The Morning Star

By Alana Newhouse

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In one of the last scenes of “The Passion of the Christ,” the character of Mary, played with emotive steel by the Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern, embraces the mutilated body of her dead son. Streaks of dirt and Jesus’ blood form swaths of darkness on her light skin, as Morgenstern looks ahead with a combination of maternal wrath, sheer exhaustion and the placidity of faith.

It is a subtle evocation of complex emotions in a movie that often settles for the comfortable starkness of simplistic interpretations. In an interview with the Forward, Morgenstern, 42, an actress in the Yiddish State Theater of Romania and the child of Holocaust survivors, batted away charges of antisemitism and questions about the motives of the filmmaker, instead choosing to focus on her own role in one of the year’s most controversial cultural offerings.

“I discovered a wonderful character — very human, a mother, a Jewish mother, a mother losing her child while she couldn’t do anything,” she said in an interview at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. “She could not interfere. From time to time, she’s weak, she’s desperate, she loses faith.”

Morgenstern — whose name, in an apparent coincidence, means Morning Star, one of the Virgin Mary’s oldest monikers — began her career in Romania’s Yiddish theater, with which she continues to tour. She caught the eye of a casting agent, who introduced her to the man whom she repeatedly refers to as “Mr. Mel Gibson.” Almost immediately after reading a copy of the script, Morgenstern accepted the role, and she has since become the focus of curious speculation, with many asking how a woman whose grandfather was murdered at Auschwitz could participate in a film that some fear could incite pogroms against her fellow Jews.

“I trust my parents very much, and they are my first critics,” said Morgenstern, tugging at a reddish ringlet peeking out from under a white-knit hat. Like her, she said, both her mother and her father found the script moving, philosophical and not the least bit antisemitic.

“I’m trying to be honest, to explain, to open a real fresh eye to the vision of Mr. Mel Gibson and of the film. Again and again — I underline and underline this — it’s not the people who are blamed,” she insisted, knocking her mirthful tone down to one of deep foreboding, with almost alarming swiftness. “It was some leaders. Unfortunately, we have so many examples — even now, every minute — of political, social, military, religious leaders who are dealing with our fears, with our hopes, who are trying to manipulate our ideas and our fears. And that film speaks about this.”

“It’s a masterpiece. Art, pure art!” she said. “Like La Pieta de Michelangelo, it’s not a lesson.”

According to both the actress and her director, the two established a special working relationship, one that bordered on the telepathic. “At the start I didn’t even know if she could understand me,” Gibson told the Forward in an e-mail. “I mean she has a great command of the English language but for more complex explanations, I’m thinking, ‘Is she even going to get this?’ But after a very short while I realized that she was way ahead of me.”

When asked about allegations that Gibson’s artistic choices amounted to filmic incitement of hatred, Morgenstern shot back. “Antisemitism is a big word. It’s a very big word, and we need to be very careful with it,” she said, drawing a line between feelings and actions. “There were public newspapers or people calling me ‘Bloody Jew.’ But I do have a career in Romanian country, I can follow my dreams, and use my name — Morgenstern.”

“I’m an artist and an actress not to wear pretty clothes, but to be responsible…. As an artist, [I want] to bring life a little bit more light, a little bit more hope. And I hope any film, any theater, any part I’m interpreting will make people think and be better. Maybe the word is too big, and I didn’t dare say it to myself every day, but this is my deep, deep wish.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.