Was Topol a spy for Mossad?


Director Norman Jewison and actor Chaim Topol (Tevye) share a laugh on the set of the 1971 film “Fiddler on the Roof.” Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

PJ Grisar, The Forward

A world-famous Israeli actor spying for the Mossad. Sounds crazy, no?

In news that may either shock you or come as wholly unsurprising, Haaretz reports that Chaim Topol, the star of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof film and for decade’s Israel’s most famous export, wasn’t just playing Sholem Aleichem’s dairyman in his trips around the globe. Even while he was filming his supporting role in For Your Eyes Only, he was gathering confidential info.

According to his family, Topol, who died in March at the age of 87, always traveled with recording equipment and a tiny camera. Through his friendship with legendary Mossad agent Zvi Malkin, part of the team who kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, Topol used his celebrity to distract security and enter otherwise off-limits countries like China and the Soviet Union to mine intelligence for Israel’s security apparatus. On one occasion, Malkin and Topol were bugging an embassy and, when they were discovered drilling, pretended to be a dentist and a patient.

Topol also hosted Egyptian generals and even sketched maps during peace talks in the late 1970s and, during the filming of Fiddler, nearly blew his cover when his high-tech Minox camera disappeared from his rental house in Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia. (A child took it, and it was recovered so Topol was free to continue his secret spycraft into the 1980s.)

All this, of course, means that we desperately need a kind of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind-style account of Topol’s spycraft. And, naturally, it needs to be a musical, with Fiddler-adjacent tunes titled “Suspicion” (a la “Tradition,” in which Topol is almost discovered) and “Watchmaker” (a riff on “Matchmaker” and an ode to a Q-type character who assembles Topol’s gadgets). But for now we’ll focus on course, Topol’s Act I “I Want” song, wherein he lays out his desire to serve his country. Lyrics are as follows and, no, I will not be taking notes:  

‘If I were a Hitman’ (to the tune of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’)

If I were a Hitman
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
All day long I’d wiretap the Sauds
If I was in the Mossad!

I wouldn’t have to work hard
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
If I were biddy biddy spydle didle man

I’d drill a tiny hole in a wall for surveillance
Next door to an embassy
Me and that dude from Operation Finale.
And if we got caught we’d just pretend to
Be engaged in dental surgery
“Topol, open wider just for me!”

I’d spy on Russia and China and Lebanon and Syria
With my most affable air
Performing matinees at the same time.
And each “bravo” and “wow” and “can you sign my Playbill, guy?”
Would endear me beyond reproach
As if to say “how could he be a spy?”

If I were a hitman
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
All day long I’d swallow microfilm
If I was a biddy biddy spydle didle man

I’d draw maps, freehand, in peace talks and meetings
With IDF generals 
Fudging borders when the Egyptians break at noon
And I’ll sneak snapshots with my miniature camera
Oy, I’m nearly found out!
When a child sneaks the Minox from my room!

World leaders and diplomats would confide in me
They would speak to me of state secrets and trust me like a friend
“We have nukes, Mr. Topol!”
“Stalin lives, Comrade Topol!” 
Spilling dirt that even Brezhnev doesn’t know!
And they’d take my silence for granted, never suspecting me at all
So long as I show up at curtain call

If I were a spy, and of course I’m not, I’d get one of those awesome James Bond cars
And gadgets even cooler than SkyMall
And I’d drink shaken martinis and gorge myself on olives at casino bars
And that would be the sweetest part of all 

If I were a hitman
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum
All day long, I’d dissemble and lie
If I were in the Mossad!
I wouldn’t have to work hard
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum.

You who keep us safe here in the land
Might I get in on all your plans?
I can be your go-to man in Cannes!
If I were a secret agent man!

This article was originally published on the Forward.