Photo: Ryan Kobane
Photo: Ryan Kobane
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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Elizabeth Wood

The director and screenwriter on playing in the sandbox with Anne Frank, converting Elizabeth Taylor, and being the non-Jewish heir to the legacy of one of the most important rabbis in modern history

Periel Aschenbrand
September 15, 2017
Photo: Ryan Kobane
Photo: Ryan Kobane

Elizabeth Wood is an unlikely candidate to carry on the legacy of one of the most important rabbis in modern history, but it turns out she’s a good one.

A really, really good one.

The daughter of a Church of Christ minister, the filmmaker grew up in a small town in Oklahoma before she left it all behind to go to college in New York City. Shortly thereafter she made White Girl, which Vogue called “shockingly controversial and graphic,” and Vanity Fair crowned a “Sundance Sensation” and I-D hailed as “the most explosive portrait of NYC youth since Kids.”

She now balances her life as artist, a mother, a wife and inheritor of her husband (and director in his own right), Gabriel Nussbaum’s Jewish legacy.

I sat down with her on the Lower East Side to suss out how a gentile from the Midwest winds up getting interviewed for a Jewish magazine.

Periel Aschenbrand: First of all, you’re not a Jew.

Elizabeth Wood: Last time I checked, no. But I have Gabriel, who is like a Jewish wife.

PA: And you have a Jewish mother-in-law.

EW: Mmmmhhhhm.

PA: Which I feel like qualifies you, entirely.

EW: I feel very qualified.

PA: You’re a gentile from Oklahoma, originally.

EW: Yes, my father is a Church of Christ Minister, I went to Church of Christ school. My father officiated our wedding, but a cantor also officiated. And his grandmother, who was 96 at the time, said a prayer. His grandfather was a rabbi.

PA: There’s a really beautiful story about him…

EW: It’s a dramatic story.

PA: I’d expect nothing less from you.

EW: He was the last rabbi in Berlin, to stay, during WWII. He was at that point in the war at least somewhat protected because he was a quite visible official and was sheltering his congregants. The night of Kristallnacht he had everyone at his house. Their temple was set on fire and he ran into the burning building and got the Torah out. And someone called him and told him to be careful and they needed to leave the next morning, so he hid all the blankets and then someone knocked on the door and it was two German policemen. Gabriel’s grandma, Ruth, opened the door and she was very friendly and, our impression, flirtatious. Max, the Rabbi, was in the back, hiding and they asked where he was and she said he was out. And they asked to search the house and she gave them a tour and saved that room for last. And the door had just been wallpapered to match the wall. So it’s not that you couldn’t see a door but it was somewhat concealed. So when they got there, she just kept talking to them and tried to keep them going and they didn’t open the door. We feel like maybe she was so persuasive… but right before that and this is a little bit of a scandalous story, Max had been her rabbi and she was married and had a daughter…

PA: Wait. WAIT. I feel like she’s you.

EW: Why? Why is that me?

PA: Because I feel like you would be able to charm Nazis out of doing something like that too.

EW: Oh! I thought you meant about having affairs with married rabbis.

PA: No! That was supposed to be a compliment.

EW: Anyway, breaking up your marriage to be with your Rabbi normally might be really scandalous but because it was such a traumatic time for everyone, there wasn’t that much attention on their relationship. And everyone was leaving.

PA: And probably her relationship wasn’t going so well.

EW: We filmed her for 100 hours when she was ninety five years old and she gave us details and told us things she’s never told anyone before. His grandfather, Max Nussbaum, was the head of Temple Israel in Hollywood, which is still an awesome congregation. They have the Torah he took out of the burning building. And she kept all her papers and pictures from Berlin. She was a historian and she gave speeches and lectures until they end. So her husband, whom she left for Max, went to live in Israel and she went to live in Amsterdam because it seemed safer than Berlin. And she lived in the same building as Anne Frank and took a famous photo of her daughter, Hannah, Gabriel’s aunt, playing in the sandbox with Anne Frank right before they left Amsterdam and Anne Frank stayed there.

PA: Oh my god.

EW: She went back to Berlin, because that’s where Max needed to be, and now they were going to be together and then they decided they needed to leave but America wouldn’t give him a visa so he had to find a job. America wouldn’t give you a visa at that point unless you had a job. Which is unfair, given the conditions. But a small temple in a very small town in Oklahoma gave him a position.

PA: Get out of here!

EW: Yeah. Where I’m from, of course. By the town where my dad is from. But even then, America would not accept you if you had any children from another marriage, they were not allowed to come with you.

PA: Oh no.

EW: So after thinking and thinking about, they decided to leave their daughter with her parents—his parents ended up in a concentration camp—and Ruth and Max came across to America. They figured if they could get here, they could go, in person, to Washington D.C. to talk to the ambassador and get special permission.

PA: How old was Hannah at the time?

EW: Five.

PA: Please tell me they got her.

