Filming in Israel, Harvey Keitel Transforms From Hollywood Gangster Into Jewish Patriarch

Haaretz catches up with the Hollywood star as he downs Arak on a kibbutz while taking a break from filming a modern retelling of the biblical rivalry between Esau and Jacob, based on the novel by Meir Shalev

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From the film "Esau," starring Harvey Keitel, Lior Ashkenazi and Mark Ivanir, and based on the novel by Meir Shalev.
From the film "Esau," starring Harvey Keitel, Lior Ashkenazi and Mark Ivanir, and based on the novel by Meir Shalev.Credit: Ella Barak

A Hollywood star, an acclaimed Israeli novelist and an award-winning Russian director – all Jewish – walk onto a kibbutz. It could be the opening of a Borscht Belt joke, or perhaps a Zionist fantasy of an artistic ingathering of the exiles.

In fact, it describes the mid-May scene in the Judean Hills, as Harvey Keitel, Meir Shalev and Pavel Lungin bond over a bottle of Arak at Kibbutz Harel, west of Jerusalem. Sitting at a plastic-topped picnic table, the three artists have turned their press interview, during a break in filming of Shalev’s novel “Esau,” into an impromptu mid-afternoon drinking party.

Behind them, the “Esau” production team, cast and crew chat busily in a mixture of Russian, Hebrew and accented English – while the three men discuss the merits of various brands of the anise-flavored drink.

At first, Keitel resists Lungin’s entreaties to taste his favorite Lebanese brand, knowing that afternoon drinking on set – ahead of a dinner date with his wife and mother-in-law – is probably not the best idea. Eventually, though, he relents, and the movie legend raises his cup in Lungin and Shalev’s direction, toasting “the wonderfulness of all of us coming together to tell this story.”

For all three, the work-in-progress represents a first. Keitel, 79, had never made a film in Israel before, and portraying Shalev’s patriarch, Abraham Levy, is a rare occasion for him to play a character who is Jewish but not a gangster – as he did in his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Mickey Cohen in Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy” (1991).

From the film "Esau," starring Harvey Keitel, Lior Ashkenazi and Mark Ivanir, and based on the novel by Meir Shalev.Credit: Ella Barak

The Brooklyn-born actor may be the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but in the Hollywood pantheon he is more closely associated with Italian Americans like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro for memorable turns in classics “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Taxi Driver” (1976), along with his searing romantic performance as a Scottish immigrant in Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (1993), and iconic turn as “The Wolf” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Here, he is playing far from type as an aging, ailing Jewish father in a shapeless cardigan and house slipper-style shoes, growling passive aggressively at his resentful son, Esau (played by Lior Ashkenazi).

For Shalev, 69, Lungin’s interest in his 1991 novel – a contemporary retelling of the biblical “Jacob and Esau” story – marks the first time one of his more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction or children’s literature has been adapted into a feature film.

In the past, he says, “there were many attempts by Israeli directors and writers to turn novels of mine into films. But they failed at the stage of script writing. I think they liked the books too much and tried to take as much as possible from the book. This is the first time someone has managed to emerge with a successful script, and I’m very happy about it.”

Completing the series of firsts, this is the debut English-language film for Lungin, 68, an acclaimed Russian filmmaker who won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for “Taxi Blues” in 1990. He is also known for the film “Luna Park” and co-creating the Russian TV series “Rodina,” which is based on Israel’s “Hatufim” – itself the inspiration for the American TV series “Homeland.” Lungin was awarded his country’s highest artistic honor, the People’s Artist of Russia award, in 2008.

Shalev’s novel is a multigenerational saga of a family of bakers and is narrated by Esau, who returns home to Israel after spending decades in self-imposed exile in the United States. During his visit, he must face his father and twin brother Jacob, whom he feels has stolen his birthright – carrying on the family baking business and marrying the woman Esau once loved.

The novel began, Shalev explains, with a simple desire to write about a family that bakes bread. As a student at Hebrew University who worked nights, he was tempted by the scent of Angel Bakery, where he would often stop to buy challah in the wee hours of the morning. It was only mid-writing that he realized the story of sibling rivalry he was crafting was essentially a modern retelling of the biblical story and he changed the main character’s name to Esau.

Though it is a Jewish and Israeli story, Shalev believes it crosses cultures and is easy for his Russian director and American star to grasp, and for non-Israeli audiences to relate to. “The classical themes of literature – love, longing, family relationships: these are 4,000 years old and they are universal,” says the writer.

