Close encounters with the IAF

Steven Spielberg’s younger sister Nancy visits Israel to work on a documentary about the volunteer pilots from North America who helped propel the fledgling Israel Air Force into the skies in 1948.

Israel Air Force 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Air Force 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Before Nancy Spielberg took on her latest project, she made a phone call. To her older brother. You might have heard of him.
The subject of the project – a documentary about the volunteer pilots from North America who helped propel the fledgling Israel Air Force into the skies in 1948 – rang a bell with her.
“I recalled that Steven was once going to make a feature film on the subject. I didn’t want to step on his big feet and his big toes, so I asked him,” says the youthful- looking, 56-year-old Spielberg, sitting in the lounge of a posh Jerusalem hotel earlier this month.
“It turns out that in 2003 he had toyed with the idea and had talked to some pilots about the premise of World War II vets getting involved in creating the IAF.
But it hadn’t gotten any farther than that. He said, ‘You have my bracha [blessing], it’s a great idea,’ and told me that a great documentary will only pave the way for a feature film.”
So almost 50 years after appearing in front of the camera in her brother’s first homemade film, Firelight, Spielberg is now behind it, producing one of her own – with the working title Above and Beyond: The Creation of The Israeli Air Force.
“For the first time, I’m taking the lead role, and it scares the s*** out of me,” she laughs.
But it’s hard to believe that anything would scare the self-assured Spielberg.
Combining entertainment industry casual chic, California outdoorsy wholesomeness, and a Riverdale, New York yiddishkeit pedigree, she also possesses a not-so-secret weapon that makes the film a perfect fit: a long-stewing knowledge and love of Israel sparked by spending a year on a kibbutz in the 1970s. It’s a role she’s been waiting for all her life.
IF THERE is such a thing as a filmmaking gene, the Spielberg family must have been blessed with a double helping.
Everyone knows about Hollywood legend Steven and his Jaws-ET-Schindler-Lincoln resumé of American time-capsule classics. His astounding success is one of the reasons Nancy spent her working life shying away from delving into films.
“I spent a lot of time avoiding doing this very thing – it’s very hard to have that last name and not be approached by people with different motives,” she says. “I think I went more with that whole Spielberg brand to do charity work, and that consumed me for a long time.”
Married to New York businessman Shimon Katz for 29 years and living an Orthodox life in Riverdale, Spielberg has been active as a board member of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl and a founding board member of Project Sunshine, which aids children suffering from cancer.
“At one point, I was working for a big commodity company in Los Angeles and doing very well, but I met my husband there and chased him back to New York,” she says, adding that Katz comes from a long line of rabbis – his grandfather Reuven Katz (the author of Degel Reuven) was chief rabbi of Petah Tikva, and his father was a rabbi for 65 years in Passaic, New Jersey.
When asked to define herself within the Jewish observance spectrum, she says, “We’re shomer Shabbos [Shabbat observant]. Shimon wears a kippa, but here I am in my tight jeans and cowboy boots, so it’s hard to tell. But we’re traditional.
We go to Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Orthodox shul in Riverdale, but a lot of things swing there. I dress as I want and I curse a lot.”
Spielberg’s parents raised her and her siblings in Arizona, in areas near Scottsdale and Phoenix, where they reveled in hiking, camping and running barefoot in a free-flowing precursor to the 1960s counter-culture.
“It was a great place to grow up. We used to go camping all the time, and we became outdoorsy types,” she says. “It was always 110 degrees [Fahrenheit], and we had an old Willys Jeep without any air-conditioning. There wasn’t a lot in Arizona then – orange groves, cacti and lizards.”
Not many Jews either, as neighbors’ taunts of “dirty Jews” and of their house being the only dark one on the block at Christmas remain vivid memories for Spielberg and helped create an early Jewish identity without the benefit of formal affiliation or education. That changed, however, when her parents divorced before she became a teenager.
