I am Ben Berkowitz and I am a Jew. I co-wrote and directed a film called POLISH BAR. I come from a long line of Chicago Jews, and this movie was for them. From the very first page I thought of all those tough, resourceful Midwestern Yids. Chicago Jews have a specific colloquial charm, calling Matzot “Matzee” and sometimes referring to Yiddish as Jewish. I love that Maxwell Street generation, and am proud to be connected to it.
Going into the making of this film, I definitely had an agenda. I wanted to make a Jewish film. I wanted to make a Chicago film. But mostly, I wanted to make a good film. I, along with all the producers and partners, worked really hard to write, develop, and wait patiently for actors, money, and production, post-production, and more post-production, in order to have the movie we now present to the world.
To make a film like POLISH BAR takes a lot of time and a lot of debate. We went through innumerable versions of scripts, casting sessions, meetings about why we should make it, who with, when, where, and for how much. The range of people of interest, or those agreed to be in it, or those who were invited to be in the film at any point were a peculiar group of huge stars and character actors we loved, and were changing up until the very last minute. Finally, in the midst of pre-production, we were able to finalize our eclectic and amazing cast. Vincent Piazza, Golden Brooks, James Badge Dale, Dov Tiefenbach, and the awesome trifecta of Richard Belzer, Meat Loaf Aday and Judd Hirsch.
After endless perseverance we made it to Chicago and began pre-production, collecting all the stuff we need to make this movie; location scouts, cattle calls for the right extras and bar-flies, DJs, and props. I wanted to nail the Lubavitcher Hassidic element — so many movies crumble and fall from this, it’s a true fact that often Hollywood just doesn’t get Religious Jews right. It was important to make sure that we were accurate enough that if an Observant Jew ever saw part of this movie they would feel someone took the time to represent them honestly and with respect.
I didn’t want to fool anyone – they knew there was content in the movie that was not possible for their community to view or even discuss. I began every conversation with “…this is a movie with lots of things you might not want to see or hear, but the Jewish part of the film – the soul of the film – I want it to be respectful and kosher.” I was striving for the kind of authenticity you get from a Mike Leigh or Ken Loach film set in the UK, where after you watch the film you feel that you really know what it’s like to live there. I wanted to immerse people into the world of Polish Bar and Reuben’s family.
I was amazed and really grateful at how many religious frum Jews wanted to help us, including Rabbis, and even an orthodox woman by the name of Rachel (pronounced Rock-hel) who ended up being awesome and a lot of fun on set. She never needs to know that when I told Richard Belzer that an orthodox woman was going to visit set after lunch to give her thoughts on the family dinner scene and the home of Reuben’s modern conservadox/modern orthodox family, he wisecracked “Can we fuck her?”
I was also lucky enough to find a gem of a Lubavitcher consiglieri for the movie and myself. A friend introduced me to a young Hassidic artist, writer, and kick ass puppeteer named Dovid Taub.
Dovid was polite, helpful, funny, non-judgmental and quickly made himself invaluable. He did not even attempt to conceal his enthusiastic love of movies and was on set as much as possible. He spent time with Dov Tiefenbach, helping to prepare him for the role of Moises, teaching him how to pray and wear teffilin and respectfully, cooperatively, suggesting how our Moises might behave. Dov, our actor, was becoming very serious about his role and constantly going to pray at Chabbad house. He’d ask me to join him, and even became annoyed our ridiculously full and eagerly welcomed production schedule just wouldn’t give me the time. Dov took the character to new levels when he began walking around set, finding cute, nudgy ways to ask me to pray with him even after many no’s and not going to happen’s.
But the most traditionally Jewish thing Dov did on set was the most difficult for us as a production. It’s also one of the best stories that we came away with, because he was just that deep into his character. On the morning of Purim, Dov showed up drunk (yes, we worked on Yantif, what can I say, I will repent). The Lubavitchers he had partied with that morning had encouraged him to drink. We had set up a very delicate scene and as we began on the first take with Vincent, Dov pulled a fifth of Jack Daniels out of his pocket and improvised the line, “Will you have a drink with me, Reuben?”
I yelled cut. Calmly walked over to the guys and Dov let me know that it was Purim and that we should all have a drink as it was a mitzvah. I still don’t know where the bottle came from – Orthodox Jews don’t drink Jack Daniels. It is very not kosher, actually.
Reuben & Moses
So, what kind of Jew am I? I know I fit in there somewhere in the vast expanse between those two extremes of Polish Bar’s characters, Moises and Reuben. For me, the cousins represent the sacred and the profane personified. Reuben wants to be a DJ, really trying hard to feel tough and urban, insisting that being Jewish isn’t his thing. But it follows him, its part of him; it even protects him from himself when he needs it. He can’t shake it – his family, the years of being taught “better.” In the midst of all his trying to be something else, Moises is there as a familiar example to remind him he is not alone, that he’s part of something bigger.
