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Behind the scenes with a rabbi in HBO’s ‘Plot Against America’

Ethan Herschenfeld is so accustomed to playing Jewish tough guys that when he recorded his first comedy album, he named it “Thug Thug Jew”.

Now he’s cutting a much menschier figure in the Jewish cinematic event of the spring: a new adaptation of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” a speculative novel about what might have happened had the xenophobic and anti-Semitic right-wing aviator Charles Lindbergh become President on the eve of World War II. Herschenfeld’s character, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, was a real-life figure in the Reform movement who fled Nazi Germany and later became a civil rights activist in America.

The Forward’s Irene Katz Connelly spoke with Herschenfeld about period television, beard conundrums, and bringing Yiddish to the silver screen. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Long before you even auditioned for “The Plot Against America,” you had a chance encounter with Philip Roth. Tell me about that.

I ran into him at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway. I was trying to tell him that I wrote a college essay about him, but I was a little tongue-tied because of course he’s a literary hero. He was so relaxed. He told me, “It’s O.K., just talk to me.” My grandfather lived in Elizabeth [near Roth’s birthplace, Newark] so there’s some overlap — at least in the cemeteries where our families are buried.

What was it like being on the set for the show?

It was an incredible experience. My scenes are with Zoe Kazan and John Turturro and Winona Ryder, three incredible actors. I got to work one-on-one with Turturro, because he plays a southern rabbi and I play a German expat one, and we had to rehearse and do multiple takes saying a prayer together.

And what role does your character play in the drama?

So I play Rabbi Prinz, who is a historical figure and a counterbalancing force to Rabbi Bengelsdorf [John Turturro’s character]. The big dramatic moment I really enjoyed is during our scene when I address Bengelsdorf, in a subtle but firm way, about the choices he’s making as a religious leader in a time when fascism is taking over. Bengelsdorf is a character who — gosh, I hate to say it, but a character like Stephen Miller or Jared Kushner, people who are cozying up to a racist and a facist while cloaking themselves in a tallis or the Israeli flag. And Prinz is very opposed to that.

Of course, “The Plot Against America” was published in 2004, but many people have pointed out the parallels between Roth’s imagined America and today’s Trump era. Do you think this adaptation is taking those similarities into account?

Roth actually asked this question , just before he passed away — and he said he wasn’t interested in prognosticating. But obviously it’s extremely timely right now, the connections are undeniable and I’d say explicit and warranted. This is one of those moments where a piece of art could wake someone up — although we’re also living in a time when people are so dead set in their opinions it hard to imagine them changing because of a film. Especially because the use of Hitler as an analogy is so overdone. You go to any country where there is political strife and people are calling each other Nazis.

How did you prepare for the role?

This was the first time I was playing a real character in the modern age, and I could see what he said and how he sounded. He actually spoke on the National Mall right before Martin Luther King — you can see on YouTube . He said that the real danger isn’t the maniacs committing violence but the people on the sidelines. Of course, he said it much more eloquently than that. But it’s an extremely powerful message.

Speaking of historical accuracy, another funny thing happened. Rabbi Prinz, because he was Reform, was clean-shaven. But while I was shooting The Plot Against America, I was also working on a Hulu show called “Castle Rock”, where I played a French settler who was supposed to have a big beard. We were negotiating about whether or not I could shave, but eventually I ended up keeping the beard, so for Rabbi Prinz there’s one small inauthentic detail.

They couldn’t just give you a fake beard?

I tried on a great beard in the hair and makeup trailer, but J.J. Abrams, who is in charge at Castle Rock, wanted nothing to do with fake beards. My agent and I were calling it “Beard-gate.”

In the Plot Against America, you have some lines in Yiddish. But this isn’t the first time that’s happened to you, is it?

No, it’s not. I’ve played a Jewish gangster on “ Boardwalk Empire ,” where there was a lot of Yiddish being bandied about, and I was an acid-dropping Hasidic teen in a 2010 film called “ It’s Kind of a Funny Story .” I got to say something like, “I think Yussele took too much,” but in Yiddish. My grandfather helped me with my lines for that one — he grew up in Brownsville, which was essentially a shtetl at the time. He didn’t know there were any people in the world who were not Jewish until he was eight or nine.

