(JNS) Israel being the special place that it is – steeped in history, religious significance and cutting-edge technological innovation – it’s not surprising that many A-list celebrities, business executives and world leaders have come to visit over the past 74 years of the state’s existence. But some well-known personalities have ties to the nation that are unexpected and even amusing. That’s the theme of the list we’ve compiled below in honor of Israeli Independence Day, this year Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated on May 5.
When actress, animal-rights activist and former Playboy model Pamela Anderson wed film producer Rick Salomon (for the second time) in January 2014, she chose to honeymoon in Israel. Anderson had previously been in Israel in 2010 as a guest judge in the local version of “Dancing with the Stars.” In 2017, at a fundraiser for Friends of the IDF, Anderson said, “Israel is magical. It is one of my favorite places to be. A mixture of old and new, arts, music, freedom. The people of Israel are interesting, aware and generous. You can see they are very sensitive to the world’s problems. Israel is a place everyone must experience.”
This TV actress, neuroscientist, mommy blogger and “Jeopardy!” host has traveled many times to Israel for pleasure and business. One place on her family itinerary is Tel Aviv’s Bialik House, home of her great-grandfather’s first cousin Chaim Nachman Bialik, who was a pioneer of modern Israeli poetry. Bialik reported that her two sons love the Armored Corps Museum in Latrun, spending time on a kibbutz and eating hummus.
In a lighthearted moment during Bialik’s 2018 trip to Israel to speak at the sixth annual Forum for Combatting Antisemitism, she accepted then-President Reuven Rivlin’s request to pose for a picture like Sheldon and Amy, two characters on her hit show “The Big Bang Theory.”
American country music icon Johnny Cash visited Israel five times. He first came in 1966 on a religious pilgrimage, and returned in 1968 with his new wife, June Carter Cash. This second trip inspired a Christian-themed concept album, “The Holy Land,” featuring tracks such as “Land of Israel,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Come to the Wailing Wall.” Cash’s 1969 album “Johnny Cash at San Quentin” includes a segment in which Cash speaks of his experiences in Israel and introduces the song “He Turned the Water into Wine,” which he wrote on the way to Tiberias. Cash returned in 1971 to work on the narration of the film “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus.” He was back in 1990 to film “Return to the Promised Land.”
Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen was an avowed pacifist. Yet he ended up entertaining Israeli troops on the front lines of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as described in Matti Friedman’s new book, Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.
Cohen came to Israel following a falling out with his girlfriend in the Greek isles. He didn’t know Hebrew and he didn’t know anyone in Israel. He wandered around Tel Aviv, where he was recognized by Israeli singers Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi and Ilana Rovina.
They invited him to accompany them to the Sinai Desert to entertain troops preparing for an Egyptian attack.
Later, Cohen described the experience: “We would just drop into little places, like a rocket site, and they would shine their flashlights at us and we would sing a few songs. Or they would give us a jeep and we would go down the road towards the front and wherever we saw a few soldiers waiting for a helicopter or something like that we would sing a few songs. And maybe back at the airbase we would do a little concert, maybe with amplifiers. It was very informal, and you know, very intense.” On one occasion, Caspi reported, “We found ourselves helping to carry injured soldiers to waiting helicopters. These were the same soldiers we had performed for only a few hours earlier.”
Cohen wrote the original version of his hit “Lover, Lover, Lover” during one of these shows, and the experience inspired other songs, such as “Field Commander Cohen,” “There is a War,” and “Who by Fire.”
Cohen’s final concert in Israel was in 2009, when he was in his mid-70s. He concluded his performance by bestowing the traditional priestly blessing (Birkat Kohanim) on the audience.
SACHA BARON COHEN
Born in London to a religious Jewish family, Sacha Baron Cohen was eager to immerse himself in Israeli society during a gap-year program with the Zionist youth group Habonim Dror. He spent his first year out of high school volunteering at Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, the northern-most on Israel’s Mediterranean coastline, and Kibbutz Beit HaEmek. A friend who attended a seminar with him in Israel remembered that: “He was really very nerdy, he didn’t hang out with the girls, but we were literally crying from laughter because he was so funny. I remember thinking how talented he was, and very, very smart, a genius, really.” Cohen’s maternal grandmother lived in Bat Yam and he came in 2014 for her funeral.
