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At first I didn’t want to make ‘The Chosen’ — then ‘The Chosen’ changed my life

Making this movie changed my life.

Published in 1967, Chaim Potok’s book, “The Chosen,” is regarded as one of the great Jewish American novels. Set in Brooklyn at the end of WWII, it explores the complex relationship between two Jewish boys, one modern orthodox and the other the genius son of a Hasidic rebbe (the spiritual head of a community).

My father was a Reform rabbi in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His pulpit was often an advocacy for progressive ideas. We did not keep kosher. I had never heard of the word Hasid and didn’t know how to even spell it or pronounce it – hasid or chassid. Back then I considered myself a secular Jew. I didn’t know any Yiddish, and certainly not the word beshert, but it was beshert that brought the movie to me.

The word beshert refers mostly to relationships. “She/he is your beshert – your soul mate.” Your destiny. Torah repeatedly says that G-d has set before us good and evil, and we should choose good. But some things are — beshert — chosen for us.

How ‘The Chosen’ Chose Me

One of Jeremy Kagan's original storyboards depicts a scene that takes place in a shul.

Scene 168 of ‘The Chosen’: One of Jeremy Kagan’s original storyboards depicts a scene that takes place in a shul. Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

The way the movie business works is that scripts are sent to agents to get to actors and directors to get them to choose to do the project. Every now and then, though, something unsolicited arrives in the mail. That’s how a script called “The Chosen” got to me. I had never heard of the book. I read the script. I didn’t think it was very good, so I sent a “thanks-but-no-thanks” to the individual from Louisiana who had sent it to me. Goodbye “The Chosen.”

Two and a half years later, I got a call from one of my agents saying that the famed producing team Edie and Eli Landau wanted me to direct a film they were going to do with two great actors they had worked with before, Rod Steiger and Maximillian Schell. Rod had done “The Pawnbroker” and Max, “The Man in the Glass Booth.”

I was still a rather new director, having made only two features, and these two actors were giants in cinema. I was intimidated and excited. The Landaus sent the script over, and it had the title “The Chosen.” And as I started to read it, I realized it was the same script I had turned down years before. Why would these incredibly talented people want to do this script? It didn’t make sense. So, I went to a bookstore and purchased a copy of Chaim Potok’s book.

The book was a revelation. The words and story opened me up to another time and another world. Its deep exploration of the Hasidic movement and the struggles of friendships was captivating. It also looked at how American Jews at that time reacted to World War II, the Holocaust and the possibility of a state of Israel.

I am usually a slow reader, but this was a page turner. I talked to the Landaus and asked if I could rewrite the script using the book as my source. They agreed, and I began to do my homework. I needed to learn about the Hasidic world so I could create it honestly.

Entering a Different World

Chaim Potok, director Jeremy Kagan, Robby Benson and Barry Miller discuss the movie adaptation of Potok's novel 'The Chosen.'

Discussing ‘The Chosen’: From left; Chaim Potok, director Jeremy Kagan, Robby Benson and Barry Miller Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

My family came from a totally different Jewish world. In addition to his rabbinate, my father was a certified psychologist. He had often shared his thoughts about human nature and history. I recall his explaining some of the plagues on Egypt as actual events, not miracles, and that the last one was really a violent revolution for freedom by our enslaved ancestors.

He didn’t hold with orthodoxy regarding it as exclusive and restrictive. I always looked forward to his passionate sermons, which were often about contemporary social issues. He marched with other clergy in the South for civil rights.

Passover was a favorite time in our house. The reward for the afikomen was a silver dollar with “In God We Trust” on it and my father would tell of how Ben Franklin had wanted the symbol for the United States to be Moses leading the Hebrews to freedom.

Despite the fact that I had a bar mitzvah and confirmation, my personal knowledge and practice of Judaism was slight. It was making “The Chosen” that expanded my awareness. Entering the Hasidic world can be difficult, as it is often a closed community. But Chaim Potok knew leaders among the Lubavitch, and in contrast to other Hasidic sects that had heard about the book and a potential movie and disapproved of both, the Lubavitch Hasids under the leadership of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson were open to us.

I met baalei teshuva, returnees, who had sought enlightenment in eastern religions or psychotropics and then decided to explore an Orthodox Jewish life. Here they found deep spiritual connections. We talked about what brought them back, how and why they now felt committed to mitzvot. A young rabbi gave me a Chabad machzor — a new world for me, it’s a holiday prayer book.

