If you’re a casting director in New York, you know that sooner or later, you’ll be asked to assemble a crowd of Hasidic-looking extras. But Hasidic characters are tricky to cast: secular actors usually need to be painstakingly outfitted with sidelocks, beards, and long black coats, and most actual ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to be leery of talking to strangers, let alone appearing on camera.
“You have to have a liaison to invite you,” says veteran casting director Grant Wilfley, who recruited extras for the 1992 movie A Stranger Among Us, in which Melanie Griffith plays a detective who poses as ultra-Orthodox in order to crack a case. For that film, Wilfley turned to his Lubavitch landlord to find players who could populate the film’s climactic wedding scene. These days, though, his go-to person is Eliezer Meyer, a Lubavitcher who styles himself the King of Broadway.
If you’ve watched an episode of Law & Order lately—and, let’s face it, who hasn’t?—you’ve probably seen Meyer, a portly, twinkly-eyed 53-year-old better known to his colleagues as Rabbi Elli, hovering in the background. He appears, often decked out in white shirtsleeves, black vest, and capacious skullcap, his gray beard loosened from its customary knot under his chin, in dozens of TV episodes and films, including a few fleeting frames in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which opens today.
But Meyer’s most successful role to date has been as a backstage fixer who can be relied upon to find Hasidic actors—or actors who look credible in Hasidic costume—to work on sets around New York. “He’s very reliable,” said Billy Dowd, the casting director who handled background actors for Pelham. Through a Facebook group called Shomer Shabbos Actors of America and community e-mail lists, Meyer manages a pool of about 40 regular extras, and in special circumstances helps recruit people who would normally be impossible for secular casting directors to reach: children, women, the elderly, and, most controversially, a Satmar Hasid who appeared alongside Natalie Portman in the still-unreleased film New York, I Love You. (Satmar leaders excoriated him for agreeing to appear in the film, causing him to tell the New York Daily News that he disavowed his work.)
“We’ll run through our own actors, and then we’ll give him a heads up and ask him to put out feelers,” said Ali Merhi, a casting director who handles Law & Order calls at Central Casting, an agency in New York. “He’s been very, very helpful.”
Meyer can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be onscreen. The only child of Holocaust survivors, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he made his debut as a 10-year-old shepherd boy in a production of Milk and Honey at his local Jewish community center. In high school, he was an avid member of the theater department, and lobbied for a production of Fiddler on the Roof on the argument that Tevye was “the role I was destined to play.” (The teacher, Meyer said, decided Fiddler was too ethnic and chose to do The King and I instead.) In his junior year, he said, a talent scout encouraged him to apply for admission to the High School of the Performing Arts in New York—but he never pursued it after he was warned the school would be unlikely to let him observe Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
Meyer grew up Conservadox—his family was a little more observant than their Conservative synagogue—but after his bar mitzvah, his parents abandoned most rituals. So, when he turned 15, his teenage rebellion took the form of growing increasingly religious; much to the chagrin of his parents, who spoke only German, “never Yiddish,” he began visiting the Chabad house at UCLA, where he found Jews singing, dancing, and having fun. “It was fun, not stoic like the shul I knew,” Meyer said recently over a coffee at Starbucks. “I was the most Jewish person I knew, so I decided, that’s what I was—a Jew.”
By the time he graduated from Granada Hills High School, in 1973, he had convinced his parents to let him go to the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. From there he transferred to Yeshiva Gedolah in Miami, where he was ordained and got married. He worked as a computer programmer while his young family grew—he has ten children, the eldest 31, the youngest 14—but still dreamed of celluloid.
In 1998, he divorced. Around the same time, he began performing at karaoke bars around South Florida—a kind of ultra-Orthodox Susan Boyle, just waiting for his shot at the big time. In 2001, as the dot-com bust sent the economy into recession, he lost his job, but felt he was too old to give the starving-artist thing a real try. “People kept saying, ‘Oh, you should do this professionally,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, put up or shut up!’” Meyer said. Finally, luck shone upon him: a group of fans fronted him the money for a trip to New York, where he auditioned for Man of La Mancha. He didn’t get the part, but he gained the confidence to start doing background work in Miami—including a cameo as a rabbi emerging from the Jewish Museum of Florida in 2 Fast, 2 Furious. “The director looked at the building, this is early in the morning, and he says, ‘Get me a rabbi!’” Meyer said. “So, that was me.”
Meyer commuted back and forth to New York for three years before making the move permanent in 2004. On set, he made sure the guys he brought with him showed up on time, brought their customary garb, and stayed as long as necessary, but in return, he began demanding help back from producers: kosher food on sets, early wraps on Friday evenings, days off for holidays. “I have two goals,” he said. “I want to make sure actors who are frum are able to work and are afforded the same rights on set. And second, accuracy—I want to make sure Hasidim are portrayed accurately, not as buffoons or fanatics.”