In 1992, American supermodel Cindy Crawford came to Israel for a photo shoot for Capezio handbags. While she was here, she posed for some steamy snapshots with Israeli soldiers, accepted an invitation to a random boy’s bar mitzvah, and planted a kiss on the (clearly uncomfortable) face of Dani Angel, owner of famed Angel Bakery chain.
DiCaprio has made many investments in Israel over the years, most recently in cultivated meat startup Aleph Farms. Not all his Israeli investments have paid off. He lost the money he put into social media company Mobli, which shut down in 2016. And his “investment” in his much-publicized on-again-off-again romance with supermodel Bar Refaeli also eventually fizzled. On a 2007 visit to Israel, where he and Refaeli visited sites such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of DiCaprio’s bodyguards assaulted some photographers, who filed a police complaint against him.
Now prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson backpacked around Israel in 1984, when he was 20. He stopped to visit his older sister, Rachel Johnson, who was volunteering on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, north of the Sea of Galilee. Johnson spent 10 days on this kibbutz, mainly helping in the central laundry. Kibbutz member Alec Collins told Haaretz that Johnson “was a highly motivated, serious man… . He wanted to see what there is in the land of Israel… not just one place.”
This remarkable deaf and blind writer and social activist came to Israel for 15 days in 1952 as part of a tour on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. She told the children at Kibbutz Degania, “I can’t see you, but I feel you. I know that you are happy, because you are in your homeland, which is being rebuilt.”
When she arrived at Jerusalem’s Jewish Institute for the Blind, Keller hugged and kissed the students as they handed her dozens of letters written in Braille. At Kfar Uriel, an experimental project aimed to integrate blind Yemenite immigrants into nearby workplaces, Keller communicated with immigrants and visited the local daycare.
“I leave Israel greatly impressed by everything that is being done here,” Keller said. “The flourishing cities, villages and kibbutzim that are being built, the industrial factories and the happy, healthy faces of the children and youth–they all fill my heart with faith in Israel’s prospects for future development.”
In the summer of 2019, Jennifer Lopez came to Israel to do a concert marking her 50th birthday. She brought along her then-partner, Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod), her 11-year-old twins and his two daughters. “The mother land Israel!!! First time here. I’m in love!” JLo tweeted. A-Rod posted on Instagram: “What an amazing time we are having on my first trip to Israel! The people have been wonderful and have such energy. I will definitely be back and recommend visiting this incredible country!”
Long before Madonna’s bizarrely bungled performance at Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv, the Material Girl was making pilgrimages and family trips to Israel. One of her visits was part of a Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre tour over the Rosh Hashanah holiday in 2004, whose 22 participants also included designer Donna Karan and Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Marla Maples. Madonna also gave concerts in Israel on several occasions. During her 2008-2009 “Sticky and Sweet” tour, she put an Israeli flag around her shoulders and declared Israel the “energy center of the world.”
Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren has visited Israel on several occasions. The first was a backpacking trip with her Jewish boyfriend after the 1967 Six Day War, during which she “actually slept on the beach in Eilat” and spent time at Kibbutz Ha’on in northern Israel. Mirren, who plays Golda Meir in an upcoming biopic directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, claims to “love Israel” and describes it as a “great, great country.” “My visit to Israel in those early days was … absolutely a part of the building blocks that have made me into the actress that I am, doing the kind of work that I do, that I seek to do, and the way in which I seek to do it,” she said upon being honored at the 29th Israel Film Festival in Beverly Hills in 2015.
American television host, comedian and producer Conan O’Brien fell in love with shakshuka, the iconic Israeli egg-and-tomato-sauce breakfast dish, on his maiden voyage to Israel in the summer of 2017. At the end of his first full day in Israel, he tweeted from Tel Aviv that “all the men are incredibly buff and the women are beautiful.” He dropped by a youth hackathon, visited Syrian refugees being treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, played matkot on the Tel Aviv beach, danced and chatted with Palestinian Arab teens and shopkeepers, picnicked with an Israeli-Arab family in Jaffa, had a fake bar mitzvah at a Tel Aviv synagogue, and even visited actress Gal Gadot (“the nicest superwoman I’ve ever met”) at home in Tel Aviv.