I attended Shabbat Hasidic gatherings surprised by what felt like chaos — unlike in Reform synagogues, everyone prayed at their own pace, often loudly. And there was constant movement. In Reform synagogues, you sit and you stand as a group and you certainly don’t shuckle, move your body back and forth.

I also began reading Hasidic tales, particularly the collections of Martin Buber. A world of mysticism was revealing itself to me and I was entranced. I had no idea that Judaism was steeped in its own spiritual cosmology and magical realism.

Recent TV miniseries have portrayed Hasidism either as cruel or ridiculous. But this wasn’t my experience. Yes, it was patriarchal, but there was so much wisdom and compassion and joy in some Hasidic approaches to Judaism. Before this, I had known Judaism only as an ethical and socially responsible approach to life.

Why ‘The Chosen’ Was Beshert

Jeremy Kagan discusses a scene with his actor, Rod Steiger.

Far From the Waterfront: Jeremy Kagan discusses a scene with his actor, Rod Steiger. Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

Beshert — it was supposed to happen. Unexpected but intended.

Sometimes as you are working on a movie you discover what the essence of your film is about – its heart and maybe its meaning. And as I continued my exposure to the Hasidic world, it became clear this movie was about tolerance, the ability to accept differences. How do we acknowledge there are many ways to live a life, to practice belief systems, to get close to God? Not just one way. This theme became the touchstone throughout the making of the movie.

When I met Rod Steiger, he described how he envisioned the character of the rebbe that he was going to play. He had been to Israel and met some very authoritarian people and felt that he should portray this character as a dominant if not belligerent and intolerant man. I had great respect for Rod, but this was not how I perceived the character that Chaim had written.

This character had lost his family in a massacre, he had taken his followers out of oppressive Russia and brought them to Williamsburg. Yes, he was their leader, but he was not their judge; he was there to help, guide, care for, advise, and inspire on many levels, from the physical to the spiritual. Would Rod tolerate this interpretation — a calm, introspective character?

A few weeks later, the movie’s financing fell apart. It looked like it would not get made. But someone had told me of Meshulam Riklis, a wealthy businessman who was interested in movies. Beshert. I suggested to the Landaus that they contact him. They did, and he put up all the money for the movie.

Because it was an independent film, it still was a low-budget affair and shooting in New York seemed too expensive. I wanted the locations to be realistic to where the story is set – in Brooklyn.

The producers wanted me to shoot in Canada, which would have been cheaper. But city officials, when they discovered what kind of movie we were making – about tolerance and beliefs and friendship, all reflective of New York’s spirit — gave the producers financial breaks that allowed us to use locations there. Beshert.

Rod came into the city; on his own initiative, he had lost weight and grown a sizable white beard. He looked at me and in a nod, acknowledged that he agreed on how to play this rebbe. I put all our actors together for a Shabbos meal and, later that evening, I took Rod into Williamsburg. With his own black fedora on, a number of Hasidic Jews nodded to him; some of them even greeted him in Yiddish. He was almost giddy that they thought he was one of them.

We were going later that evening to meet one of the rebbes from one of the other Hasidic sects. But in a crowded smoky hall, after a half-hour, Rod got antsy and decided to leave. Beshert. Had he stayed he would have seen such an authoritarian rebbe, being treated like royalty, and might have reverted to a more severe dogmatic character.

Reuven and Danny

Jeremy Kagan observes Robby Benson and Barry Miller as they prepare for a scene.

Street Scene: Jeremy Kagan observes Robby Benson and Barry Miller as they prepare for a scene. Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

Casting the two boys was a challenge. Daniel was steeped in the Hasidic world; Reuven was more assimilated.

My audition process is to engage in a personal conversation with the actor about issues in the story that might be reflected in their own lives. What is your relationship with your father? Who are you best friends and why? What do you believe in? I found one young actor, Barry Miller, who was truly gifted to play Reuven, the son of the character Max Schell played. Barry’s acting style was improvisational and “method,” both of which I was comfortable directing.

But who would play Danny? This character is described as brilliant, with a photographic memory and an intelligence way beyond his years, and also an athletic ability and a sense of superiority and hidden rage. That is a complex and rare combination!

