Noa Tishby: Actress, Superstar TV Producer, Informal Ambassador, #HotIsraeliGirl
The woman responsible for ‘In Treatment’ on living in the diaspora, defending Israel, and grabbing a cigarette with a general
On Dec. 16, Noa Tishby posted a photo on Instagram. It consisted of four panels backstage at Gindi Tel Aviv Fashion Week, each with Tishby grinning radiantly, and one each alongside supermodels Bar Rafaeli and Esti Ginsburg. “Hashtag #HotIsraeligirls,” Tishby said to me aloud, recalling how she tagged the photo. She added, “In case you had any kind of vision of what an Israeli looks like, look at them.”
Or at her, a binational actress-singer-model-turned producer who has determinedly made it her project to burnish Israel’s image in every possible platform, above all online and on TV. Tishby’s followers—31,000 on Instagram, 45,000 on Twitter—might not see it, but this is rarely an easy job. What was left out of that photo caption was that the event in question took place a few weeks after Operation Pillar of Defense, and its marquee designer, Missoni, had cited the security situation in pulling out. The show, which Tishby hosted, went on: “The whole Israeli fashion industry rallied,” she said, along with the models.
Rallying for the country was also the plan on the January night at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, where Tishby was hosting a dinner for former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, who is on the board of Tishby’s Act for Israel organization, which describes itself as a “leading digital platform for pro-Israel activism.”
Tishby now even describes her best-known deal as a producer—in 2008, selling the rights of the Israeli show Be’tipul and producing its Emmy and Golden Globe-winning HBO adaptation, In Treatment—as serving both her career and her country. “I said to my business manager that it would change the perception of Israel in Hollywood,” she said with some satisfaction. To the L.A. Jewish Journal she wondered more bluntly if people watching adapted Israeli shows might eventually be “thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages.’ ”
Not that her work is purely for the politics. “Noa has a lot of passion for the creative process,” said Richard Plepler, the chief executive officer of HBO, to whom Tishby sold Be’tipul, and who calls her a friend. “I think she has a very keen antenna for the zeitgeist and for what would resonate in American culture at this particular time. She has taste and she has a discerning eye for quality, and so that obviously in our opinion at HBO made her somebody that we would take very seriously.”
Tishby had agreed to meet me for tea before the dinner at the Peninsula. The lobby, decked out in a studied East Coast version of luxury, was teeming with Israelis independently of her event. Tishby first arrived in the Los Angeles in 2000 to launch her career as a singer and actress but found herself, at first informally, playing another role.
“Coming to the U.S. and realizing that people’s perceptions of Israel were totally skewed came as a shock to me,” she said. “The existence of anti-Semitism came as a shock to me. Now it’s called anti-Zionism, by the way.”
We’d only just begun talking, and Tishby, who even as she projects brash confidence is often cagey and careful, seemed to sense impending risk. She narrowed her pale hazel-green eyes. “We’re going straight to the heavy shit,” she intoned, worried. If Tishby is gun-shy, it may be because being a local girl made good from Israel, with its ambivalent relationship to expatriates and the diaspora, is a complex matter.
“Lots of celebrities are afraid to be affiliated with Israel,” Sagi Balasha of the Israeli Leadership Council, which has partnered with Tishby’s organization, said to me later that night. “I don’t think Israel has a better ambassador than her.” And even the ones who embrace advocacy can find themselves under a skeptical eye back home. “Maybe it’s your Zionist guilt over not living here? A need to be loved?” Maariv asked her in 2010. “People said, ‘Who is this fakatza?’ ” Tishby acknowledged, using the Hebrew word for airhead or bimbo. “ ‘Who is she to speak on my behalf? Who does she think she is?’ ”
Tishby has been subject to this sort of incredulous condescension from the start of her career. “There’s a 21-year-old Israeli lady who definitely doesn’t want to be taken seriously as a national world leader,” read the lead of a 1996 Jerusalem Post item, “but she is being taken seriously as a major babe in the male adolescent set.” Tishby, it explained, was playing “the resident bad girl” on the Israeli soap opera Ramat Aviv Gimmel—”where she generally wears a sneer and some very tight clothes.” (The writer of the story was agog that Tishby had launched a personal website, a prescient move.)
