SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Singing Jewish hymns is part of his very being, but Cantor Matt Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains had never done it in a TV miniseries before.
Axelrod lent his talents and authenticity to the successful HBO production of The Plot Against America, which is based on the best-selling novel by Philip Roth. It presents an alternate American history during World War II told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in Newark as they witness the political rise of Charles Lindbergh, who defeats FDR in the presidential election and quickly veers the nation toward fascism.
Like manna from heaven, the opportunity came from seemingly out of nowhere.
“As far as I could piece together, the casting directors reached out to the Cantors Assembly and got some names, perhaps people who were geographically close. They contacted me out of the blue by email,” Axelrod told TAPintoSPF.
“I’m a huge Philip Roth fan and was aware of the miniseries, so I immediately was interested,” the Fanwood resident said.
The casting director invited Axelrod to New York City for an interview. He sang the hymn L’cha Dodi on camera for about 30 seconds, and was told he would hear from them soon.
“When I left, other people were waiting to try out, but I don’t believe that any of them were actual cantors. I believe they were actors,” Axelrod said. “Later, I got an email congratulating me and telling me that I had gotten a part.”
The producers asked him to shave his beard off and get fitted for his clothing at a wardrobe shop in Queens. The filming took place at a historically significant synagogue in Jersey City. Axelrod appears in a scene set at a Friday night service at which the cantor sings a Shabbat hymn.
“Never in a million years had I dreamed of doing something like this. It was a totally new experience, and I enjoyed every minute of it,” he explained. “It was subject matter and content that I’m fascinated with anyway. I read the book in 2004; the book could be seen as eerily relevant in a way no one could foresee… or maybe Roth did foresee it.”
On the job training
“For someone who loves to watch TV and movies but doesn’t know how it is made, it is an incredible process to see how it works. The scene lasts only about 20-30 seconds, but it took over 2 hours to film it,” he said. “They relocated cameras for different angles, and the sheer number of people involved is surprising.”
Axelrod is on screen with John Turtorro (Barton Fink, Do The Right Thing), who is not Jewish, but grew up in a neighborhood where there was a lot of Yiddish was spoken.
"He made me teach the words to the tune, so he could sing it with me on camera," Axelrod recounted. "He was really serious about it. He recorded me singing it on his phone so that he could practice it."
"Turturro's character (Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) is so fascinating. He represents the idea that the Jewish people wanted to be full and participating American citizens and not considered as having questionable character or dual loyalties," Axelrod said. "But Rabbi Bengelsdorf is a character who took it to an extreme. He is opportunistic and is absolutely drawn to the fame and attention and his proximity to power."
"Many people watch this series and find it extremely stressful. It hits home for us," Axelrod explained. "In the story, Charles Lindbergh marginalized the Jews under the guise of their needing to move from their enclaves to other places in America to see how other people live."
Next film role
Cantor Axelrod laughed at the idea that he might have launched a new career.
He says his next media project is CBI Facebook Livestreaming of Friday Shabbat services.
"We have found that we are getting a virtual attendance higher than what we get in person. We have former congregants who remember us fondly, or who have moved to Florida who still feel a part of the congregation," the cantor said.
For now, Matt Axelrod's brush with fame will soon come to an end, and he feels fortunate to have played a small part in the success of The Plot Against America.
"I think the film portrays Jews in a positive light and resonates powerfully for many of us," Axelrod said. "However, it’s not a miniseries that only Jewish people will watch. It has universal appeal; it speaks to the possible dangers facing any democracy. That’s why the book was so successful and the miniseries is so successful."
Axelrod said the creators of the series (Dave Simon and Ed Burns, best known for HBO's The Wire) met with Philip Roth before he died and went over their ideas with him.
"He was a supporter of it," Axelrod said. "It’s too bad he died before it got going. I think he would be proud of it."
Here is the official trailer of the HBO series:
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