Pondering the road not taken

Actor Nehemiah Persoff wonders what life might have been like had he stayed in Israel.

October 18, 2007 09:02
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Born in Jerusalem in 1919, Nehemiah Persoff went on to become one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood. He excelled as gangland figures like Johnny Torrio, mentor to Al Capone in the 1959 biopic, or mobster Jake Guzik - a recurring character on The Untouchables TV series. Today, despite his success on stage and screen, this talented Sabra looks back on his long career with an element of regret. At 88, the retired actor admits to feeling conflicted and wonders if perhaps he should have ignored the siren song of Broadway and Hollywood and returned to Israel to help build the country. Persoff's childhood in Jerusalem was poverty-stricken, but there was constant singing, dancing and music in his home. "Jerusalem in the late Twenties was a place like no other," Persoff remembers with a wistful smile. "I cannot imagine a 10-year-old more attached to his birthplace than I was." Persoff's father, a silversmith and painter, felt there was more opportunity for his talent in "The Golden Land" overseas. So the young Persoff emigrated with his family to the United States in 1929 - just in time for the great stock market crash. After trade school, he spent several years working as an electrician and later in the signal department of the New York subway system. Gradually he began to take an interest in acting, and after serving in the US Army during World War II, Persoff started seriously pursuing an acting career in New York. His big break came in 1947, when he successfully auditioned for director Elia Kazan and was admitted to the Actors Studio, where he studied under Kazan and acting coach Lee Strasberg. Among Persoff's classmates were such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Kim Stanley. After training and making important connections at the Actors Studio, Persoff didn't look back. Among his 50 or so film credits are On the Waterfront, The Harder They Fall, The Wrong Man, Some Like It Hot, The Comancheros, Yentl and The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens' epic on the life of Christ. Persoff also guest starred on about 400 TV shows. In 1951, Persoff reached a proverbial fork in the road. He returned to Israel briefly to perform in two plays - The Glass Menagerie and Volpone. "I liked working in Israel, but by that time I felt there was a career for me in New York and Hollywood, so I made a hard decision and came back to the States to pursue my career," he explained. "By that time I was married and my needs were different...I gave way to the lure of Broadway and Hollywood." TODAY, PERSOFF finds himself questioning some of those choices. "Had I returned to Israel as my older brother and sister did, would my life's contribution have been of more worth? My oldest brother Boaz went back in 1934 to continue what he started to do as a boy of 17 - herd sheep. He lived in a place called Shech-Ebrek with Alexander Zeid (founder of the first Jewish Defense League) and his wife Tzipora. "Though tending sheep does not seem like a big deal, in those days it was a matter of establishing the right of the Israelis to return to the land and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. There was friction in the area. An Arab was murdered. Several days later, while tending sheep, my brother was murdered. To this day, no one knows who fired the shot that killed him. This happened in 1934. My brother was 27 years old. Today, schoolchildren from all over Israel visit my brother's grave in Kiryat Tivon, and listen to his story. "The events leading up to this particular quarrel with the Arab neighbors (who were once friends) have never been made clear," Persoff recalls. "My brother's body was dredged from the bottom of a deep well where apparently he was watering his flock. At the time, all concerned wanted to calm things down; thus few details are known by me. Boaz was a member of "Kvutsat ha roeem" (the shepherds' group). Persoff is silent for a few moments before continuing. "Is financial success and comfort more satisfying in the long run than a life dedicated to your people? I wonder. "I come from a place and time that preceded the upheaval that brought about the modern Jewish state - a country where a child of 10 was keenly aware of the need for the rebirth of this nation," he relates. "My generation was destined to go to war to liberate our land, some to die and many to live in glory as a free nation. Destiny took me to the United States in the midst of the terrible depression; it was hard for me to adjust to the values of my new home, and for several years after arriving here I went to bed crying, yearning to be back with those I so loved and admired. As it happened, I became an actor... I lived in a world that was light years away from the place where we danced the Hora and sang 'I have a shirt on my back, sandals on my feet, a hat on my head. I'm in my land. Who needs more?'" Though Persoff's life story turned out very differently than he might have imagined as a child, many of his acting choices, he says, reflect his love for his homeland. "I was constantly inspired by the dignity of our people, their compassion and anger at injustice," he says. "I think you can see it in my work, even in the heavies I played." In Persoff's one-man show Sholom Aleichem, he was inspired by the Yiddish writer and by the memory of the people he once knew in Jerusalem. The show, which he performed for years in the States, Canada and Australia, won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award and the Bay Area Critics Circle Award for best touring show of the year and best performance of the year. "Today I find myself thinking about the wonder of the modern state of Israel," he marvels. "And I do think of the comfortable life I lived while so many brave young men fought and died so that this nation could survive to make its contributions to the world."

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