Premiering on Saturday, February 9, at 8 p.m. is the original Lifetime cable film, Twist of Faith. There are encore showings on Sunday, February 10 at 12:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m.
It’s impossible to describe the film without revealing some (but not all) plot surprises. So let me say that this tale of how an Orthodox Jewish cantor from Brooklyn ends up in Alabama, helping and being helped by an African American family and their church, is far superior to most TV movies and worth your time. If you want to be surprised by the plot twists, don’t read any further than the biographical material, below, on co-star David Julian Hirsh.
Twist of Faith co-stars famous African American singer Toni Braxton, 45, as Nina, a beautiful single mom who is a schoolteacher and the lead singer of her church gospel choir. Braxton, who has little acting experience, turns in a credible performance. Her performance is strengthened playing opposite David Julian Hirsh, 39, who gives an extraordinary performance that raises the whole level of the film. He is more than just believable as an Orthodox cantor and when called on to sing, he sings quite well.
I recently spoke to Hirsh and told him that he had become the “go to” guy for Jewish religious parts in Hollywood, noting that he had just concluded a season-long run as a rabbi on the Showtime series Weeds.
He laughed and said:
I’d rather be the go-to rabbi slash cantor than the go-to killer… Truthfully, when I was young, I considered becoming a rabbi. Listen, if I’ve cornered the market on these Jewish roles, why not? It’s something in my own life. I am always reading about and fascinated by Judaism, and I love it. I love that it is being explored on camera. I love the whole scene with this movie and the ideas it opens up. [Although] I am not Orthodox, I am a practicing Jew. I absolutely have a very deep personal relationship with God. I am fascinated by the religion; I am always reading about it. I love exploring it in work, too.
Hirsh was born and raised in Montreal. He studied criminology at the University of Toronto (“I was going to be a good Jewish boy and become a lawyer”), until a summer acting workshop in New York convinced him to pursue an acting career. He then completed a three-year course at the Lee Strasberg Institute. His other notable credits include a two-year stint as a co-star of the TNT series Hawthorne.
Hirsh told about his early career:
My first job was with the Jewish Repertory Theater of New York. I had to sing a few prayers [on stage] and that was the probably the last time I sung [sic] in public [before this film]. I was really happy the way my singing turned out in the film. I was singing with one of the greatest R&B singers of all time [Braxton].
About his family:
My [maternal] grandparents were Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories was a huge part of my upbringing. They lost all of their family in the war. They survived by escaping [Poland] and fleeing to a labor camp in Russia; then to a DP [displaced persons] camp in Austria; then to South Africa. They managed to get into Canada after the war. [My parents] wanted me to go to a Jewish school when I was young, which was great. We went to Orthodox synagogues. It was a nice, solid Jewish upbringing, which I love. I was bar mitzvah. In preparing for the film, I drew on everything, including what my grandfather went through, losing his parents and his family, and then, with his new family, bringing them to a safe place.
Regarding the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, a theme played out in the movie, Hirsh noted, “Both groups had a lot to learn from each other. We both worship the same God.” He added that he wished that synagogues, especially Orthodox ones, could bring in some of the vibrancy found in Black churches.
Horrible loss, like that which Hirsh’s grandparents suffered, is a big part of Twist of Faith. Hirsh plays a cantor named Jacob who is eking out a living in Brooklyn serving as a cantor for a small Orthodox synagogue. He supplements his income by working as a carpenter. His jewels are his beautiful wife and three young children. All four are slain before his eyes in an incident that recalls the recent Newtown, CT, school shooting. (The film was made well before the Newtown shooting.)
Feeling totally bereft and almost catatonic, Jacob boards a south-bound bus. After months of wandering and sleeping where he can, Jacob ends up in small Alabama town where he falls asleep on the lawn of a Black church. The church is next door to the home of Nina. Nina’s uncle and young son, citing the need to be “good Christians,” allow him to stay the night in the church. Even though Jacob doesn’t talk for a long time, the uncle senses that Jacob is a good man and with Nina’s eventual approval, he’s allowed to stay on at the church as long as he wants.
He makes himself useful as the church’s carpenter and increasingly endears himself to Nina and the whole church congregation, although he doesn’t tell them who he is and where he came from.
The film retains credibility because Jacob and Nina have something “real” to bond about beyond being nice, lonely people: music. Nina’s choir is trying to win a statewide contest for the best gospel choir and they know they need a dynamite song. It is believable that Jacob would try to comfort himself by composing a tune on the church piano and that Nina might overhear him doing so. Its also believable that she would encourage him to write a tune for her choir.
Over the course of about six months, Jacob recovers considerably from his trauma. In turn, Nina opens up to Jacob about her painful divorce and loneliness. But before they really act on their growing romantic attraction, Jacob returns to Brooklyn and tries to resume his old life. He tells his aged mother about his relationship with Nina and seeks her counsel.
