Story of Leah, With a Twist

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
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In a new television movie, Hasidic Brooklyn gets the Hollywood treatment.

BIBLICAL TALE: Lauren Ambrose and Adam Kaufman star in the new movie.
BIBLICAL TALE: Lauren Ambrose and Adam Kaufman star in the new movie.

“Loving Leah,” filmed on location in New York, centers on a young widow whose life is forever changed by an obscure biblical law that requires her to wed her brother-in-law. Ultra-Orthodox Leah (Lauren Ambrose) and her secular brother-in-law, Jake (Adam Kaufman), agree to take part in a halitza, a ceremony that allows couples in their situation to avoid marriage; the halitza is still performed in some observant Jewish circles.

But onscreen, there’s a twist. After they agree to the halitza, Jake offers to marry Leah as a way to honor his late brother, whose decision to become an Orthodox Jew had long complicated the two men’s fraternal relationship. Leah accepts the proposal, and an unlikely love story ensues.

P’nenah Goldstein, author of the stage and TV versions of “Loving Leah,” said the ancient law provided “a great hook” for bringing together two people who live and worship in disparate worlds. The play was performed in St. Louis at the New Jewish Theatre during the theater’s 2002 season. It was subsequently optioned for television.

The movie version, which premieres this month on CBS, has a cast that includes Jewish actresses Susie Essman as Leah’s formidable mother, Malka; Natasha Lyonne as Leah’s sister, Esther, and Ricki Lake as Rabbi Gerry.

Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl plays Jake’s mother.

As Leah, Ambrose, who is not Jewish, “embraced the character,” Goldstein told the Forward. “She was very careful about what Leah, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, would and would not do.”


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