EW: Then her kindergarten teacher was supposed to put her on a train to Portugal but the train got hit by a bomb and the teacher got hurt. So then they put her on the kinder train—the idea was, it would just circle until they were safe and they couldn’t have any communication, they didn’t know where she was. So everyday they had to wait to see if she could get on a boat to New York. And finally one day she got on the boat. And every day for months they would just go to port and watch. And one day she got off. And then they were able to bring her parents after that, too.

PA: I am totally speechless.

EW: They were in Oklahoma. And the little girl Hannah, who was five, never spoke a word of German again. And then they had Gabriel’s dad, the son of the Rabbi, in Oklahoma.

PA: Where is Hannah now?

EW: She died recently. She has children and grandchildren we are close to. We were very close to her.

PA: I’ve been doing this for a long time and I think this is the most unbelievable story I have ever heard. It makes sense that it would be coming from you. But it is also insane.

EW: The gentile is a bringer of news!

PA: You’re a very good honorary Jew.

EW: And then, after a few years, Temple Israel in Hollywood invited Max to come be the rabbi. And there he converted Elizabeth Taylor to Judaism.

PA: I’m leaving.

EW: Married Sammy Davis Jr. Also, he was one of the first religious leaders to invite Martin Luther King to speak at his pulpit. There’s a recording that’s incredible that you can listen to online. When Gabriel’s dad was little, he remembers spying through curtains watching lessons with Elizabeth Taylor. He said one time, they had to go to Vegas with her and she would only lay in bed eating mashed potatoes.

PA: That’s also you.

EW: It’s an Elizabeth thing.

PA: My god.

EW: Grandma Ruth was tough.

PA: Did she love you?

EW: Because Gabriel did, yes.

PA: Nobody every tried to convert you?

EW: No. I don’t try to convert them, they don’t try to convert me. I believe all religion is the same. It’s poetry.

PA: That’s beautiful.

EW: Growing up in such a religious community was actually good for me because I just rejected everything that didn’t sit right.

PA: You rebelled at a very early age.

EW: I went to Evangelical Church camp for a few years and they were much more extreme than my parents or my church, where they re-baptized kids, made them get up and list every sin they had ever committed, spoke in tongues. . .and it was like, ‘Uhhh, no.’

PA: And you were a real rebel. And moved from Oklahoma to New York and began living a life of sin, which you made a film about.

EW: That’s true.

PA: Is his dad still alive?

EW: He died a few years ago.

PA: You have an amazing story about that, too.

EW: That he’s my son, reincarnated?

PA: Yes! That!

EW: I like that story. His dad, who I was very, very close to—he was one of my very favorite people and closest friends and he died in June, 2012. And in January, 2013, I was pregnant. It was Valentine’s Day and Gabriel didn’t believe I was pregnant, so he bought me a test and then left or something. I took the test and all of sudden, on the radio, this song came on, that his dad used to play and I was overwhelmed with the presence of his dad. It was just overwhelming. I had never felt someone’s presence like that.

PA: This was after you knew you were pregnant?

EW: This is as I was waiting for the test to come through. It was a happy feeling and a sad feeling and I just really felt like it was some kind of blessing. And Wolfie just has a wild resemblance to him. His ears, or the way he sits. It’s crazy how genetics do that, but it’s very much his presence.

PA: Wolfie. That’s a really beautiful story.

EW: And Gabriel’s dad had wanted to name him Wolfgang.

PA: No way.

EW: But they couldn’t agree on it. So that was our way of honoring him.

PA: You’re going to make me cry.

EW: He was really fantastic.

PA: Okay. So then you were like I’m getting the fuck out of Oklahoma and moved here.

EW: I had never even been to NY.

PA: Did you even know what a Jew was in Oklahoma?

EW: I didn’t know they were so common, really.

PA: Ha! And do you guys do Jewish holidays and all that?

EW: Oh yeah.

PA: And do your parents think this Jewish stuff is so crazy?

EW: No. My mom even has a Jewish star and menorah and she just keeps it up all year.

PA: That is so sweet! I have a few more Jewish and some not so Jewish questions for you. The first one is non-denominational. What’s your favorite drink?

EW: Coffee.

PA: How do you drink it?

EW: Black with half water and cinnamon and also sometimes turmeric and ginger.

PA: That sounds like a lot work.

EW: Gabriel does it.

PA: I didn’t think you did it. How do you eat your eggs?

EW: Scrambled or fried hard.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

EW: Anyone that has latkes. Gabriel’s mom makes the best latkes.

PA: You did not have a Bat Mitzvah. What shampoo do you use?

EW: Some cheap organic kind from the health food store.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

EW: Neither. Gross. I’m actually not Jewish, remember?

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

EW: I never carry anything. I don’t even carry a purse, usually. Phone, wallet, keys.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

EW: I dunno. I have so many. I buy shoes all the time and just switch. I guess this pair of Saint Laurent six inch platforms have been my most dependable in the past two years.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.