By Jaime Uranovsky
Many have seen Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), which tells the true story of the Szpilman family in Warsaw during the Holocaust.
For actress-turned-rabbi/chazzan, Jessica Kate Meyer, who played Halina Szpilman opposite Adrien Brody in the film, the experience on which she embarked during the making of this blockbuster was exceptionally meaningful. Indeed, it catalysed her journey From the Pianist to the Pulpit, as one of her talks was titled at Limmud in Cape Town this year.
The American-born rabbi recounts, “I had a much more Jewish experience than a cinematic experience. There were very few Jews working on this film but Maureen Lipman who plays the mother, a tremendous British actress, and another actor — we’d have Shabbat, and Pesach fell right in the middle of filming, so we had Seder together.” Jessica also spent time with young Jews in Warsaw who, at the time of filming in the early 2000s, were rebuilding the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the Holocaust. For Jessica, being in the film came with a great responsibility to honour and to pay tribute: to the Jews depicted in the true story of The Pianist and to Polanski himself as a Holocaust survivor.
Jessica’s Jewish identity was strong from a young age but it was through The Pianist that her trajectory changed. She notes that, “I was a yearner, a seeker, very pulled-in Jewishly but I didn’t have the context and I was from a fairly secular family. From a very young age I was very pulled-in to the prayer service.”
While filming, an ethnomusicologist created a compilation of songs for each of the lead actors to assist with their character building. The Szpilman family being portrayed was exceptionally musical and each playlist contained carefully selected songs to which the characters would actually have listened at the time. This was a life-changing venture for Jessica: “The first piece on there was a cantorial piece. Hearing that brought me back to my own background. This was my music and this, to me, was the sound of prayer.”
This process of reconnecting with prayer was important for Jessica as a self-described ‘Hebrew school dropout.’ For her, Hebrew school took the soul out of Jewish learning but her batmitzvah gave her the opportunity to find “how I wanted to use my own voice in prayer: to lead and chant Torah. I was very resentful of everyone standing on the bimah — they had a secret language that I didn’t have access to. They had Hebrew.”
As a result, Jessica studied Hebrew at college and became fluent. She then worked briefly in the Tel Aviv theatre scene before attending drama school in London. It was at this point, while still studying drama, that she landed the role in The Pianist.
After the film, Jessica started praying both by herself and at shul. Now that she had access to Hebrew, she felt that she could properly connect with tefillah. She moved to LA, worked in TV and film and simultaneously taught weekly ‘music of prayer’ classes at a Hebrew school in a community called Ikar. “So, the Hebrew school dropout wanted to be the Hebrew school teacher,” she jokes.
It was at this time that Jessica realised that the acting industry no longer spoke to her. “I didn’t want to surround myself with the values of Hollywood when the values of my own family and tradition were pointing me away from this. I also realised that, being in The Pianist, I would never make anything or be part of anything as meaningful ever again. I had a problem because I’d spent all this time preparing for a film career and I didn’t want it anymore… I was ready to shut the door.”
So, after learning with different rabbis in LA, Jessica plucked up the courage to apply for cantorial school in Boston. She soon found herself wanting to spend more and more time in the beit midrash and, before she knew it, she was on the way to becoming a rabbi. After being ordained in 2014, she spent time in Jerusalem, served a community in New York and is now the rabbi-chazzan in a community called the Kitchen in San Francisco.
For Jessica, Judaism and music are intertwined: “Music and song is, first, the entry point and also the place where there is a language beyond language. We are people of the word and of the book but also people of niggun: the melody. There’s so much beyond that you can only point toward but that you can actually touch with song.”
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