A star in the world of Dutch entertainment, Smadar Morag was an actress and singer who lived with her non-Jewish boyfriend and tried hard to hide her Judaism. Then, at the peak of her career, Smadar was given a role in Fiddler on the Roof. She was to play Chava, the rebellious daughter who marries a non-Jew. Playing this role, Smadar’s spark of Jewish identity was kindled.

Today, she lives in Israel and is mitzvah observant. Smadar continues to act, but the setting has changed; she no longer appears in theaters, but in synagogues, community centers and homes, and her audience is limited to women. She uses her talents for events that are in line with Jewish values—such as running a function that promotes the mitzvah of separating challah, telling the story of her life, and singing stirring Jewish songs.

The Burden of Being a Jew

Smadar was born in Israel in 1970. Her father was of Egyptian ancestry; her mother, Evelina, was originally from Holland. Evelina was a Holocaust survivor, saved because of her mother’s resourcefulness in convincing a non-Jew to adopt her. She was raised as a Christian, and was only told that she was Jewish when she was 20 years old. At that point, Evelina moved to Israel.

After Smadar and her three younger brothers were born, their parents decided to move to Holland. Though their home was traditional, Smadar didn’t feel connected to her Jewishness. She knew her mother’s entire family had been killed in the Holocaust, and felt that being Jewish was about being “different." So she did her best to be just like all her Dutch friends.

Smadar was the class clown. She was always singing and acting, whether it was in the school’s theater productions or at recess. When she was 14, Smadar’s family moved back to Israel. But Smadar didn’t acclimate well and returned to Holland when she turned 18.

Smadar lived alone in Amsterdam and decided to seek work in entertainment. She attended a theater school and lived a typical liberal student life. Disconnected from Judaism, Smadar lived with her non-Jewish boyfriend for seven years. Her parents were upset about the relationship, and her father cut off all contact with her. For seven years, Smadar didn’t return home. The lack of connection with her family left Smadar feeling abandoned and lonely, but she was determined to live her life the way she saw fit, without bowing to her parents’ expectations. After she graduated from theater school, Smadar became a successful actress, performing in many prominent shows.

Danel and Elyana Morag
Danel and Elyana Morag

Theater of the Absurd

Fasting on Yom Kippur was Smadar’s only connection to Judaism. Apart from that, she hid her Jewishness for fear that it would stand in the way of her receiving good roles.

When she auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof, Smadar was given the role of Chava, the rebellious daughter of religious parents who marries a non-Jew. The producers knew that she was Jewish and felt that her Jewish appearance would give them an excellent advantage in marketing the show.

It was the first time in her life that Smadar found a benefit in being Jewish.

Fiddler on the Roof’s Chava has a lot in common with Smadar. Both are the oldest of four children, and both decide to spend years of their lives with a non-Jew. Chava’s father tears his clothes in mourning for the loss of his daughter, and, like Smadar’s father, he severs contact with her.

While in rehearsals in her role as Chava, Smadar found herself wearing modest clothing, lighting Shabbat candles and listening to Jewish music. She also found herself answering countless questions from her non-Jewish co-actors and actresses, who wanted her to help them “get into” the story. They expected Smadar to give them a full understanding of what it is to be Jewish. Before Passover they even asked her to supply them with matzah. Their encouragement led her to become a more observant Jew.

Meeting Father

Smadar’s father came to the first performance of Fiddler on the Roof. She was very surprised and touched. Her father’s childhood dream had been to become an actor and singer, but his life hadn’t worked out that way, and he was now living his dream vicariously through Smadar.

Smadar knew how her father would feel when he saw her acting the part of Chava. When Chava says to her father, Tevye, that she has chosen to marry a non-Jew, Tevye decides to act as though she is dead. After the performance, Smadar’s father came to see her and, by way of breaking the ice, said, “Do you see? Tevye agrees with me.”

After opening night, Smadar was interviewed by all the Dutch media. They all wanted to feature the Jew who performed in the show. Smadar was famous.

A Performance of Fiddler on the Roof. Smadar is on the left.
A Performance of Fiddler on the Roof. Smadar is on the left.

An Earthquake

On August 17, 1999, an earthquake shook Turkey. Tens of thousands died. Smadar was deep into filming a reality show (Tehilla) when her mother called to tell her the news: Smadar’s father’s family—his sister, her husband, their son and daughter-in-law and their two children—were killed in the earthquake.

Smadar left the film set to attend the funerals of her aunt’s family. Her father took the tragedy very hard. He said that his wife had survived one Holocaust and this was his Holocaust. Smadar then returned to Holland to extricate herself from her long-term relationship with her boyfriend.

