Actor Tovah Feldshuh talks about her new book, Lilyville, on April 15, in an event held in partnership with the JCC Jewish Book Festival. (PR photo)
The long-awaited Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival closing night event – Tovah Feldshuh talking about her new book, Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played – finally takes place on April 15.
The event was postponed to piggyback on the Book Festival of the Marcus JCC of Atlanta and JCC National Literary Consortium In Your Living Room Live series. It will feature Feldshuh in conversation with CNN correspondent Holly Firfer, and promises to be an entertaining evening with many laughs and lots of good advice, if Lilyville is any indication.
Feldshuh’s first book is a unique memoir in that it is framed in terms of her relationship with her mother – the longest and most important of Feldshuh’s roles having been the one she didn’t audition for, being the daughter of Lillian (Lily) Kaplan Feldshuh. The memoir is structured as a theatre piece, starting with the Program Note and ending with Exit Music, with three acts, many scenes and more in between.
Strong women characters, from the fictional Yentl (from the mind of Sholem Aleichem) to the very real U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dominate Feldshuh’s career. She has performed in theatre, film and television, winning numerous awards and nominations for the excellence of her work. She also has been recognized for her charity work. And, it seems, through it all, family has been a priority.
In Lilyville, Feldshuh writes about her upbringing, how and why she became an actor, some of the people and incidents that have influenced her, her marriage (to a lawyer, like her beloved father was, and which she considered becoming at one point) and being a mother herself. Given her successes, readers may be surprised at the professional challenges she has overcome along the way, including being told outright by a director that she’d never make a good actress, she should become an accountant. But the biggest obstacle for her was coming to understand that her mother, who seemed cold and shy throughout Feldshuh’s (and her older brother’s) upbringing, loved them. While hypercritical and emotionally closed throughout their growing-up years, their mother was always there for them. It was only after their father died that their mother – who had been raised to be what was considered a good woman back then, ie. a woman who dedicated herself to her husband and kids, her own aspirations be damned – blossomed.
In an interview with the Detroit Jewish Book Fair, Feldshuh said about writing Lilyville that she “felt compelled to tell her [mother’s] story and mine and how the two of us had a lifelong journey toward each other. In essence, I dig down into the primal relationship between parent and child, with the specifics between mother and daughter.”
Luckily for the women, they had the time to repair and build their relationship, as Feldshuh’s mother lived to 103. Through that century-plus, Lily Kaplan Feldshuh, who was born before women were given the vote in the United States, witnessed countless social, cultural and technological changes, and Lilyville is partly a history of women’s rights in that country.
General admission to Feldshuh’s book talk is free. Admittance to the pre-event meet-and-greet portion of the event comes when, in addition to registering, you purchase the book; the $36US includes shipping and you will receive a copy with a signed bookplate. Visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.
Shai Avivi, left, and Noam Imber are excellent as father and son in Here We Are. (still courtesy VIFF)
Understated and poignant are just two of the words I’d use to describe the screeners I watched in anticipation of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which opened Sept. 24 and runs to Oct. 7.
As with most everything these days, much of VIFF has moved online; however, there are still in-person screenings and talks, with audience sizes limited. And, as with other film festivals, online viewing is geo-blocked to British Columbia, meaning that you can only watch the movies if you are physically inside the province. The new format should allow for more access to the festival offerings and, while there will be those who miss dressing up and going out to the movies, there will be many people excited to be able to attend VIFF in their pajamas at home, me being one of them.
Last week, I watched two full-length features and two shorts: the narrative Here We Are, directed by Nir Bergman (Israel/Italy); the documentary Paris Calligrammes, directed by (and about) Ulrike Ottinger (Germany/France); The Book of Ruth, directed by Becca Roth (United States); and White Eye, directed by Tomer Shushan (Israel).
Every year, the Jewish Independent sponsors a selection at VIFF and, this time round, we’ve chosen a wonderfully written, acted and filmed movie. We generally have zero time and little information on which to base our choice, so I feel particularly grateful to have lucked out with this gem.
Here We Are is the story of a father who both will do almost anything for his autistic son, but who also uses his son as an excuse to not deal with the larger world. Aharon (played with incredible delicacy by Shai Avivi) has left his job to care for his son Uri (acted by Noam Imber, who gives an empathetic and strong performance). Aharon and his wife Tamara (played by Smadar Wolfman, who does a wonderful job, too) are no longer together, and Uri’s care has been left in his father’s capable and loving hands.
But Uri is an adult now and, to grow, we need space and the ability to direct our own lives. Tamara recognizes this and has worked hard to find Uri a good home, where he will be able to make friends and participate in activities with his peers. Aharon, however, is unable to let go and, though he also wants the best for Uri, he undermines Tamara’s actions – not only in words, but he takes Uri on the run.