At the audition for Ramat Aviv Gimmel, which would later become Israel’s first primetime soap, Tishby, still in the army doing the equivalent of a USO tour, had thrown the suggested text on the floor and improvised. Her reward was the adult female lead. “I played the main bitch on the show,” she told me. “Apparently I have a face for it.” The show was a far cry from the sophisticated material Tishby would later make her name selling to Hollywood, but it worked. “Within a day it was the most successful thing to ever happen to Israel television,” Tishby said. Almost immediately, she recalled, she and her co-stars “could not walk down the street.”
It wasn’t long before she had a No. 1 album and a slew of modeling campaigns, despite the fact that she was, by celebrity standards, “curvy.” She was prodded her whole life to lose weight, she says, and it took her until her thirties to make peace with her body. “The older I get the more naked I get,” she said. Her body, she added, “is for people who favor the genre.” Last year, she even posed topless on the cover of the Sexiest Women in the World issue of Blazer, the Israeli equivalent of Maxim, and she did her first sex scene in 2.3, an Israeli show about sex therapy.
There were other things she had to accept in that period as well, like the fact that the United States was full of broken promises. “When I arrived in L.A. it was like, ‘Hey, I’m a really famous girl from Israel,’ ” she told Esquire. “And they said, ‘Great! Now grab a number and get behind that really famous girl from France.’ ” Her record deal with MCA fell prey to a corporate takeover. Casting agents were indifferent. “At the time, I was like, my life is over,” she told me. “I’ve never known myself to not be successful. For me to have those years of struggle like L.A. knows to give you really meant redefining, who am I without success?”
She eventually booked a few acting jobs, including a role on the Drew Carey Show, on the Matthew McConaughey movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and a small recurring one on HBO’s Big Love. But around 2007, she found her calling in producing. She’d dabbled in it for years in Israel, starting with the beloved musical, Yaron Kafkafi’s David, that she’d starred in as a teen. (She’s currently working on bringing it to Broadway.)
But it was In Treatment that would be the big break. It racked up awards and critical praise, landed Tishby a co-executive producer role, and helped build the template for her next professional step. It’s a more commercial form of ambassadorship between Israel (which has the talent and the content) and the United States (which has the money and the audience).
“It’s the worst-kept secret in town that Israel is one of the best content creators in the world,” she told me. Since the wild success of Homeland—co-written by Tishby’s friend Gideon Raff—it’s worse kept than ever. To date, Tishby has sold about a dozen shows.
Israeli shows thrive, Tishby says, because creators have to please a hyperliterate, hypercritical audience, but “there’s no money. You cannot create your product based on explosions or car chases. If your show or movie doesn’t have great characters, great story lines, great script, it’s not going to make it to air. And the competition is fierce because there are essentially only three channels you can sell your show to.”
There is also creative freedom and rawness that is unheard of in American television, meaning shows often require dilution in adaptation. Even at famously creator-friendly HBO, some finessing was necessary. “In the adaptation of In Treatment we had to take out a lot of screaming,” Tishby says. “We had to explain to them why in Israel you could scream at your therapist.” (Answer: Because you can scream at anyone.)
Though Tishby came from a left-leaning family and is the granddaughter of Israel’s first ambassador to South Africa, her initial Israeli superstardom wasn’t particularly political. The real turning point, she said, was the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010. “I went on Twitter and saw what was going on,” she said. “The message that was already forming was Israel killed peace fighters. I know the Israeli military. I served in the Israeli military. That’s not what happened. That’s not the commands that we get. So, I just went on Twitter and I started answering people and fighting back. And I didn’t get up for a week.”
