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From ‘The Pianist’ film role into real life as a rabbi

Bruce Shaffer

After a prominent role in Roman Polanski’s acclaimed 2002 Holocaust film “The Pianist,” Jessica Kate Meyer was poised for a screen career. But that star turn ultimately sent her in a very different direction.

Last month, Meyer was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew College in Newton.

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“Making this movie was the seed for me leaving film and coming back to Judaism and eventually toward the rabbinate,” she said.

“She’s the matriarch of our children’s souls,” said Rebecca Weintraub, who marveled at how her two young sons became enthralled with Judaism when Meyer led family services at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.

To prepare for ordination, Meyer served stints as a rabbinic intern there and at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.

Weintraub, who had seen “The Pianist” years before, hadn’t recognized Meyer from the film. “She is so much more petite in real life than she is on the silver screen.”

Meyer’s story is a study in contrasts. She is a born performer — a violinist and singer, as well as an actor — but she finds fulfillment in getting everyone in on the act, be they worshipers at synagogue, children singing at Hebrew school, or the audience at a klezmer concert.

From the glamorous world of Hollywood, she plunged into the esoteric one of scrutinizing centuries-old religious commentary.

Her Jewish journey to the rabbinate zigged and zagged. It began when she was only 4 or 5, shortly after her family moved from the Waban section of Newton to Connecticut.

Already familiar with classical musical from taking violin lessons, Meyer was mesmerized by the singing of the hazzan, or cantor, at her family’s new synagogue in West Hartford.

“When I heard it, I thought, this is mine,” she said. The hazzan “became a rock star to me. I would follow him around.” His wife tutored her in Hebrew; “The Cat and the Hat” was one of her first texts in the language.

As a student at Wellesley College in the 1990s, Meyer studied Hebrew and spent her junior year in Israel while completing a degree in Middle Eastern studies. At the time, the college was embroiled in a widely publicized furor about Africana studies professor Tony Martin’s assertion that Jews had played a major role in the slave trade.

“They really dragged the student body, Jewish students and African-American students, into the mud,” Meyer said. “Had I been more mature, I would have wanted to start another forum for discussion.” She focused instead on Shakespeare, delighting both in dissecting the text and performing it.

After college, Meyer spent a year in Israel working with peace groups and Israeli-Palestinian theater. Later, while a student at what is now London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, she learned from her sister that Polanski was filming “The Pianist,” based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir. “You should be in the film,” Meyer recalled her sister saying. “We both had a good laugh.”

But she did pick up a copy of the book.

“I read it and felt a strong connection with the way he described his sister,” she said.

Though she had no professional film credits, Meyer called Polanski’s production company in London. Incredibly, she was put straight through to the producer, Robert Benmussa.

“I said, ‘Hi, I just read the memoir. Who would I send my head shot to?’ And he said, ‘Send it to me.’ ”

Jessica Kate Meyer connected with Ezra Klauber and other young members as a rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Zion.

Klauber-Weintraub family.

Jessica Kate Meyer connected with Ezra Klauber and other young members as a rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Zion.

A few months later, after Adrien Brody was cast for the lead, Meyer was called in for an interview. After two auditions, she got the part of the sister. “The fact that I looked a bit like Adrien Brody didn’t hurt,” she said.

Meyer said that when she finally met Benmussa in person, “He looked at me and said, ‘When you called, you knew that this was your role.’ ”

Making the movie was “more of a Jewish experience than a film experience,” she said. “I did a lot of research, read a lot of memoirs.” In Warsaw, an ethnomusicologist compiled a tape of the music her character would have known. The pieces resonated with Meyer, much as had the sounds of the hazzan in West Hartford when she was a little girl.

After completing drama school, she straddled the worlds of religion and entertainment. She appeared in a Spanish arthouse film and in the 2005 HBO film “Mrs. Harris.” In Los Angeles, she became active at Ikar (Essence), a synagogue with a mix of traditional and innovative programming aimed at disaffected Jews.

Just as Meyer was about to embark on a yearlong fellowship in Jewish text and leadership, her agent sent her an HBO script. It was from the series “Rome,” and Meyer was up for the role of Cleopatra. She took the script with her on a weekend study retreat. The first seminar was led by Leonard Fein, a columnist and social activist who now lives in Watertown.

As she listened to Fein describe how he came to start “Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger,” Meyer said she immediately realized she could not care less about auditioning for Cleopatra. “This was not meaningful to me. I just want to study. I just want to learn,” she said.

In the years since, Fein has become one of Meyer’s fans. “She is a star; and whatever she undertakes, I expect that star will continue rising,” he said.

But it was tough for Meyer to abandon the acting career that she had spent five years building. At the end of the fellowship year, she was asked to audition for another television drama. This time it was “Mad Men,” and she was one of two actresses being considered to play a Jewish department store heiress who has a fling with Don Draper, the central figure.

She didn’t get the role, laughing that perhaps she fumbled the cigarette test. The characters in “Mad Men,” set in the early 1960s, are notoriously addicted to smoking.

But she insists she was not disappointed. “I really, really don’t remotely want to be in Hollywood,” she said. “All the things I was raised to value . . . none of them applied to that world. That world was all about superficiality.”

Now she had to work up the nerve to make the career leap. With her musical background, she considered becoming a cantor.

“I still had a lot of impostor syndrome,” she said. “I had only been studying text for one year.”

During the next few months, she studied with several rabbis. Ikar’s rabbi, Sharon Brous, prodded her to teach a children’s class one day in musical prayer. “I was transformed in that afternoon,” Meyer said.

Her confidence and commitment bolstered, Meyer applied to the cantorial program at Hebrew College. The return to the Boston area was also a homecoming of sorts. While growing up in Connecticut, she had commuted to the New England Conservatory of Music for violin lessons and to play with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

Among her voice teachers at Hebrew College was opera singer and now cantor Lynn Torgove. Meyer also studied Jewish music at NEC and performed with her teacher there, Hankus Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Meyer likens her own voice to that “of a man from the Old Country.” Listen to her on the Hebrew College CD “Galeh” and you might think otherwise.

But while voice training would be a major part of her studies, she decided to switch into the rabbinic program. “I wanted to be focusing on text more,” she said, likening her passion for the Jewish scholars to that for Shakespeare.

“The most powerful part of Hebrew College is that it centers around a Beit Midrash,” the study hall. “Everyone’s together. You’re studying with your [partner] and you just get this noise, this level of excitement from all these people studying different texts.”

The day after being ordained, Meyer took up her post as assistant rabbi and co-music director at Romemu (Elevate!), a progressive congregation in Manhattan where she had just interned.

While raised in the Conservative movement, Meyer does not identify with any particular stream of Judaism.

“When we’re together in a prayer service, there’s this act of reaching for the best part of ourselves,” she said. “In our community, everyone has a different conception of God. But the ability to reach together — to me there’s divinity in it.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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