While older siblings Steven and Ann, who had already graduated from high school, ended up in California along with their father, Nancy and sister Sue stayed in Arizona with their mother, who married her ex-husband’s best friend. Spielberg’s stepfather subsequently became involved in establishing the Phoenix Jewish Academy, which Nancy and Sue began attending in fifth grade.
“I went with my sister, and we came home and said, ‘We have to make the kitchen kosher!’” says Spielberg.
That exposure to Jewish traditions continued for the rest of her formal education through the mid-1970s, when her family moved to California and she began to attend UCLA. That was where she says her “life-changing” experience took place.
“I started talking to a shaliah [emissary] from Bnei Akiva, who told my sister and me we should consider spending some time in Israel,” she says. “We were swept away with the idea, went home, sat down with my mother and stepfather and told them, ‘We’re going to leave college and go to Israel.’ “They didn’t even blink,” she recalls. “They just said, ‘OK.’ Of course, the year before, when I said I wanted to go to Guatemala for the summer, she also said OK.”
Originally planning to remain for four months, they spent close to a year in Israel, mostly on Be’erot Yitzhak, a religious kibbutz near Ben-Gurion Airport. “We just had the best experience. It was a year that solidified so many feelings for me. We had dabbled in Chabad and Orthodoxy before, but making that decision to go to Israel was a real epiphany for me. It really changed our lives,” she says.
“When I got back to California, I spent around six months being very depressed, trying to find radio stations in LA that played Arik Einstein or Shalom Hanoch,” she remembers. “When my brother was just getting to be well-known, I would house-sit for him when he’d go off to make a movie. One time I piled up a big phone bill because I kept calling friends in Israel, but he forgave me. When I started to work, the whole goal was to save money to go back to Israel.”
EVEN THOUGH her devotion to the country has remained strong ever since, including numerous visits and current plans to build a home in a luxurious south Jerusalem neighborhood, she’s never forged a public connection with Israel as emphatically as with Above and Beyond.
It was an obituary of Al Schwimmer in June 2011 that sparked her interest in the story of the unsung heroes who helped Israel’s nonexistent air force get off the ground after the birth of the state.
Schwimmer, an American ex-TWA flight engineer and licensed pilot, was responsible for buying planes and recruiting airmen in the US. He acquired a number of C-46s and other heavy transport planes, and he played a key role in organizing the IAF’s Air Transport Command and its air bridge from Czechoslovakia to Israel.
He was a member of Mahal (Overseas Volunteers) – some 3,500 individuals from 37 countries who converged on the newborn state in its hour of need – particularly in the ramshackle air force that rose out of the even more skeletal Air Service, which the Hagana set up in 1947.
During the War of Independence, 19 Mahal air crew members were killed or went missing in action. Six of the seven IAF fliers whom Egypt took prisoner were from Mahal. And one of the major players in establishing the entire endeavor was Schwimmer. “When I read about Al Schwimmer, I just knew that it had my name written all over it,” recalls Spielberg. “It was a ‘min hashamayim’ [act of God] thing.”
She had just finished participating in her first film project – as executive producer of the acclaimed documentary Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, which aired during prime time last year on PBS. That role was chiefly financial, and Spielberg was ripe to enter the creative process of filmmaking.
The story of the Mahal volunteers, meanwhile, many of them recently demobilized veterans from the US Air Force who served as pilots, instructors, navigators, radio operators, bombardiers and air gunners for the IAF, proved as potent a plot as any of her brother’s edgeof- your-seat adventures.
She began reading books on the subject like The Pledge, No Margin for Error and No Trophy No Sword, as well as talking to experts like former air force chief Herzl Bodinger. And now she talks like an expert herself.
“What pilots did you have? There was Ezer Weizman and Modi [Mordechai] Elon – those were the two main Israeli pilots,” she says, explaining that the first flight of the new air force – called 101 Squadron – was on May 29, 1948.
Four Messerschmitt fighter aircraft – which, according to Spielberg, the pilots disdainfully nicknamed “Messer-s***s” and “flying coffins,” had been secretly assembled in a hangar near the Egyptian border. With no test flights, Weizman, Elon and two Mahal volunteers – American WWII veteran Lou Lenart and South African pilot Eddie Cohen – launched their maiden attack on Egyptian forces near Isdud, about 15 kilometers away, inflicting only slight damage.