Her fellow Israeli star Bar Refaeli had a trickier time on social media. Refaeli, already controversial in the country for not serving in the army, was widely castigated on Israeli social media for a Tweet during the November Gaza conflict that would have seemed anodyne to the uninitiated: “i prey [sic] for the safety of the citizens on both sides and for the day we will live in peace and harmony Amen.” In the furor that followed at her apparent equivalence of Palestinians and Israelis, Tishby urged people on Twitter to “please leave Bar alone.” Meanwhile, her own well-circulated speech at a pro-Israel rally in L.A. defended Israel’s actions in the conflict: “We are doing what needs to be done. We are forced to be doing it.”
Even as American discussions of Israel’s actions are ever more polarized, Tishby shies away from right-left identification. “Obviously I’m extremely liberal about everything that has to do with human rights. Like all of it,” she said, referring back to the pro-gay rights NOH8 campaign she’d done a photo shoot for the day before. “But I’m very hawkish when it comes to radicalism around the world. So, what would you call me? I think Americans do not understand what we’re dealing with here.”
That caution extends to the Israeli domestic context. Within the past few years, she has met with both Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman. Asked if politicians sought her endorsement, she answers in monosyllables, saying they did but that she doesn’t plan to get involved. “I feel like my stand for Israel needs to be bipartisan even within Israel. I want to be clear to the Israeli public that I support the country,” she said. That’s true whether speaking publicly in the States or bringing over American luminaries—the stars of CSI, the boy entrepreneurs of the Summit Series—to see Israel for themselves.
“I don’t criticize Israelis,” Tishby told me. “I will try to shed light on what the reality is from outside of Israel, in terms of the perception of it.” She does express some frustration to me that “what we’re doing right now is winning the battle and losing the war. The war is a Jewish democratic state. Without solving the Palestinian issue, there is no chance for that. I don’t understand why this isn’t becoming a narrative of the right in Israel, why it’s only an issue of the left. It’s almost jingoistic in its essence.”
Brig. General Yoav “Poly” Mordechai, the IDF”s spokesperson, told Tablet that Tishby had surprised him by reaching out for coffee two years ago and offering her assistance on social media and hasbara free of charge. “Noa is proof of just how much one person can accomplish,” he wrote in an email. “Her ideas and recommendations were implemented during Operation Pillar of Defense, during which social media was used to provide a real-time picture of the challenges facing Israel and the IDF.”
“I always say, where do you think I’m from, and I always get anything but Israel,” Tishby said at a corner table at the Belvedere, the Peninsula’s restaurant, after the off-the-record dinner with Ashkenazi. I asked her when she lost her accent in English, and she said she never had one. There is, curiously since she’s never lived there, a trace of New York in her diction, as in “I undastand.” She is compulsively absorptive, and when she was married to an Australian television presenter—in 2011, the couple announced on Twitter that they had divorced “mutually and amicably”—she struggled not to pick up the accent in his home country. “I have to remind myself: Don’t become a douchebag,” she said.
She had changed into a sheer black tunic for the dinner, accented by an elaborate Michal Negrin pendant, and her eyes were dramatically lined. She was exhausted, at something of a crossroads of her life and living in a furnished rental with a Marilyn Monroe theme. In it the next day, apparently tiring of questions about her career and life, she would go on an 11-minute monologue about the 701-page book she had just read about T.E. Lawrence, about her passion for reading books and consuming news, and say of herself, “I’m such a geek.”
The Belvedere was a room of muted colors and voices, but from the next table, Ashkenazi shouted her name, and for a moment she returned his brusque fire. “Ma atta tzoek?” she scoffed—what are you screaming for? (Answer: Because you can scream at anyone.)
More specifically, though, Ashkenazi wanted to share another smoke break. The pre-dinner one had taken place a few feet away from a sign politely stating that it was a smoke-free zone. “Yalla,” Tishby said to me. “Let’s go smoke with the general.”
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