I auditioned scores of actors in New York, Los Angeles and Canada. Then unexpectedly, I got a call from an agent who said Robby Benson wanted to be considered for the role. I said that I knew him as an actor and had seen him in a couple of movies and that honestly he was too sweet to play Danny. The agent called back and said that Robby was pleading to at least meet. I didn’t want to be rude, and said he could come over to my house.

As I opened the door, Robby grabbed me and pushed me against a wall and thrust his face into mine and said in a threatening cold voice: “Is this angry enough for you?”

I gave him the job.

I didn’t know until later that he, too, like Barry, came from a Jewish background. It’s fascinating now in the time of DEI – diversity, ethnicity and inclusion — that performances of the past like Orson Welles playing Othello are being attacked as revisionist and co-opting. In our time, David Carradine played an Asian in the TV series “Kung Fu”; he would be eviscerated today.

Robby wanted to spend time in the Hasidic community to create his character, and the Lubavitch let him in. We were all learning. As Martin Buber said: “All life is meeting.”

The two actors came from totally different approaches to the craft and knocked heads repeatedly. Had they not both trusted me, the movie would have fallen apart. Like the characters they portrayed, they had conflicting views. I talked to them about tolerance, but also saw the reality of their interaction, that the transition from animosity to acceptance was the story of the relationship in the movie. Off screen, they were oil and water; on screen, they were magic.

And so the Shooting Begins

Our first day of shooting was one of the hottest days in the summer. I had planned to do almost 70 shots that day. My enthusiasm seemed to be infectious. My line producer, Jonathan Bernstein; production manager, Mel Howard; and assistant director, Yudi Bennett (the first time a woman in New York served a first assistant) – all Jews – were exhausted, surprised and delighted. That day set the mood and energy for the rest of the shoot.

Half the background artists were actors playing Hasidic kids, so they wore peyes (the side curls Hasids wear) as well as the heavy black and white clothing of the period and culture. When they went to get some food in the neighborhood, they were spotted by other teenagers in the community. This was not a Jewish neighborhood. The local kids started making fun of the strangely dressed kids, and threatening them. The film kids got scared and started to run back to the set, pulling off their peyes and yelling back, “we’re actors!”

Some Changes to the Story (Plus a Missing Scene)

An original storyboard from 'The Chosen' depicts the rebbe dancing.

The Rebbe Dances: An original storyboard from ‘The Chosen.’ Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

In the book, both families are Orthodox. This meant that in the book, the two boys – Daniel and Reuven – always wear yarmulkes. I felt that this might push the movie too far into the religious world and make it inaccessible to even contemporary American Jews, so I suggested that Reuven’s family should be more like Conservative Jews who do not always wear yarmulkes when not in synagogue and are less restricted in their religious practices.

This was fine with the Landaus, who were pushing me not to have the Hasidic boys have peyes. They were concerned that side curls would be seen as too weird — too Jewish. That’s a theme as well here, Jews who can’t quite tolerate other Jews, who don’t want to be too noticeable. Like the man who saw “The Chosen” and told me the movie was bad for the Jews because it made us stand out. The clip that accompanies this article is a scene that the producers demanded I cut from the movie.

missimg scene in the Chosen from Jeremy Kagan on Vimeo.

It is a short moment when Rod as the rebbe takes out the Torah and congregants come to kiss it. The producers found that kissing too bizarre — too old-school Jewish.

‘The Chosen’ Goes to Radio City

Jeremy Kagan talks over a scene with Max Schell

**On the set of ‘The Chosen’: Jeremy Kagan talks over a scene with Max Schell. Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

The movie opened at a special gala screening at Radio City Music Hall celebrating the 33rd anniversary of the modern state of Israel. To our surprise, two studios said they wanted to distribute the movie. We were all excited. But a week later they changed their minds. Their financial people calculated there weren’t enough Jews who go to the movies to justify the advertising and publicity.

Many months later, after the film won first prizes at various festivals, it was picked up by a small distribution company, and opened to good reviews in New York and L.A. Then 20th Century Fox changed its mind and made a deal to distribute the film. Beshert. Had the small company not seen the movie at one of those film festivals, it would have never made it to the theaters.