Spoiler alert! Don’t read further if you don’t want to know the ending.
Jacob’s mother tells him to go back to Alabama and, in effect, find his happiness with Nina. Before he makes the trip back, Nina and her family have found out who Jacob really is via an internet search and they know the tragedy he has suffered. In the film’s last scene, he is greeted by Nina and her family and the couple have their first romantic kiss.
I said to Hirsh that many would say that it is less than credible that an Orthodox Jewish woman would advise her son to give up his plans to re-settle in Brooklyn and move 1,500 miles away so he can pursue a relationship with a religious Christian woman. He readily agreed with my comment and said that it was the moment in the movie that requires the biggest suspension of belief.
However, he said, he had one alternative thought about the ending. Perhaps, Hirsh said, one could say that Jacob’s mother was one of those “rare people, from any ethnic or religious background,” whose love for their child is “so deep” that they can put traditional values aside in the face of extraordinary circumstances and tell their child to do what makes them happy.
End of spoilers!
By the way, the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, one of the largest Reform synagogues in the country, screened Twist of Faith last night for a joint audience of temple members and members of First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, with Braxton and Hirsh in attendance to answer questions.
The Grammy Awards, for musical excellence, will be shown on CBS on Sunday, February 10 at 8:00 p.m. There are 81 Grammys to be awarded this year, but only about twenty Grammy awards, in the biggest-selling musical genres, are actually presented on TV.
Here are three musicians of Jewish or interfaith background who are up for “TV worthy” Grammys:
Drake, who has been frequently mentioned in this column, is the son of a Canadian Jewish mother and an African-American father. He was raised in his mother’s faith.
Antonoff, the son of two Jewish parents, went to a Jewish day school for his primary school education. He has been dating interfaith actress Lena Dunham, 26, of Girls for about six months. It’s been quite a run for the couple, with Dunham winning two Golden Globes® last month (Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series — Comedy or Musical; Best Television Series — Comedy or Musical) and Antonoff’s Grammy nominations.
Fun. is nominated for six Grammys, including Best New Group, Song of the Year (“We Are Young”), and Record of the Year. Fun. is scheduled to perform on the Grammy Award stage.
Last July 4, the New York Times profiled Jack Antonoff and his sister, successful fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, 30.
As the Times notes, as of last July, Rachel Antonoff was living with her boyfriend, Nate Ruess, 30, the lead singer of Fun. Ruess isn’t Jewish.
Updates since this Times article: Jack Antonoff began dating Dunham not long after this article appeared and Rachel Antonoff had a cameo role this season on Girls.
Here’s what the Times has to say:
For Jack and Rachel Antonoff, sibling rivalry is a foreign concept. “We’ve been a unit for a long time,” Rachel said. “Everything I do,” Jack added, “my first thought is, I wonder if Rachel will think it’s cool. In that sense, we really do everything together.”
Jack, 28, is the guitarist in Fun., the pop band whose infectious single “We Are Young” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks this spring. Rachel, 30, is the designer behind a namesake fashion label, known for girly-chic sundresses beloved by the likes of Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel.
The Antonoffs grew up in suburban New Jersey, where they commuted to the Upper West Side to attend the Professional Children’s School. Rachel went for theater and Jack followed suit, before starting a rock band in his sophomore year.
While they still operate in different creative spheres, their lives remain intertwined. Rachel lives with Nate Ruess, the lead singer of Fun., and they are dating. She has also sung on a few Fun. tracks and has appeared in the band’s videos, including “We Are Young.” And Jack has helped produce fashion videos for Rachel, including the spring 2010 look book based on “Top That,” a campy rap song from the 1989 film Teen Witch.
The Black Keys is a two-man band: Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, 32. The two met when they were 8 or 9 years old, when they both lived in the same Akron, Ohio neighborhood. They became friends when they went to the same Akron high school and, in 2001, they formed the Black Keys. (When touring, the duo hire backing musicians to play with them.)
Auerbach is the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, of British descent. Auerbach, so far as I know, as never spoke about any religious upbringing. But he did speak movingly about his father’s family in a December, 2011 interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper. Here’s that part of the interview:
But for Auerbach, their success has more to do with luck, timing, hard work and years of playing steadily bigger shows. As he puts it: “We’ve put in more hours and driven to further-away places than anyone else we know.” His work ethic is surprisingly deep-rooted. Of Polish Jewish descent, he is the son of an antique dealer father and French teacher mother. His great-uncle was a Holocaust camp survivor and his grandma got out just before the Nazis closed the borders. “Her entire family was murdered,” he reveals, softly. “Mum, dad, elder brothers, everyone. She made it to England and learned to speak English. She met my grandpa, who was in the army, and they moved to New Jersey, and eventually reunited with my great-uncle. All those stories were a big part of my growing up. You realise how lucky we are. It certainly makes you work harder.
Next time: My annual Oscars® run-down.