Now I’m actually going to Los Angeles to shoot a show called “ Angelyne ,” where I’ll play a Yiddish-speaking refugee. A friend who’s a Yiddish professor is coaching me, and he pointed out that I have to change my vowels to sound more authentic. My grandfather came from Kiev, but the dialect for this show is closer to Satmar Yiddish.

That’s pretty dedicated, given that so few viewers will be able to tell the difference.

Maybe just three or four people, but I think it’s fun to be accurate with things like that.

In your acting career, you’ve had a lot of Jewish roles. Is that something you seek out?

Definitely not. It just happens to me. Actually, the title of my new stand-up album is Thug Thug Jew , because I often end up playing tough Jews, those are the roles people give me. But I will be voicing [Turkish president] Erdogan on Stephen Colbert’s “Our Cartoon President” — so there’s a thug who’s not Jewish.

It’s not something I seek out, but I don’t try to escape it either. I don’t know if I’m a “proud” Jew, because I take issue with the notion that you can be proud of something you had nothing to do with choosing. But it’s an integral part of my identity.

Irene Connelly writes about culture and lifestyle. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

Behind the scenes in HBO’s Plot Against America

These Jewish dads are tackling gay fatherhood, one podcast at a time

The Schmooze cannot independently confirm this, but America’s most popular podcast on gay fatherhood may be the result of a conversation from beyond the grave.

In 2016, Israel-American web designer Yanir Dekel was wrapping up his first year as the father of Ben and Adam, twins he’d conceived through surrogacy with his husband Alex Maghen. Finally, he was experienced enough at changing diapers and administering bottles to think about the big picture. How was he weathering the shift from a life of working out and hanging out to one dictated by sleep schedules? When he and his family were at the park and someone asked if it was “mom’s day off,” what was the best way to respond? How did it feel to be part of the first wave of publicly, unapologetically gay dads?

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Dekel started scribbling his thoughts in a journal. He published an article in Huffington Post about the lessons he’d learned (one key takeaway: make sure to take kids to gay spaces to give them “the opportunity to see why collagen lip injections are never a good idea for men”). And he consulted a psychic who he said put him in touch with his deceased aunt. In a warm and lengthy conversation, she advised him to write a memoir about the topics that were consuming him.

“You already have the idea,” she said.

Already the author of one memoir, Dekel didn’t follow this advice to the letter; but he did start a blog, Daddy Squared . It was a way to record his sons’ development and process his anxieties as a parent while, he hoped, providing insight to other fathers in the same boat.

Some of the posts on Daddy Squared would be at home on many a mommy blog (even the ones that aren’t so sympathetic to LGBTQ parents): early posts tackled devising schedules, choosing safe toys, and coaxing babies to sleep through the night.

Others, like a feature on networks of gay fathers in Queens, and a post on “dad-shaming” (the tendency to assume gay men are bad parents or scrutinize their behavior especially carefully), reflect the specific experience as gay fathers. For Dekel, mulling over these problems in his signature irreverent style (he sometimes refers to his twins as “poop machines”) was a way to “release the tension you have when you’re a parent.”

As podcasts began to replace personal blogs, Dekel, who had some radio experience, saw an opportunity to expand Daddy Squared. With his husband, he recorded the first episode of a podcast on gay fatherhood, focusing on the work it takes to maintain a marriage after becoming a father. Dekel hoped that a dozen people would download the episode. Instead, he said, hundreds streamed in the first week.

Three seasons and 30,000 downloads later, Daddy Squared has emerged as the the ground zero of gay parenting resources. On each episode, Dekel and Maghen host an expert to discuss a chosen topic. A surrogacy expert has appeared on the show to talk about how expectant parents can maintain healthy relationships with the woman carrying their child. Maghen, who works for Time Warner, recruited colleagues to give out “Gayby Awards” for their favorite children’s movies. In the most recent episode, the loss of a beloved dog prompts a father to consult a minister on explaining grief to their boys.

These days, Dekel occasionally meets strangers who recognize his voice from the podcast. But, he says, he’s lucky to live in a “bubble” where his work meets with praise, not hate. Online, he receives hate mail from as far away as South Africa.

“When you make yourself visible, you put yourself in the forefront of the war zone,” Dekel said. Despite the condemnation, he hopes his work will help normalize gay fatherhood outside his own community.

“I say, hey, if you just listen to what we have to say, you’ll see that our kids are just normal. That there’s not really that much of a difference.”