Meyer offered up a litany of complaints about how mainstream films and television shows erroneously portray ultra-Orthodox Jews: coats are buttoned left over right instead of right over left, beards are worn too long or too lush, or—worst of all—Hasidic characters are shown doing things no observant Jew would do. Meyer recruited about 85 people for New York, I Love You, a collection of vignettes that includes one by Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair. In the film, Natalie Portman plays a Hasidic bride, and Nair initially wanted her to hold hands with the Satmar actor playing her fiance, and imagined men holding Portman’s chair during the hora in their wedding scene. “Well, that wouldn’t happen,” Meyer said. “So I spent a considerable amount of time on set explaining how Hasidic weddings are done.”
Nair, he said, was eager to be as accurate as possible, despite the fact that a tiny percentage of her audience would ever know the difference. “I always respect creative license, but not when it makes you look like a buffoon,” Meyer explained. “In my opinion, a really good director wants to get it as close to truth and reality as he can.”
For aspiring Hasidic actors, Meyer is a little like a fairy godfather. Sruli Leider, the son of Chabad emissaries who found himself unemployed after moving from his native San Diego to Brooklyn seven years ago, started getting work through Meyer’s connections after they met on the set of Game 6, a 2005 film starring Michael Keaton as a playwright obsessed with the Red Sox. Leider, a graphic designer who wants to get into film production, relies on Meyer for intermittent background gigs he hopes might give him a foothold in the business. “I get work from him, but he’s also a good advocate,” Leider, a 29-year-old father, said by phone, reeling off stints on the sets of New York, I Love You and, more recently, as a patient in the new Edie Falco show Nurse Jackie. “He really watches out for us.”
On one level, Leider was talking about basic issues like kosher catering and day rates, but Leider said Meyer also pushes to make sure that actors aren’t asked to do things they feel uncomfortable with. “Most people haven’t ever seen a Hasidic Jew, and you get the sense that when they shoot these scenes, they are aiming for some understanding with Middle America,” said Leider. “So there’s as much stereotyping thrown in as possible so it’s obvious you’re looking at a Hasidic Jews—they want payes, sometimes a streimel, sometimes tallis—but unless you’re in Crown Heights, you don’t wear full garb during the week, just on Shabbat, so there’s a sense of piling it on.”
On the flip side, Meyer reaches out to non-observant actors to make sure they know what they’re doing once they’re in Hasidic dress. On one recent Law & Order shoot, for an episode in which an ultra-Orthodox man is suspected of killing a woman he met at a nightclub (a story ripped from an offhanded mention about Hasidic men who illicitly visit bailarena bars that appeared in a 2008 New York story), Meyer called actor Yuval Boim to coach him on how to look natural wearing sidelocks. “It comes down to storytelling or being authentic to tradition,” said Boim. Production staff wanted Boim to enter wearing a large felt hat, something Meyer insisted would never happen. “For the costume people, wearing a hat means the character just came into the place, but Elli said it would have been chillul hashem,” Boim said, using the Hebrew phrase for sacrilege. “If I were a real guy I would tuck my payes behind his ears and not wear a hat—he said it would have been stressful for a Hasid to go in like that, even if anyone else could tell he was Orthodox.”
On set, it’s often impossible to tell the difference between a made-up actor and an actual Hasid, and sometimes that compounds the problem, by creating the false impression that a person is following halachic rules when in fact they aren’t. “You’ll have guys with payes and beards but no yarmulkes walking into kosher restaurants in [ultra-Orthodox] Williamsburg, so, basically, they’re hasidically half-naked,” Meyer said. “And then you have some people dressed like Hasidim walking into [non-kosher] Peter Luger’s for a burger. And it bothers me—you don’t know who’s a Jew and who’s not when they’re in costume.”
Sometimes, though, even extras adopt the Method approach. A friend of Meyer’s, Brad Naprixas, said he felt it was important to behave as though he was Jewish as a way of saying thank you to Meyer when they were on the set of Pelham. Meyer appears as a subway commuter, but Naprixas—a freelance Web developer who was raised Catholic, but frequently moonlights as a Hasid extra—has a few long seconds in the frame, his sidelocks swaying back and forth in a subway car as he prays moments before being splattered with fake blood in the film’s first bloody rampage. “Even though I’m not Jewish myself, when I’m on set I do everything as though I’m Jewish, out of respect for Elli—he’s gotten me a lot of work, so I should respect the community,” said Naprixas, who refused to appear for shooting days over Passover, in solidarity with Jewish actors on set. “I wouldn’t go to the catering truck and get a ham and cheese sandwich, you know?”