The rabbi, the actor and the story behind ‘Operation Sunflower’

For Baruch Brenner, it was a challenge playing the lead role in a movie that shines a light on Israel’s nuclear history.

Baruch Brenner in ‘Operation Sunflower (photo credit: JOANNA KUSHNIR)
Baruch Brenner in ‘Operation Sunflower
(photo credit: JOANNA KUSHNIR)
Baruch Brenner, who stars in the movie Operation Sunflower, which opens throughout Israel this week, is a most unusual hyphenate: an actor-rabbi. However, the low-key Jerusalemite is not entirely comfortable flaunting his uniqueness.
“I don’t really call myself a rabbi,” says Brenner over coffee at the café in the Jerusalem Cinematheque. “I don’t really function as a rabbi,” he says, pointing out that he doesn’t have a congregation. “Sometimes, if people insist on it, I’ll officiate at a bar mitzva.”
For Brenner, both being a rabbi and acting are part of his lifelong passion for learning and understanding the world. When he does officiate at an event such as a bar mitzva, he emphasizes that “it’s part of Jewish tradition to change the world, to make a revolution in the world.”
He tries to do this by learning – “I dream of going back to the beit midrash,” he says – as well as through his acting. His superficially disparate careers merge in two ways for him: “They help me understand the world and awaken new aspects of the world.”
While someone else in Brenner’s lines of work might talk about the specifics of being a religiously observant actor on a movie set, Brenner isn’t focused on these details.
“The Jewish world and the world of art are two ways to understand the world. Artistry is part of the Jewish world for me,” he says.
Brenner, who was born in Haifa to a father who worked for Egged and a mother who was a housewife, studied in a yeshiva but also served in the army. Influenced by the rabbi and scholar Adin Steinsaltz, Brenner went to see a play while he was a soldier, and that experience made him realize that theater was “a medium with many possibilities. I wanted to create new ways of living in the world. I went on a journey.”
That journey led him to Italy to study with Jerzy Grotowski, the renowned Polish- born experimental theater director.
“I worked with him during the last three years of his life. He changed my life, my attitude toward life and toward art very deeply. His knowledge, the way he approached theater and art was unique.”
Brenner returned to Israel, where he continued to study acting and Torah, and eventually he began acting and teaching.
He has worked in both theater and movies, and previously worked with Avraham Kushnir, the director of Operation Sunflower, on the film Bruria, a look at the changing role of women in the Orthodox world.
Preparing for the leading role of Feuerberg in Operation Sunflower, a character based on the scientist in charge of the team that created Israel’s nuclear program, was a challenge for Brenner.
“The historical background was surreal. [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion lay awake nights worrying that Israel would be destroyed; he was afraid that Jews had come here from all over the world after the Shoah, and one bomb could destroy all of us... [Director Avraham] Kushnir researched it all and based it on fact. There are so many surreal touches, like the mother of a French politician who read Shimon Peres’s palm [and based on that, advised her son to collaborate with Israeli nuclear scientists]. I didn’t know any of the historical background, so I read a lot of history books,” he says.
“I read a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the Manhattan Project, and it gave me an idea of what nuclear scientists experience. They took the moral dilemma very seriously, and after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of them became peace activists or even went crazy... I also met with a physicist at Givat Ram in an old basement room.”
Avraham Kushnir, who dropped by to say hello to his star during the interview, commented, only half-jokingly, on Brenner’s serious preparation for the role, “Baruch can build an atomic bomb.”
But science was only one dimension of the character that Brenner needed to understand.
“The character had to flee Germany when he was a teenager. My father, who is now 90, was thrown out of his class in Germany when he was 16, and he’s never gotten over it. In 1938, he got out of Germany, and he and his family were fleeing the Nazis throughout the war. I could connect to this. And when there is a personal dimension, it gives me a way to understand the character.”
The character is also a homosexual, but this did not present a problem for Brenner.
“It was a different time. Homosexuality was not even a word that people used then. But it was part of who he was,” says Brenner.
In addition to promoting the movie, Brenner is at work on several projects, including a musical performance as part of the Shaon Horef festival on February 24 in Ein Kerem.
He’s also part of an artistic group affiliated with the dance troupe Vertigo that is located on a kibbutz.
“It’s a kind of cultural laboratory,” he says. “We investigate many new subjects. We’re working on a piece based on a story by Rabbi Nachman, called The Fly and the Mosquito. It’s very enigmatic. It’s a world of a dream, but surrealistic. It combines acting, music and dance.”
The piece will have its premiere at the Israel Festival this spring. It engages Brenner’s imagination because, like Operation Sunflower, it combines Jewish history and sources with art.
“I hope that I make art when I act. When I have the chance to make art, I feel a responsibility. With every script, I feel I have to go into it in depth,” he says.