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

Jewish fathers launch podcast on gay fatherhood

“Soon By You” debuts new episode about queer Orthodox Jews

“Soon By You” — the frum and funky “Friends”-esque sitcom taking the Upper West Side by storm — is finally back. In its first season, the show played for laughs while taking on some of the big issues in the Orthodox community today: should women be able to lead prayers? Is it time to change the rules that allow husbands to withhold divorces from their wives?

Now, filmmaker and “Soon By You” creator Leah Gottfried has partnered with JQY (a support center for queer Jewish youth) and Eshel (a nonprofit working for LGBTQ inclusion in the Orthodox community) to explore the dilemma faced by queer young people who want to embrace their sexuality without leaving their communities.

“Soon By You” takes its title from an adage familiar to single women at Orthodox weddings: meaning something like “your turn next,” it’s a phrase in theory optimistic and in practice just as stress-inducing as you’d expect. The sitcom follows a collection of Orthodox twenty-somethings who really do want it to be their turn next — so much so that they are willing to spend literally all of their time on paint-and-sip first dates with potential life partners. But they also want to reconcile observant lifestyles with the trappings of modern yuppie life: ambitious careers, egalitarian relationships, yoga memberships (transgender activist Abby Stein makes a brief cameo as a supremely unflappable yoga teacher), and loving relationships with their gay brothers.

In this season’s most recent episode, struggling artist Sarah is just settling into a relationship with David, a strong-jawed, chore-doing, generally non-toxically masculine rabbi. But things get complicated when they run into Sarah’s brother Joey and his friend Chana while boating in Central Park (because what else would four young professionals be doing in the middle of the afternoon?). David thinks that Joey and Chana are an item, but to Sarah’s dismay Chana reveals that they met at JQY, diving into an advertisement-length spiel (in case you didn’t know who was sponsoring this episode) about the various services they provide.

Awkward silence, allusions to intolerant family members, and a boat overturn ensue, but in the end the stakes prove low: David instantly assures Sarah that he can be a rabbi and accept her brother’s sexuality, Sarah promises Joey that she’ll work on their recalcitrant mother, and Chana gives another quick pitch (“Do you know about Eshel?” she asks in the dulcet tones of a commercial introducing a new drug for opioid-induced constipation, while soothing pharma Muzak plays in the background).

“Soon By You” is the work of a woman at home in her faith and identity. It doesn’t feel the need to explain or justify Orthodox customs, but neither is it interested in establishing Orthodoxy as the one true path or inducing the viewer to abandon her wicked Reform ways (if anything, this viewer is pretty allured by the painting and sipping). It’s gratifying to see references to Jewish culture surface not as clunky gestures towards inclusion but in organic and funny ways — asked if he and Sarah are getting serious, David replies, “It’s not like we’re getting genetic screening yet.” Gottfried has moved her genre forward by creating a show about Orthodox Jews , not Orthodox Judaism .

But in this episode, that approach falls a little short. The sequence of secrecy giving way to acceptance and newly-opened minds is generic, with little mention of the specific complexities of being queer in traditional Jewish communities. “Soon By You” has debuted a significant and necessary episode, all the while downplaying the reasons for which it is significant and necessary.

You can watch the show here .

Behind the scenes with a rabbi in HBO’s ‘Plot Against America’

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

“Soon By You” debuts new episode about queer Orthodox Jews

Donna Zakowska, fashion genius of ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ takes home costume design award

Midge Maisel has been the best-dressed denizen of the Upper West Side since 2017. Now, the woman who creates her enviable ensembles is getting some credit.

At the Costume Designer’s Guild Awards last week, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” costume designer Donna Zakowska scored big. Beating out onesies in “GLOW,” Soviet-chic greatcoats in “Chernobyl,” the beatnik duds of “Fosse/Verdon,” and even some competing fascinators on “The Crown,” she snagged the prize for excellence in the Period Television category.

The choice seems predictable enough (seriously, did we really think that Chernobyl, a show in which literally every garment is gray, was a contender?) but for Zakowska, it’s a long-awaited accolade. The designer was nominated in 2018, after the hit comedy’s first season, but lost out to The Crown’s Jane Petrie.

Zakowska, who spends up to 16 hours a day on set when the show is filming, personally designs the costumes for the main characters, while also supervising rental costumes for up to 1,000 extras per episode. She gets creative with her choices, sourcing Midge’s period undergarments from a lingerie designer in Paris, and even dipping into her own family closet.

