Zaharirah Charifai was born in Tel Aviv to parents originally from Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk, Belarus). Her father, Chaim Leib Charifai (1888–1933), a Hebrew teacher, journalist and theater critic, emigrated to Palestine in 1922 and settled in Tel Aviv. Her mother, Channah Deborah Charifai, married Chaim Leib in Russia and emigrated to Palestine in 1924 with Zaharirah’s brother. Channah aspired to be an actor and even studied with Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, but when her husband died at the age of forty-five the burden of providing for the family fell to her and she had to work as a cook in kindergartens. Zaharirah Charifai, who was only four years old when her father died, excelled in swimming in her youth, becoming the country’s backstroke champion and also winning prizes for the crawl. She attended the Bet Hinnukh school for workers’ children, the Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasia and also the Mikveh Israel agricultural school. She appeared on stage for the first time in the role of a boy Holocaust survivor, in a play written by Ever Hadani (Aharon Feldman, 1899–1972) to celebrate Mikveh Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
Charifai graduated in 1946, joined the Palmah and served as a Morse Code operator during the War of Independence. Upon her discharge, she joined the Chizbatron, the Palmah’s military entertainment troupe, which had been disbanded upon the dismantling of the Palmah and now sought a jolly, comic woman for future productions by their new, civilian company. Charifai participated in the company’s sole performance in 1950, after which the troupe ceased to exist.
For three years Charifai attended the Cameri Theater’s drama school headed by Yemima Millo, graduating in 1953. Her first appearance on the professional stage was in Habimah’s production of Cry, the Beloved Country (premiered on April 30, 1953), after which she joined the Cameri Theater company. At first she was cast mostly in comic or grotesque supporting roles because she is short and plump. In 1958, when the Cameri experienced a theatrical and economic crisis that entailed discharge of actors, she was among those who were dismissed the following year.
In the same year, together with Pnina Geri and Shmuel Atzmon (b. 1929), Charifai founded the Zavit (Angle) theater company, for which she and her husband Shlomo Shva (b. 1929) translated Huis Clos (No Exit) by Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) within a week. The play had its premiere on June 3, 1959. However, Charifai was a member of the Zavit troupe for only one year, simultaneously joining the Bazal Yarok (Green Onion) company and participating in two of its performances: And …Three Dots and Cat in a Bag (1960). There she sang “The Pioneer Prostitute” by Hayim Hefer (b. 1925) with music by Alexander (Sasha) Argov (1914–1995), which was banned from broadcasting and prohibited on army bases. At the end of 1960 she joined the Eshnav company, appearing in a production comprising three original Hebrew one-acts plays, which were performed throughout the country. Together with Shva, she later wrote about these travels in a book entitled Night Travelers (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: 1965). At the end of 1961 she joined Habimah for a year, where she played the role of Vivie in Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw (premiere October 16, 1961) and the role of the Dairy Maid in Bertolt Brecht’s Puntila and His Man Matti (1962).
Charifai achieved fame and became nationally known in the role of Grusha in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, first staged by the Haifa Municipal Theater on December 4, 1962 and directed by Joseph Millo (1916–1997). The casting was originally unplanned. Hoping deep in her heart to be cast in this role, she approached Millo, with whom she had already become acquainted at the Cameri, requesting a part in the production. Just three weeks before the premiere she was given the starring role because the actor originally chosen failed to come up to expectation. The highly successful production paved Charifai’s way to leading roles, among them Kattrin, the mute daughter in Mother Courage (premiere February 18, 1964). The critics praised her, wondering why she had not been cast in the title role. (Charifai realized her dream of playing that role in the Cameri Theater’s 1988 production, directed by Ilan Ronen.) In 1968 she returned to the Cameri Theater in the Actors’ Stage production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Matchmaker (1969). A year later, the Actors’ Stage left the Cameri and joined the Haifa Municipal Theater, but Charifai chose to remain with the Cameri, appearing in dozens of roles in a wide range of plays until her retirement in 1995. As of 2004, she continues to perform at the Cameri.
Charifai appeared in Noah by Andre Obey (1968), the first production of Ha-Ma’agal Theater (The Circle) founded by Philip Diskin, which later became the Khan Theater. She also appeared in the Beer Sheva Municipal Theater’s production of Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey (premiere October 6, 1982) and in the Beit Lessin’s production of Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon (premiere March 26, 2004).
Charifai is generally identified with Bertolt Brecht’s characters and also with Hanoch Levin’s recurring character of the large, threatening woman—a role which she created with earthy vitality as well as with lightness and humor. She played the Nurse in Young Varda’le (premiere February 6, 1974); Bela Berlow in The Rubber Merchants (June 2, 1978); the Mother in Execution (November 6, 1979); Henia in The Suitcase Packers (August 5, 1983), the Old Woman in Requiem (March 19, 1999) and Pogorelka in Romantics (January 2, 2002). She participated in the highly successful production of Levin’s Ya’acobi and Leidental (December 23, 1972) together with Joseph Carmon and Albert Cohen, which toured abroad, was revived many times and won first prize at the Edinburgh Festival in 1978. Levin collaborated with the same cast in the production of many of his plays.
In addition to Levin’s plays, Charifai has appeared in many original Hebrew plays, including Summer Celebration by Nathan Alterman (premiere July 1, 1972); Abandoned Property by Shulamit Lapid (March 17, 1987); Fleischer by Igal Even Or (May 20, 1993) and Fantasy for Piano by Aliza Olmert (June 23, 1994).
Charifai began directing with the encouragement of Gary Bilu, the director of the Beit Zvi acting school, where she teaches. Her first foray into directing was a student production of Ya’acobi and Leidental at Bet Zvi in 1989, followed by Splinters by Ephraim Cohen at the Acre Festival in 1997, which won first prize for best director and best actor (Shraga Harpaz). In 2001 she directed Devorah Baron by Yehudit Katzir at the Cameri Theater.
In addition to acting in theater companies, Charifai appeared in three successful solo performances: Letters Sealed in a Book (1967), a poetry reading; A Home of a Man (1977), a poetry and story reading, which some consider as having established the proper style of reciting Hebrew poetry, and Singing Theater (1985), in which she sang songs from various theater productions, which she also recorded.
Charifai participated in many radio plays and also presented a regular radio program called Yours for a While, for which, at her request, the author and playwright Jacob Shabtai wrote two songs—“The Ballad of Sarah” and “The Streets of Tel Aviv.”
Her screen appearances include Sallah Shabbati (1964), The Policeman (1971), Daughters, Daughters (1973) and The Fox in the Chicken Coop (1978). She also appeared in the movie Judith, starring Sophia Loren.
Charifai is married to author and journalist Shlomo Shva. Their daughter, Aya Shva (b. 1967), is also an actor and has at times performed together with her mother. Charifai has been awarded many prizes, among them the 2003 Israel Prize for theater; the Israel Theater Academy’s 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award; the Tel Aviv Municipality’s 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award; the Isaac Stern Prize (1988); the Kinnor David Prize for her role in Rubber Merchants by Hanoch Levin (1979) and for her roles in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov and Young Varda’le by Hanoch Levin (1974).