The script by Dana Idisis leaves room for the pauses and emotions that make Here We Are an excellent film. Avivi’s face speaks more than a thousand words and you can see the inner conflict as his character struggles to accept that his son no longer needs him as much. The chemistry between Avivi and Imber makes the father-son relationship believable and compelling. And there are no “bad guys” here, even though mother and father differ in their opinions on parenting.
“I love the characters, the relationships, the way Aharon has reduced his needs to accommodate his son’s, and the transformation they experience throughout their journey,” reads the director’s statement. “I believe that, if I’m able to convey these characters as they are, from the written page to the screen, together with the bittersweet and humorous tone of the script, the audience will also fall in love with them.” Bergman accomplished his goal, and then some.
Paris Calligrammes is also very watchable and engaging. I’ll admit to never having heard of Ottinger before, so I was looking forward to learning more about her, her artwork, her photography and what eventually inspired her to filmmaking. However, while I thought the documentary was esthetically pleasing and gave a tangible sense of how exciting it would have been to live among the artistic elite in Paris during the 1960s, I couldn’t tell you much about Ottinger herself and what she contributed to the thoughts, images and culture of those turbulent times. But, I guess, perhaps it is assumed that one knows these things already.
Ottinger does offers some interesting and valuable commentary – read by British actress Jenny Agutter – but, for whatever reason, I didn’t think it was enough. The film is named after the bookstore Librairie Calligrammes, which specialized in antiquarian books and German literature, and was where Jewish and political émigrés hung out, along with others who we would now call cultural influencers. Ottinger drove to Paris in 1962 from Konstanz, Germany, to become, in her words, a great artist; to follow in the footsteps of her heroes and heroines. She not only follows those footsteps but walks alongside the likes of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Marceau, Raoul Hausman, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and countless others as well known.
Some of the most interesting parts of the film are about Algeria’s years-long war of independence from France (1954-1962) and the situation at the time with respect to the appalling treatment of Algerians living in Paris. Clips are shown of a peaceful demonstration held on Oct. 17, 1961, that was violently broken up by police. According to the film, 200 to 300 people were killed that night alone and, to this day, there has not been an investigation and no one has been held accountable for the deaths; even opposition newspapers didn’t report on it at the time and photos vanished from newsrooms. Ottinger notes that the order for the police to attack was given by then-chief Maurice Papon, who, under the Vichy government, had organized the rounding up of Jews to be murdered during the Holocaust.
This is a film that, I think, would be most appreciated on a big screen, but is still worth watching, for its content, yes, but mainly for its creative use of archival footage and interview clips, photographs and current-day images and filming. The documentary starts with a quote from Conseils au Bon Voyageur by Victor Segalen, advice that Ottinger has “gladly followed”: “Advice to the good traveler – A town at the end of the road and a road extending a town: do not choose one or the other, but one and the other, by turns.” If one needed inspiration to live by the conjunctions “and/both” rather than “either/or,” Paris Calligrammes might offer it.
While Paris Calligrammes is the product and vision of a longtime filmmaker, The Book of Ruth comes from the imagination of Chen Drachman, and is the first film Drachman has written and produced. She also co-stars in this exploration of how important it is to have symbols – in this instance, represented by an historical figure – around which to rally or by which to live one’s life.
The short takes place during the happiest, smallest (five people) and shortest seder that I’ve ever seen, and focuses on Ruth – played by veteran actress Tovah Feldshuh – and whether she is really the grandmother her granddaughter, played by Drachman, grew up knowing. While the scenario postulated is unbelievable, Feldshuh offers the gravitas and has the talent to make viewers look beyond that fact and consider the questions raised in the film about the stories we build around some people – their role in a war or a political movement or an artistic endeavour, whatever – and how that story or image can help make us, living in another time, feel less alone, more understood, etc.
Symbolism, of course, can be positive and negative. Racist views and bigotry also come from the stories we have learned and tell ourselves. And White Eye, both directed and written by Shushan, does a superb job of illustrating how prejudices and privilege we may not even know we have can lead to disastrous consequences.
The main character of Omer is played by Daniel Gad with convincing stubbornness and obliviousness at first, then quiet shock at what happens as a result of his desire simply to take back what is his. When he comes across his bicycle, which had been stolen, that’s all he wants to do: cut the lock off and take it back. Even after he meets the bike’s new owner, Yunes – actor Dawit Tekelaeb will win your heart with his touching portrayal of a hardworking father and husband who bought the bike so he could take his daughter to kindergarten – Omer wants his property back. Even when Yunes’s boss (Reut Akkerman) argues on her employee’s behalf, Omer refuses to budge even the smallest bit. Only after the police become involved and Yunes, an immigrant from Eritrea whose visa has expired, is taken away, does Omer realize the full implications of his actions. By then, of course, the damage has been done. And it’s much more devastating than having had one’s bicycle stolen.
