In September of 1959 I went to Israel as an exchange student from Yeshiva University. I was supposed to be there for six months, studying Hebrew. But while there, I heard that a club called The Cave in Jerusalem was looking for performers, and I decided to audition for them. I went in and saw the owner. He said “I’ll give you ten minutes.”

Jerry Lewis had made lip syncing impersonations popular in the 1940s, and I’d done some at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and on the Ted Mack amateur hour back in the states. I knew they’d never seen it in Israel, so I decided to give them something new. That first night I did Paul Anka, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard. These performers were popular in Israel but had never performed there in person. The crowd went crazy; they couldn’t believe it wasn’t me singing. So the owner started to book me there four or five times a week.

We started to get some crowds coming in. Usually these crowds were largely Israeli soldiers and young people, but one night three talent agents from an agency called Amargahn, and they wanted to work with me. Another night, Marcel Marceau came in. He approached me afterwards and told me he loved the act, and he wanted to know if I would study with him in Paris. I was 19 at the time, and as much as I wanted to join him, I felt compelled to return to my studies back home. So I told him no.

Bernie (center) with Marcel Marceau and others at The Cave, 1959

Bernie (left) with Marcel Marceau (center) and the owner of The Cave at The Cave, 1959

Signed by Marcel Marceau, with message for Bernie, 1959

But I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, so I continued to perform at The Cave, and through Amargahn started getting booked all over the country: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the resort towns. At that time, Israel was a brand new country, and they hadn’t seen a lot of American performers. At some point I began to combine my own singing with the lip syncing, so the audience wouldn’t know when I was singing and when I wasn’t. It was enough of a success that I started getting booked with established rock and roll bands, and I even headlined on my own. I never had a minute to myself; I did eight shows a week.

By this time, I was no longer attending the Teachers’ Institute in Jerusalem. I contacted a cousin of mine, Jonathan Etkes, who had an apartment in Tel Aviv, and moved in with him. As a side note, Jonathan Etkes was the only Israeli prisoner in the 1956 Sinai War. He was exchanged for three thousand Arab prisoners three months after he was captured.

Bernie performing in Tel Aviv, 1960

In the spring of 1960, Leo Fuld, who was the biggest Jewish performer of the time, came to Israel and headlined a show I was in called “Israel 1960.” We toured the country, went to all the army bases, doing eight shows a week. We’d do a show in Tel Aviv, then get on a plane and they’d fly us to Ma’alot. We’d do a show there and then get on a plane and they’d fly us back to Tel Aviv. We worked everywhere.

Finally, in August of 1960 I decided I would go home and finish my studies. But before I left I was lucky enough to fit in a movie. Israel was just starting its film industry, and a director from Canada named Peter Fry wrote and directed a comedy named “I Like Mike,” which starred Topol and in which I had a co-star role.

Bernie on set for I Like Mike, Kibbutz, 1960

Finally, I came back. I lost a year of college. But it was a terrific year.