Valerie Harper isn’t Jewish, but it’s understandable that so many people think she is. She left an indelible mark —and won four Emmy Awards—as Rhoda Morgenstern, the quintessential New York Jewish woman: smart, sassy, edgy, opinionated, neurotic, strong and vulnerable. Rhoda was so real, so multi-dimensional, that many viewers leapt to the conclusion that Harper, too, was Jewish. And, although she has played a variety of roles on TV, film and in theatre in a career spanning almost 40 years, each Jewish character she portrays, including Marjorie Taub in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, reinforces the mistaken perception of her ethnicity.
Now Harper is touring the country as the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, William Gibson’s acclaimed one-woman play that ran for 493 performances on Broadway and earned accolades for Tovah Feldshuh. The tour, which began last month, plays Ft. Lauderdale, Detroit and Milwaukee in November. “I saw this show in February in Los Angeles, and I thought it was an extraordinary evening and a wonderful work,” says Harper, “but I never thought for a second that I’d be doing it. And about a month-and-a-half later, I got the call. It’s interesting that I get offered all these Jewish parts; I guess I’m drawn to them. I love playing Golda. The interest in her is phenomenal, and for good reason: She was one of the towering figures of the 20th century. She looked like a grandma, but she was a great statesman.”
Harper is no stranger to one-woman plays or portraying historical women. In 1998 she co-authored and starred Off-Broadway in All Under Heaven, playing Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. But Buck was not a constant presence on the nightly news, so audiences had no preconceptions about how she sounded or what she looked like. As Golda Meir, Harper feels an obligation to capture the qualities that remain familiar to many people.
“I’m not doing an imitation, but I want to get as close as I can and communicate clearly and succeed in the play,” she says. “I watched tons of tapes, and I learned a lot about her mannerisms, her tonal quality. She’s very clear, very definitive. When I saw Tovah do the show, she did a Milwaukee accent, a distinctly Midwestern sound, and it was very interesting. When I listen to Golda, I can hear the hint of Yiddish from her first eight years. For instance, she says goink—with a soft k, not a hard one—just a hint. She says ‘Sahviet miss-isles’ rather than Soviet missiles. Her mannerisms happen to be wonderful for the theatre. And her voice is a contralto, a nice burgundy sound. I’ve worked hard on getting it right because I think it’s important. She’s so famous, and the older people remember." Harper herself is a longtime admirer of Golda Meir. “I’ve been a fan of hers for years,” she says. “In 1967 I went with Jewish friends to a rally for Israel in Madison Square Garden. We were there praying because of the Six-Day War. I was a Zionist before I even knew I was. Growing up, my mother would tell me about the terrible things that happened to the Jews in the camps, and that now they had their own country and they’re working hard and it’s very tough. I also have wonderful friends like Zvi Almog, who’s a real Sabra, born in Israel, and Ron Rifkin and his wife Iva, who have taught me so much.
“So,” she adds with a laugh, “I have gotten an education like maybe other shiksas have not.”