“My mother was a crazy person with the ’60s hats,” Zakowska told the New York Times. Now, those hats are popping up wherever Amazon Prime subscriptions are found. In one of the show’s first episodes, a fortune teller who commiserates with Rose Weissman over her daughter’s scandalous new life as a divorcee wears an authentic Zakowska heirloom.

Zakowska won her award for the fifth episode of Season Three, “It’s Comedy or Cabbage,” in which Midge escapes to Miami on tour — only to be followed by her meddling parents. The shift to southern climes forced Zakowska to abandon her standard hat-and-coat ensembles, but she remained undaunted. In just one episode, Midge exhibits a day dress with a sweeping cape attached, a disco-patterned beach romper, and a hot-pink bathing costume complete with bedazzled cat-eye glasses. Meanwhile, Rose debuts what may be the single funkiest headpiece of the entire show: a straw hat with what looks like a dozen sea anemones glued to the top.

Yes, all these outfits sound like middle school fashion disasters you never want to revisit, but trust me (or just watch the episode) — you would wear a sea anemone, too.

Costumes have been central to “Mrs. Maisel’s” success, helping the show distinguish itself from the crowd of historical dramas and emerge as one of the major period pieces of the decade. So it’s no surprise that while costume designers often go without public credit for their work, Zakowska frequently gets kudos from cast members.

“These costumes change the way I move, and breath, and walk, and talk,” Rachel Brosnahan, who portrays the show’s titular character, told NPR . Her onscreen father, Tony Shaloub, attributes his Emmy win Zakowska’s costume choices — after all, he pointed out to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency , he was the only nominee who got to wear a romper onscreen.

Frankly, the male romper is the one Zakowska creation about which I remain skeptical. But if anyone can make it a trend, it’s she.

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

Donna Zakowska, fashion genius of ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ takes home costume design award

‘Leaning in’ to marriage: Sheryl Sandberg announces engagement to Tom Bernthal

Sheryl Sandberg may be the queen bee of Facebook, but to reveal her upcoming nuptials she turned to the platform favored by cool kids worldwide — Instagram.

On Monday, Sandberg announced her engagement to strategic consultant Tom Bernthal in an effusive post that could have been ripped from a Valentine’s Day rom com.

“You are my everything,” she said. “I could not love you more.”

Comments immediately flooded in from the likes of Ariana Huffington, Katie Couric, and — in a very meta social media move — Instagram’s official account itself.

Sandberg was previously married to Dave Goldberg, who died suddenly in 2015. Left to raise two young children on their own, Sandberg relied on her husband’s family, with whom she retained a remarkably close relationship. Sandberg has said that her mother-in-law encouraged her to consider new relationships, promising to dance at her wedding should she marry again. It’s a promise she’ll have to keep thanks to Rob Goldberg, Sandberg’s former brother-in-law, who introduced her to Bernthal last spring.

Since 2012, Sandberg has been Facebook’s most recognizable leader besides its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. She’s presided over the platform’s growth into a multi-billion dollar corporate octopus with tentacles in every online pie; and she’s endeavored to protect it at all costs (even by hiring consultants who smeared proponents of tech regulation , like George Soros, with anti-Semitic slurs).

One of the most prominent women in the Silicon Valley tech bubble, Sandberg has also branded herself as an advocate for all women in the workplace. But her 2013 book-slash-movement, “Lean In,” garnered criticism for placing the burden of breaking glass ceilings on female professionals alone, ignoring the myriad factors besides individual determination that prevent women from achieving careers as illustrious as hers.

In “Option B,” a 2017 memoir about grief and resilience, Sandberg focused on a different kind of individualism, encouraging women to mourn — and move past mourning — at their own pace. She frankly acknowledged that this was easier said than done: Sandberg herself embarked on a new relationship when she felt ready to do so, ten months after her husband’s death, only to receive a flood of hateful messages on the social media platforms she’d helped create.

“Men date sooner, men date more, and women get judged more,” she told the Guardian .

Before founding his consulting firm, Kelton Global, Bernthal worked for the Clinton administration and NBC News, where he won an Emmy award for his production work. People reported that he proposed to Sandberg after a hike and picnic lunch. And while Sandberg can clearly put as many diamond rings on her own fingers as she wants, he gave her an engagement band set with five diamonds, representing her two children and his three.

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

Sheryl Sandberg announces her engagement

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