In October 1994, Prince Philip became the first royal to visit the Holy Land. He and his sister, Princess Sophie, attended a ceremony at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center to celebrate their mother, Princess Alice, being honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for saving three members of a Jewish family during the Nazi invasion in Greece. The Duke of Edinburgh planted a maple tree during the ceremony in his mother’s honor, and then he and his sister visited the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem where Princess Alice is buried.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld came to Israel in 2007 to promote “Bee Movie” and he performed stand-up shows in Israel in 2015 and 2017. But he’d been in Israel way before his celebrity days, as a kibbutz volunteer at age 16. “It was eight weeks in Israel… Of course I had to work, which I didn’t,” he told The Times of Israel in November 2017. “I was supposed to be chopping dead banana leaves. I couldn’t do it – it was exhausting. … When I go to Israel, I of course go back to that time. I just feel very close to Israel.” During his 2017 visit, he brought his family.
In 1962, this famed songster visited Israel for the first time, performing in six cities as part of his multinational World Tour for Children. He sang at the official Independence Day event in Tel Aviv and sat beside Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Gen. Moshe Dayan on the reviewing stand. In 1964, he dedicated the Frank Sinatra Brotherhood and Friendship Center for Arab and Israeli Children in Nazareth.
Sinatra returned to Israel often over the years, even celebrating his 80th birthday in Eilat along with friends including Lee Iacocca and Walter Matthau. But his first brush with Israel was in March 1948, when future mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek was in New York on a clandestine mission to send weapons to the fledging state, which was under attack from five Arab nations, despite a U.S. arms embargo. A ship full of munitions was waiting to sail, but how could Kollek transfer the cash needed when federal agents were tailing him? Spontaneously, he shared his secret dilemma with Sinatra, whom he met one night at the bar of his hotel. “And in the early hours of the following morning I walked out the front door of the building with a satchel, and the Feds followed me,” Kollek told the authors of the biography Sinatra: The Life: “Out the back door went Frank Sinatra, carrying a paper bag filled with cash [estimated at $1 million]. He went down to the pier, handed it over, and watched the ship sail.”
As far as we know, Will Smith did not slap anybody during his 2006 trip to Israel with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. In fact, after watching a film about assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Jaffa, the visibly moved Hollywood star told reporters, “I am inspired beyond my ability to articulate… and now I know what and who I want to be… a soldier for peace.” At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Smith shook hands with a startled bar mitzvah boy, placed a note into a crack in the ancient wall and prayed there for a few minutes. In 2017, Smith made a surprise visit to Jerusalem during the filming of “Aladdin” in Jordan. He touched the stones of the Western Wall and called it “a very spiritual, very powerful place.”
The Brooklyn-born diva has long supported Israel and Israeli causes, such as the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1968, she was awarded the Israel Freedom Medal in recognition of these efforts. Of her many trips to Israel, the most famous was probably in June 2013, when she came to perform at Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday celebration. During that trip, she also gave concerts in Tel Aviv and received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she’d dedicated the Emanuel Streisand Building, in memory of her father, in 1984. Streisand has described Israel as “a shining beacon of hope in the world.” In the video below, Streisand speaks with Golda Meir during a 1978 show, “The Stars Salute Israel at 30.”
The voluptuous violet-eyed star of the silver screen, who died in 2011, was an ardent supporter of Israel Bonds and other fundraisers for the Jewish state. Taylor visited Israel frequently, meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1976 and Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1983. In 1971, after planting a tree in the Jerusalem Forest, Taylor said, “The trees we planted with our own hands in Israel symbolize a new hope that the whole world, Christian, Jew and Arab, will live as one in harmony.” In 1977, Israel’s ambassador to the United States revealed that Taylor had offered to swap herself for Jewish and Israeli hostages held by Palestinian and German terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in July 1976.
The controversial rapper and producer came to Israel twice in 2015, first to give a concert at Ramat Gan Stadium in January, which was loved by fans and panned by critics. He returned that spring with then-wife Kim Kardashian to baptize their daughter, North West, in Jerusalem’s Saint James Cathedral.
This article was first published by Israeli21c, and was compiled with the assistance of Shai Ben-ari, Carlos Feder and Alexa Greenstein.