“Nobody even knew this team existed. It was half-Mahalniks and half Israeli – it says a lot about the birth of the Israel Air Force, which is why I want to reach an American audience with this movie,” says Spielberg.
“Everybody thinks that Israel has one of the best air forces in the world – we’re all looking toward Iran – can they get there? What’s going to happen?” she adds. “And when you consider that this top air force started out with crappy planes that used to shoot off their own propellers because their machine guns weren’t synchronized, the odds of that happening were almost ludicrous.”
As she did more research on the subject, she began to gather more connections, interview subjects and stories.
“The more you talk to people, the more you hear, ‘Oh yeah, I know a guy in New Jersey that used to smuggle arms to Israel.’ The more I learned, the more I was enthralled,” she says. “You start talking to them and you get a profound respect for them, the same way we’ve all started to listen to survivors more. After my brother started the Shoah Foundation, we all understood the power of oral history and visual testimony. I knew this was a story that had to be documented.”
Time was of the essence for much the same reason – most of the principal subjects are between 85 and 94 years old. “We couldn’t just sit around and wait,” she says.
So she fast-tracked the project – spending the last year in a frenzy, filming dozens of interviews of American Mahal volunteers. This month, she brought a modest crew to Israel and spent 10 days filming interviews with President Shimon Peres (who was a close contact of Schwimmer’s), past and current members of the IAF – like Dan Tolkovsky, the head of the air force from 1953-1958 – and historians.
She also took footage of vintage planes at the Hatzerim Air Force Museum, southwest of Beersheba, and the Habonim Air Museum – all with the full cooperation of the IAF.
Although Mahal included volunteers from all over the world, she chose to focus the film on those from North America for a number of reasons.
“I’ve been told, and I’ve learned, that if there are too many characters, you lose your audience – nobody connects. You need to focus your story and have your audience be invested in and root for the characters,” she says.
“I also wanted to get the story out to an American – and not necessarily Jewish – audience,” she continues. “It’s a feel-good story and contains a very common theme – the ordinary Joe who goes to extraordinary measures to help somebody in need.
A lot of these guys had varied reasons for why they decided to volunteer – whether they felt sorry for the Jews coming into Israel and facing potential genocide being surrounded by countries bent on their destruction. Some of them experienced a lot of anti-Semitism when they got back to the US after the war – they were pilots, but they couldn’t get jobs; the commercial airlines wouldn’t hire Jewish pilots.”
Among the American Mahalniks who provided testimony were Harold Livingstone, whom Spielberg describes as “a bad boy, out for adventure,” and who flew planes parts and machinery from Czechoslovakia; Leon Frankel, a highly decorated US Navy pilot; and George Lichter, who was instrumental in training novice Israeli pilots.
“The more I talked to them, the more excited I became,” she says. “And I could tell I had something, because my camera crew, which is not Jewish, was also excited.”
She admits that there’s a danger – especially when dealing with an emotion-provoking topic like Israel – of slipping into propaganda, but she insists that the film will win people over with its compelling story, not with politics.
“When I heard about this story, it just resonated with me, and I also knew it would be a great hasbara [public diplomacy] story for Israel,” she says. “At the same time, I’m erring on the side of caution, and I will guide people to the feel-good element in a subtle fashion, and it won’t be dismissed as a propaganda film.”
She adds that “it’s very hard for me to say it’s not political, but it’s not. I’m only going to focus on the ‘good’ wars – 1967, maybe Pillar of Defense, efforts like Entebbe and rescue efforts in Haiti – I’m not going to get into the politics.”
That sensitivity even overflows into the film’s title – originally called Above It All.
“We decided to change it – we didn’t want people thinking, ‘Those Israelis, thinking they’re above us,’” she explains. “I’m so sensitive about portraying this in the right light.”