Lungin approached Shalev about turning “Esau” into a film four years ago. When the script was ready, he reached out to Keitel. The director says he had long been “a great admirer” of the actor, whom he first met decades earlier at Cannes,

“Knowing his work from ‘Taxi Blues’ and having met him so many years ago, I was definitely interested,” says Keitel. “He’s just the kind of director I like to work with.”

From the film "Esau," starring Harvey Keitel, Lior Ashkenazi and Mark Ivanir, and based on the novel by Meir Shalev.Credit: Vered Adir

Keitel at the Kotel

Despite the relatively spartan and unglamorous conditions and political volatility, the idea of shooting on a kibbutz in Israel never dissuaded him. “Who could not be interested in Israel?” Keitel asks rhetorically.

After three days of intensive shooting, Keitel admits to feeling tired but also good and in his element.

“I’m working on a project I really love, working with a director I love. The people of Israel, I’ve worked with before, but never in this country itself. The vibe of the people here is something very...” He searches for the right word, before opting for “other.”

It’s a vibe Keitel is familiar with. His wife, Daphna Kastner, was born in Montreal and spent summers visiting her extended family in Haifa. The couple combined the movie shoot in Israel with their 13-year-old son Roman’s bar mitzvah, which the family celebrated at the Western Wall before the shoot.

“To stand by the Kotel was an experience that I haven’t got the words to describe. The history of it, the image of it,” Keitel reflects. He has warm words for the rabbis who performed the ceremony. “The wonderful religious men I met there gave me a deeper knowledge than I possessed about the meaning of Israel. And I am very grateful to them for that.”

The rabbis, he says, referred to “Israel as a house of study. What a wonderful way to think of your country.”

The two Israeli actors who are ostensibly the film’s leads say the triumvirate of Keitel, Shalev and Lungin made the project a no-brainer for each of them.

Ashkenazi, who plays Esau, has starred in a long list of Israeli films, beginning with 2001’s “Late Marriage,” with more recent turns in “Footnote” (2011) and “Foxtrot” (2017). Keitel isn’t the only Hollywood legend he’s shared the screen with, having recently also co-starred with Richard Gere in Joseph Cedar’s “Norman” (2016).

Mark Ivanir, who plays Jacob, is a veteran of three Steven Spielberg films and is arguably the hardest-working Israeli actor in Hollywood. A familiar face to fans of “Homeland” and “Transparent,” he is Hollywood’s go-to actor when casting Russian oligarchs and guys called Dmitri, and may end up rivaling Keitel when it comes to playing gangsters.

Both Ashkenazi and Ivanir are 49, and both remember reading “Esau” when it was first published in 1991. Both have also long admired Keitel and Lungin’s work. “It is a project that reminds you why you became an actor,“ admits Ivanir.

Art in the corner

Israel is never a dull place. But as luck would have it, Keitel’s time on the set coincided with two of the most eventful weeks in recent memory: From U.S. President Donald Trump’s nixing of the Iran deal, to cross-border skirmishes between Israel and Syria/Iran, the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and deadly violence on the Gaza border.

Keitel shrugs off any worry over taking heat for filming in Israel. “Those who would be critical of making a movie here – I’d say these are the kind of people we are making the movie for,” he says.

For Shalev, separating art from politics is a regular habit. He devotes one day each week to the newspaper column he writes about politics for leading Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, and devotes himself to fiction every other day.

“I don’t like to read political novels and I don’t like to write them,” he says. “I’m political when I write my column or argue with my friends. But I feel like even in Israel, in a politics-infested country, I have the right to do my art in my corner, away from the daily reality.”

For Lungin, though, keeping the political reality out of his art has never been an option: He came of age as an artist in the then-Soviet Union, making films as his country was undergoing tremendous upheaval. Nowadays, he must maneuver in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He prefers not to elaborate on the current era, saying only that “even to breathe in Russia has become more difficult,” but does note that “perhaps a little bit of difficulty makes an artist stronger.”

Like Keitel and Shalev, he’s much more comfortable when the conversation moves away from politics and back onto culture.

Asked how he gets into character as an actor, the method-trained Keitel describes it – and filmmaking – as a mysterious and transformative process. “It’s an elixir,” he says. “Like when you make straw into gold. What’s the word for it? Alchemy.” Referring to his character’s vocation, he smiles: “It’s like baking bread.”

Across the table, Lungin has another idea – and once more raises his cup in Keitel and Shalev’s direction. The transformative magic of filmmaking, he ventures, is like good quality Arak. “You take liquid – and it turns into happiness.”

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