In the audience of that gala opening were a number of rabbis from the Lubavitch community. Before shooting, I had met the Rebbe at around 2 o’clock one morning, as was his custom, and he had handed me a dollar — not a silver one like my father’s, but the paper one, which was part of his ritual. He blessed our work. He had said that if something exists – like movies and TV – it was not for us to abandon these inventions, as some other Hasidic sects had done, but to use them for holy purposes, as Chabad does to this day.

The Rebbe did not come to the gala. The next day, I got a phone call from one of the rabbis. He told me that the Rebbe was very upset. My heart started to shrink. Did he now disapprove of the movie? Danny, at the end of the story, cuts off his peyes and, though he commits to remaining a practicing Jew, abandons his direct connection with the closed-off Hasidic society.

This rabbi on the phone said that the Rebbe was very concerned about young Jews and that they were abandoning their heritage. I figured they must now think the movie encouraged that. The rabbi then said that the Rebbe had decided to have a new Sefer Torah written especially for the young and, knowing that I had a new child, asked if I would like to buy a single Hebrew letter in this Torah for $1. Relief and gratitude. I realized that the dollar the Rebbe hands out is a symbol for us to also give something to someone else. That is what a movie sometimes can do, give to an audience a fresh awareness of who we are and how we are all related.

What ‘The Chosen’ Means to Me 40 Years Later

Rod Steiger, playing the rebbe in 'The Chosen,' counsels his son, played by Robby Benson.

Old Ways: Rod Steiger, playing the rebbe in ‘The Chosen,’ counsels his son, played by Robby Benson. Courtesy of Jeremy Kagan

Over these 40 years, I have received many notes from people who have seen “The Chosen” and were moved by it, like the woman who told me that after seeing the movie she had contacted her mother for the first time in a decade. Rabbis and teachers use the film in schools, and it is still shown in synagogues around the world. In many ways, the fact that it’s a period picture about the 1940s has made it accessible as a presentation of the past, not something dated from the past.

In the last scene of the movie, the rebbe father and his son finally reconnect. I had told our cinematographer, Arthur Ornitz, that I wanted the scene to feel like a Rembrandt painting. He arranged to have few lights on the set to create that mysterious darkness that you see in those paintings.

But with few lights, you have to be careful where people move. And Rod, after delivering a difficult speech, suddenly and unexpectedly stood up and went to the door of the office — which was not something we had staged – and then he turned around and extended his hands and Robby, playing his son, got up and went into the embrace.

It was a powerful emotional moment on the set. But I worried that he had walked into the darkness — would we even see this on the film? What if we missed the magic? Somehow, my camera operators, who were not prepared for this physical move, nevertheless followed Rod from his chair with their cameras and recorded the embrace. We do see it; it’s dark, but it’s there. Beshert.

As a religious leader and therapist, my father was a combination of the two fathers in Chaim Potok’s book. He had aspects of the modern Jew that Max Schell played and the religious leader that Rod played. I miss my father. He died young, 10 years before I was approached to make “The Chosen.”

On the film’s opening day in Los Angeles, I drove to the Music Hall movie theater. It was raining and I figured there wouldn’t be many people. As I approached the street, I suddenly saw a long line around the block waiting to get in. I cried. How I would have loved to have shared this with my father. What we could have explored together about his past as Jew and my present as a Jew.

Over these 40 years, I have studied Kabbalah with an inspiring teacher, Rabbi Steven Robbins, and I use Kabbalistic meditative techniques every day. Beshert brought me to a meeting at an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles inspired by the famed Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I attend services wherever I land. I wear the tallis that Rod wore in the movie. I am on the third set of paintings of all the parshas and haftorahs.

I play klezmer clarinet. I say morning prayers using that Chabad prayer book, including lines like acknowledging how God opens the eyes of the blind, gives strength to the weary, and directs our steps. At times, I am called up as a Kohen for blessings. As I chant the Hebrew, I feel my ancestors speaking through me.

In editing the last scene in the movie, I was looking for something for Reuven to say, since the story is told from his point of view. I unexpectedly discovered a Jewish tale about a king who had a son who had gone astray from his father. The son was told to return to his father. The son said I cannot. Then the father sent a messenger to say, return as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way.

“The Chosen” for me continues to be about connecting – to our past, to our present and the promise of our future; to becoming beings of kindness, forgiveness, tolerance and to honoring and celebrating being Jewish.
Jeremy Kagan is a prolific director of film and television, and a professor at the University of Southern California.


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