — my best friend — ‘and took her away, and her brother, and her parents, and her grandmother?’

“My mom banged the table with her fist, and said, ‘The Jews need their own country so they can live, so this can’t happen again.

“‘And I said, yes, yes! I want Ellen Eisenberg to live!”

Harper is quiet, for the first time since answering the phone an hour earlier.

“So I really learned about Zionism at the kitchen table –– where so many of us learn what’s really important.”

Following her star turn in “Golda’s Balcony,” Harper played Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“Tallulah is the polar opposite of Golda,” she says of the drug-addicted celebrity. “She was who she was, and made no bones about it.”

Plans are underway to take “Looped” to Broadway next spring.

“I love the role,” she says. “It’s an exciting reach for me.”

Asked whether women still face obstacles in 21st century America, Harper sighs.

“The world has a long way to go. Rape occurs on a daily basis in Africa, Bosnia, elsewhere. So please, those who say that everything is fine should get out of my face!

“Men and women are partners on this planet,” says Harper, a wife and mother. “Women are not junior partners. It isn’t over yet.”

Because of Harper’s technical skill, people are still convinced she is Jewish.

Far from embarrassed over the confusion, she seems rather pleased.

“Little old ladies would grab my cheeks after a performance of ‘Golda’ and say, ‘Sweetheart, darling, they tell me you’re not Jewish. Say it isn’t so!’

“So I tell them I am Jewish — in my heart.”

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IJN Senior Writer | [email protected]

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