For the full film festival lineup, schedule and tickets, visit viff.org.
“How does a housewife decide between generals?” asks Golda Meir (played by Tovah Feldshuh) in Golda’s Balcony. In this instance, she must decide between the counsel of David (Dado) Elazar, her chief of staff, left, and Moshe Dayan, her minister of defence. (production still)
Tovah Feldshuh is incredible to watch in Golda’s Balcony, The Film. Not just in her passionate and sympathetic portrayal of Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, but in her depiction of all 45 characters in William Gibson’s one-woman play. She’s Meir, David Ben-Gurion, David (Dado) Elazar, her husband Morris, Holocaust survivors and Israeli soldiers, among many others. She moves as easily between the personalities as a child raised in a multilingual household moves between languages. And with powerful effect.
Golda’s Balcony, The Film has two screenings at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival – March 1, 1 p.m., and March 2, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. See it. You will have a more nuanced understanding of Meir, as well as of Israel, its origins and the struggles it has faced and will face. Gibson’s text is superb; it is engaging and insightful, with enough humour along the way that you’ll be able to breathe on occasion, as Meir deals with the existential crisis of the Yom Kippur War. Fluidly switching from wartime to other parts of her life, the play depicts, if nothing else, the stressful, heart-wrenching, thankless job that is being prime minister of a country that is constantly under threat.
The film is a recording of the play’s soldout Off-Broadway première on May 4, 2003, at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, presented by Issembert Productions. After a four-month soldout run at MET, the show moved to Broadway, and the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it ran for 15 months, making it, apparently, the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. It has won countless awards.
The set is relatively simple. A table with a couple of chairs on a tile floor. On the table, a dial telephone, a pitcher and water glass, an ashtray, cigarettes. Light shines on the table from the right, as if from a window. The backdrop is a wall of reddish stone or metal slabs of varying sizes that protrude outward. Images are projected onto the wall or chairs when relevant, giving the audience a visual of the person Meir is talking about, or that Feldshuh is portraying – though it is hard to see these images in the film version. To the side and a step down is a small piece of stage covered in dirt, with a few rocks, which acts as refugee camps in Cyprus, the kibbutz on which Meir lived for a time, Russia when Meir visits on a diplomatic tour, etc. The focal point for the entire production is Feldshuh.
The play begins in darkness, a man chants a prayer, the words “Golda’s Balcony” appear briefly on the wall. Thunder claps, lightning flashes, gunshots ring out, then darkness again, but the sound continues: guns firing, bombs exploding, planes overhead. A housecoat-garbed Golda, sitting at the head of the table, strikes a match and lights a cigarette; the lights rise a bit and calmer music prevails.
“I’m at the end of my story,” says Golda. “I’m old. I’m tired. I’m sick. Dying, the doctors tell me. The picture you have of me as Mamaleh Golde, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers, it’s a nice picture. And I do make chicken soup. But let’s empty it all out for keeps right now because, at the bottom of the pot, is blood. At the bottom of the pot is the question that won’t die. I can do without that music!” she yells. It stops. The lights come on more fully, as Golda then starts to relate the story of her first voyage to Palestine, with her husband, in 1921 – 52 years later, she would become prime minister.
“I remember, starting with a phone call, that woke me up at four o’clock in the morning. Saturday, Yom Kippur, 1973,” she says, as she closes her eyes, looking exhausted, her right arm holding up her head, the left one sliding off the table. The phone rings. Startled, she answers it, hearing the news that Egypt and Syria have attacked Israel. As she takes off the housecoat, Golda is in her familiar muted woolen skirt suit; energy, anger and fear all come to the surface as she relates her generals’ differing views as to what Israel needs to do. Dado: attack! Moshe Dayan: don’t be seen as the aggressor! “How does a housewife decide between generals?” she asks.
Of course, she does decide. But the agonizing and tension-filled process leads her – and Israel – down some very dark paths and the play masterfully depicts her sadness, anxiety and frustration; the sacrifices to her family, her health, as well as to others. Throughout the many narratives, it is the story of the Dimona nuclear facility to which she will get, the story that haunts her, that took her to hell; the story she needs to gather the strength to tell.
Thunder, lightning and gunfire divide the scenes in the whirlwind of action that Golda describes, her domestic life almost as tumultuous as her political life. We see her humanity, but also her toughness. Luckily, she never had to answer the question that “won’t die”: if Israeli forces hadn’t been able to cross the Suez Canal and if the United States had not come through with the needed military aid, would she have ordered the dropping of the nuclear bombs with which she had armed Israel’s planes?
Golda’s Balcony is a must-see in a festival with many excellent films. For the full schedule, visit vjff.org.