He’s Religious and She’s Not

Smadar met Yigal at a party for Israelis. They hit it off right away, and six months later, in 2002, they married.

A few months after the wedding, Yigal became interested in Torah and mitzvahs. Smadar would have none of it. Previously, when kippah-wearing men had been suggested to her as dates, she had refused to meet them. She was disappointed in Yigal. His budding connection to Judaism felt like a betrayal.

Yigal didn’t pressure her to change or to start keeping mitzvahs, but Smadar did her utmost to convince him to return to being the irreligious man she’d married. It didn’t work. Yigal became increasingly religious.

Two years later, Smadar became pregnant, but the differences between her and her husband were growing. He was keeping Shabbat and going to the synagogue; she was spending Shabbat acting in theaters and on television.

“What kept us together in the end was our respect for each other and our excellent communication. He respected me even though I was not religious. I had less respect for his mitzvah observance, but I loved him anyway.”

Smadar gave birth to their firstborn son, Danel, and took a year and a half off work to spend time with him. But the feelings of terror she had experienced after the destruction of her father’s family in the Turkish earthquake resurfaced after the birth. She went for psychotherapy, and at the same time started discussing her fears with her husband. She saw faith as the best remedy for fear, so they began discussing faith regularly. As a result, Smadar grew much stronger emotionally and learned to cope.

Smadar on a cooking show aired on the Hidabroot channel
Smadar on a cooking show aired on the Hidabroot channel

A Fateful Shabbat in a Hotel

Smadar continued to act in shows on Shabbat. One week, her husband suggested that they spend some time together in a hotel over Shabbat. “We went to a hotel in Belgium, where I was acting. My husband brought everything: a hot plate, candles, a Shabbat kettle, meals and dishes. I saw the effort he made to spend Shabbat with me. I was appearing in The Jungle Book, which was geared to families, so it ended early. After the show, all the performers went to a restaurant, and they invited me, but I went back to my hotel room. I was enchanted by what I saw. A white tablecloth had been spread on the table I’d used while applying my makeup a few hours ago. The candles were lit, and there was an incredible smell wafting from the food on the hot plate. Danel was sleeping, and we made Kiddush, washed our hands and ate. I was hypnotized. I felt like my husband had brought Shabbat to me. I experienced the special connection Shabbat makes between the members of a family, and everything in me that was antagonistic began to fade.” Shortly after that, Smadar decided to keep Shabbat.

The Revolution Is Complete

The theater world didn’t take well to Smadar's refusing to work on Shabbat. She lost her main source of income and had to think of creative ways to continue working as an actress and singer while keeping Shabbat.

“I became a freelance actress and a moderator on television,” she says.

At the same time, Smadar continued to become more religious. She went to Torah lectures and became friendly with people in the religious community. After a while, she began keeping more mitzvahs, such as kosher, modest dress, and family purity.

At the height of their teshuvah (returning to their Jewish roots), Yigal and Smadar decided to move to Israel. They didn’t want to raise Danel in Holland, where skullcaps and other signs of Jewish identity had to be hidden. Immediately before Passover, the holiday celebrating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, the Morags told their parents that they were moving to Israel.

Epilogue

A few months ago, Smadar attended a wedding in Kfar Chabad, where she met Rabbi Biyomin Jacobs, a Chabad emissary in Holland. Smadar had known Rabbi Jacobs since she was a little girl. “Rabbi Jacobs had been part of my life forever, but we hadn’t run into each other since I became religious. When we were little kids living in Holland, we were in a Christian school. My parents asked the Chabad rabbi to come once every two weeks to teach us a little about Judaism.

“The rabbi came every two weeks. He travelled a long way to teach two children about Judaism, at no charge. Later, when I was living a non-Jewish lifestyle, he came to my house to have a heart-to-heart talk. He didn’t try to convince me to leave my boyfriend, because he knew I’d throw him out of the house. He just asked that I make every effort to patch up my relationship with my father and show him some respect, as Jewish law demands."

Lecturing to women
Lecturing to women

Rabbi Jacob's recognized her and was amazed to see the changes she had made in her life, as well as the two young children at her side. He told her, "Who would have believed that you would become religious, move to Israel, and raise two children as Jews?!"

“I was lucky,” Smadar says today. “It’s true that I no longer appear on stage in front of thousands of people as I used to, and I’m not a star like I was in Holland. But I’m doing what I love. I’m making women happy, singing, acting, doing stand-up, and getting incredible, warm feedback.

“I used to be a theater star, but the satisfaction and the joy I get now from doing a challah workshop in someone’s home is far greater. I know that I’m doing something that has a real spiritual effect. I’m not working to satisfy my ego or for fame, but because I have a mission.”