She hopes the film will be complete by the end of next year, although she says her director, Roberta Grossman (whose documentary Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh was screened at the Jewish Film Festival in Jerusalem earlier this month), thinks an early 2014 release date is more realistic. She’ll be aiming for a theatrical release in order to be eligible for the Academy Awards, and then distribute the film “where I’m going to get the most eyeballs I can” – whether it’s Showcase, HBO, Discovery or PBS. It will also hopefully make the film festival circuit.
“I want to get it the biggest punch it can,” she says.
And she’s attempting to do it on a tight budget. Despite her major-league name, Spielberg – who, as producer of the film, needs to make every dollar count – is using the posh hotel only for meetings, preferring to stay with her crew at a more modest abode nearby. She even moved up the scheduled film shoot in Israel because Grossman had been invited here for the Jewish Film Festival, saving air fare on one ticket.
“It turned out to be a perfect time to film here,” she says. “We picked up her sound crew that she used on Blessed Is the Match, and I brought Harris Dunn, my cameraman from Elusive Justice, who has won Oscars and Emmys.
“Thankfully, two of the advantages of the Spielberg name are that you can use it for charity, and you can use it to reach out to talented people and not have them hang up on you,” she says with a laugh. “But nobody would be doing this with me unless they loved the story.”
And if there’s one thing Spielberg has learned from her brother, it’s that it all comes down to the story.
The tao of Steve
Growing up Steven Spielberg’s kid sister meant holding heavy, hot lights, having gooey cherries splattered in your kitchen, and staring straight into the sun.
“My sisters and I were forced labor, indentured servants,” says Nancy Spielberg affectionately, recalling her brother’s burgeoning film career. “It took over our lives.”
She recounts that “he was the boss, [sister] Ann was the script girl, I either acted or held the lights. I was Lisa in his first film he made when he was a teenager – Firelight. I played the little girl who crawled around in the grass and had to reach out for this throbbing, pulsating light which was supposed to be an alien, but was just two pieces of plastic with Vaseline in the middle that was being mushed by our other sister Sue.
“I had to die in that one. My brother kept saying, ‘Stop squinting – look with wide open eyes up to the sky.’ So I’m looking up at the sun, but I wasn’t allowed to blink.”
Calling their house “one big movie set,” she recalls another scene in the film in which a pressure cooker containing cherries jubilee is supposed to explode.
“Oh, my God, what he did to our household, how my mother let him do this, I do not know,” she says. “He took cans of cherry pie filling and hurled them all over the cabinets in the kitchen – it was just oozing. For months, my mom kept finding cherry juice and stains in cracks.”
Even before he began making his own films, her brother would recruit his family in the movie business, she says.
“He used to go around the neighborhood selling tickets, and he would rent a film like Bride of Frankenstein, and would hang up a giant sheet in the backyard. We’d sell concessions and all the little kids in the neighborhood would come over for movie night.”
As adults, she says, the family has remained close and convenes for the annual Passover Seder. While Nancy became involved in Jewish and Israel-related issues only after Steven had left their Arizona home for California in the 1970s, she says he keeps a kosher kitchen and is a committed supporter of Israel, donating to several institutions, including the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem.
“He was in Israel for Schindler’s List and wants to come back, but I think that Steve needs to come here with his family and see Israel not as Spielberg, but as Steve, without everybody swarming over him,” she says. “He needs to be able to walk the streets, go to Mahaneh Yehuda [market in Jerusalem].”
She adds, “My dad visited in 1967 and had never been back. A couple of years ago, [Steven] was shooting War Horse in England, and our father was going to visit him. Steve said to me, ‘Nancy, take Dad to Israel – you know Israel better than anyone. I’ll send you, just take him.’ “So we flew from England to Israel, and my dad had an amazing time. He wanted to meet with an elite corps of engineers with the IDF, he met with [former IAF chief] Ido Nehushtan, we took a helicopter over the Golan – he was crying. Afterward, I wrote emails to Steve and my sisters saying, you don’t know the gift that Steve gave me by sending my dad here with me. Steve said, ‘I’m next.’ “We’ll get him here,” she says. “He was here, and he’ll be back.”