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From Actor To Rabbi: Jessica Kate Meyer05:34

This article is more than 9 years old.
Jessica Kate Meyer in a scene in "The Pianist." (Courtesy)
Jessica Kate Meyer in a scene in "The Pianist." (Courtesy)

Sunday marks the observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day. Much of our understanding of the Holocaust is informed by films, such as 2002's "The Pianist," directed by Roman Polanski.

Polanski's film, based on the memoirs of Polish Holocaust survivor Waraslaw Szpilman, was moving for many. But it had a profound, life-changing effect on Jessica Kate Meyer, the actress who played Helena Szpilman.

When she was preparing for the role of Helena Szpilman, Meyer felt the need to learn as much as possible about the life and times of the woman she was portraying. Meyer, raised Jewish but not observant, wanted to get inside Szpilman's head.

"So I met this man, this musicologist and he made me a mix tape of all the music Helena Szpilman would’ve been listening to," Meyer said. "And the first piece was a cantorial piece. [It] jolted me back into Jewish music."

Working with Polanski, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"He incorporated a lot of his own experience into moments in the script," Meyer said. "So when he was directing us, he would say to me 'This is how my sister looked' and I remember her saying this to me.'"

Polanski expected everyone on-set to understand the life experiences of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and the depth of the characters in the film.

Meyer remembers one scene where the Szpilman family was unpacking suitcases that belonged to Jews who had been deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The cameras didn't roll for long, Meyer said.

"Polanski shouts 'Cut, Cut, Cut' and we all freeze and he walks over and grabs one of the suitcases and he says. 'Look at this jerk, this man he has 15 minutes to pack his life. What does he pack? A tie, another tie, oh a scarf!'"

Polanski was yelling at the Art Department, but everyone on-set got the message: the details matter. The film's prop people went back to the drawing board.

"[The next day] we went to do rehearsal and he calls action and we open the suitcases and there’s photographs, there’s tefillin, there’s pacifiers. There’s lives," Meyer said.

After shooting the film, Meyer moved to Los Angeles and felt a deeper need to connect with Judaism. She found a faith community. One day, the Rabbi pulled her aside and invited her to teach a class.

As she became more interested in her religion and increased her involvement in her synagogue, Meyer found it difficult to balance her faith with her acting career.

Meyer's agent called and said the HBO/BBC series "Rome" was potentially interested in having her play Cleopatra. She had to prepare for the audition the same weekend that she was preparing to observe a special Shabbat.

"And by the end of that evening, I really couldn’t care less about Cleopatra," Meyer said. "There was this huge shift, and that was this 'aha' moment. I actually really don’t care and there’s actually something much more meaningful that’s here."

Now, Meyer's in her third year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton. She says "The Pianist" and playing Helena Szpilman were the first steps toward her spiritual awakening.

"I was able to pay tribute — that’s really how I see it, as being able to pay tribute — to this young woman," Meyer said. "She was really in her prime. She was 22 when she was killed [by the Nazis]."

This segment aired on April 29, 2011.

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