I knew I wanted Reuben to be the family fuck-up, the one everyone talks about. Perpetually in and out of rehab, losing jobs, getting into fights, disrupting the reverently guarded birthright of all middle class families — peace, order and the social contract that dark, dangerous, vulgar things don’t happen to Nice Jewish Boys. Nice Jewish Boys would never even be in a position to know about such things. There is an extra voyeuristic quality for the Jewish audience in seeing Reuben do bad things, and break into this very non-kosher world of sex and drugs and violence.
I knew too many Reubens. I’d been friends with them, raised hell with them, and had even been scared of them at times. As I traveled around the world with this film, I’ve learned that everyone has a Reuben in their life — regardless of language or religion, there is a Reuben.
I had tried to dictate how Reuben rebelled and maybe try to make myself look good, Phillip Roth style. But I’m just a film director, I am not Phillip Roth and as much I tried to control every moment, once the actors arrived I realized the characters had a life of their own. When the actors come into it, if you are really lucky and people give enough of a shit to do good work and bring your characters to life, then they will confront you and challenge you. They are no longer words on a page, they are real people, growing more possessive of this new person they are becoming.
The actors playing Reuben and Moises — Reuben Vincent Piazza and Dov Tiefenbach — are both talented young actors with great movie and TV credits. For those weeks they became the embodiments of all my Hebrew school nightmares — the religious zealot and the rebel. Two sides of myself, and now they both forced me to own up to where I wanted to take this movie.
I found myself having the same debates with Dov about observance versus ritual, about what it means to be Jewish, as I would my own family. Reuben, my protagonist, was being played with an extra chip on his shoulder by the very gentile Vincent Piazza. I told his agent that Vincent was Italian and German from Queens, and that was more Jewish than some. Still, Vincent being a Catholic would sometimes in subtle subconscious ways steer Reuben into the realm of the Holy Trinity. It was the ultimate rebellion — a non-Jew challenging my idea of what it meant to be a Jewish Rebel.
It was hard to see it at the time, but these road bumps created some of my favorite moments in the film. We see how hard Reuben struggles to be a part of a family that protects him but doesn’t understand him. I found Vincent and Dov creating a real relationship, and found that scenes that had been written long before filming now seemed brand new. The layers that they built in to the scenes brought up questions about how to navigate individual faith in a very strict religious culture. How could I expect anyone to easily accept these things that I myself rebelled against?
Chicago & conclusion
Every shot of Polish Bar was filmed in Chicago. We filmed in neighborhoods we never see in movies. South Chicago where my grandmother grew up, Portage Park and Polish Village, the South Loop, and Roger’s Park. It was something very important to me because I love Chicago, but never saw my neighborhoods or my families represented on film. The story evolved out of the cultural mixes these neighborhoods have, evolving as working class Chicago fights to preserve its neighborhood’s integrity, staving off inevitable gentrification.
In cities like Chicago, neighborhoods make us who we are. An old Jewish neighborhood becomes increasingly Latino. Polish Village in Chicago becomes gentrified and multicultural. I wanted POLISH BAR to be an American film in the sense that I wanted to show that these seemingly different communities and individuals do exist together, and that this could lead to the Nice Jewish Boy working at a Polish strip club with a Pretty Young Black Girl. But that was just a setup and the real point of the movie was for us to see how much they all have in common. The depraved and the devout are cousins, and neither is as far to one side or the other of the spectrum as we might think.
In the end we just wanted to create a story that was a true authentic collage of that world. Using all these collected facts and some carefully placed fiction to create something honest. I always say at screenings that I was never dumb enough or entrepreneurial enough to do some of the things Reuben does in the movie, but the scenes between Reuben and Moises are the most personal for me as a director and co-writer. They were so personal that they became the most challenging to direct, and for that fact to find my unabashed truth in those scenes. I had to confront my feelings about family, about religion without covering it in jokes or bluster as I normally would.
I actually feel at home at a synagogue regardless of the community. The ‘we know you just ate pork’ glances at me don’t matter when I walk into a shul, it still feels like home. No matter how much I rebelled and how much shellfish I eat it will always feel that way, because it is a home for me. Making POLISH BAR helped me remember that. Besides, what movie has ever been covered by both BET and Hadassah magazine? We of the POLISH BAR team are building bridges between Black and Jewish ladies everywhere who have grandchildren and young people to interchangeably complain about and judge quietly.
So please support our film tweet | Facebook | check out www.POLISHBAR.com. If you are from Chicago or Jewish or Black or Polish or are a DJ turntable fanatic, please support our film. Even if you aren’t any of the above, this is a family drama for all. Where else could you see Richard Belzer wearing a yarmulke, Meat Loaf running a strip club, and Judd Hirsch being the tough old guy he was born to play? There’s kippahs and cocaine, Jews and Jail! Welcome to the POLISH BAR.