Episode 47 – From Game of Thrones to Genius, Ania Bukstein is taking on Hollywood

“When Game of Thrones aired last year, I went to L.A […] and I met the casting team for Genius. And she told me: Listen, I have an audition for you. And I taped for Mileva, for his [Einstein’s] wife. Then, a week after, I got a phone call: come to London to meet Ron Howard. […] I met with Ron and I read for him and I didn’t get the part. I cried for a month… Maybe two.”

Not too many people can write Game of Thrones on their acting resume, and probably only one Israeli. Anya Bukstein grew up in Moscow in the time of the USSR. She moved to Israel with her parents at age 8 and began her acting career at age 12 with her performance in the Israeli film A New Country – a performance for which she was nominated for an Ophir Award, Israel’s most prestigious acting accolade. Since then, Anya has had quite a few acting gigs, both on stage and on the screen, most recently performing alongside Jeffery Rush in National Geographic’s Genius, a drama series about the life of Albert Einstein.

Singing and playing the piano since childhood, Ania decided to expand beyond the screen and in 2013 she released 8 tracks on her eponymously named debut album. She’s released a few successful singles with world renowned DJ Offer Nissim and she’s now finishing up her second album.

Today we’re talking to Anya Bukstein and we’ll try to steer clear of any Game of Thrones spoilers.

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Bios of disparate Jewish figures Einstein, Madoff earn Emmy nominations

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in “Genius.” Photo by Marco Grob/National Geographic

It has been 25 years since two biographies about Jews were nominated for an Emmy Award in the same year. In 1982, “Oppenheimer,” about nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, competed in the limited series category, and “A Woman Called Golda,” about former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, won for Outstanding Television Movie.

This year, “Genius,” the National Geographic Channel miniseries about physicist Albert Einstein, and the HBO’s movie “The Wizard of Lies,” about Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff, are in contention in separate categories. Geoffrey Rush and Robert De Niro, the non-Jewish actors who play them, were nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.

These Jewish subjects are on opposite ends of the angel-devil spectrum, although much of “Genius” depicts Einstein’s failings as a husband and father, skewing the halo a bit. Given its historical context, Jewish themes of anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism are prevalent throughout the miniseries.

“The Wizard of Lies” does not portray Madoff’s Jewish side at all, unlike the 2016 two-part miniseries “Madoff,” which starred Richard Dreyfuss and left no doubt about his religion. There was a Jewish wedding, and points were made about Madoff defrauding Jewish individuals and organizations, including Hadassah and the Elie Wiesel Foundation.

Vincent Brook, an author and lecturer in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and an expert on film and television history and Jewish history in Hollywood, watched both Madoff bios.

“I thought it was significant that they didn’t play up the Jewishness at all in ‘Wizard of Lies.’ The word ‘Jewish’ was mentioned maybe once,” said Brook, who is Jewish. “It wasn’t, ‘Here’s this money-grubbing Jew.’ In the Dreyfuss version, it played a bigger role.” He found Dreyfuss’ portrayal more convincing, “not that a non-Jew can’t play a Jew, but Dreyfuss is Jewish and looks Jewish,” he said.

“We were very careful not to portray this as an anti-Semitic story. It’s a global story … a much bigger story,” “Madoff” executive producer Linda Berman told the Journal in January 2016.

But just the idea of showcasing a “bad Jew” gives anxiety to many members of the tribe. (Imagine how Muslims and Arabs must feel, given the number of times they are portrayed on screen as terrorists or sinister characters.)


Robert De Niro plays Bernie Madoff in “The Wizard of Lies.” Photo courtesy of HBO

Although “Wizard of Lies” “didn’t play the J card,” as Brook put it, depicting Madoff at all raises the larger issue of anti-Semitism and how it’s handled in Hollywood.

“Anti-Semitism still exists, but it’s taboo to be open about it,” Brook said. “Hollywood is cognizant of being politically correct. In movies and TV now, if you show a minority character in a negative light, you can be assured that there will be a good character from that minority for balance. It’s good that there’s sensitivity about it. It makes up for a long history of the opposite being the case.”

There’s another element at play that affects how Jews are portrayed, if they’re portrayed at all. While Jews may not “control the media,” as the oft-repeated fallacy goes, Jews do fill production and executive ranks in Hollywood, particularly in television.

“They don’t want to rub Jewishness in the face of the non-Jewish majority,” Brook said. “There’s still that sensitivity among Jewish producers about being ‘too Jewish,’ and it’s often expressed in casting and subject matter.”

He shared an enlightening anecdote. “Fairly recently, I heard a Jewish TV producer talking about casting calls and ‘He’s too J,’ meaning he looks too Jewish,” Brook said. ‘You’d think that these days it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.”

The Emmys have recognized movies and miniseries with Jewish themes and protagonists over the years. But almost all of them have starred non-Jews in their leading roles.

In the 1982 TV productions, Ingrid Bergman played Meir and Sam Waterston played Oppenheimer. Ben Kingsley has portrayed both Moses and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Ian McShane played British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. And most controversially, pro-Palestinian actress Vanessa Redgrave was cast as Jewish Auschwitz prisoner Fania Fenelon in the Emmy winner “Playing for Time.”

More rarely, there have been Jews playing Jewish heroes: Peter Strauss as Eleazar Ben Yair in the Emmy-nominated “Masada” and Alan Arkin as the leader of a concentration camp breakout in “Escape From Sobibor.”

The Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast on CBS at 5 p.m. Sept.17.  

Johnny Flynn (left) and Geoffrey Rush share the role of Einstein in "Genius." Photo by Marco Grob/National Geographic

TV series examines the ‘Genius’ of Albert Einstein

Most people recognize Albert Einstein as the brilliant German-Jewish physicist responsible for the theory of relativity and the equation E = mc2, but the man behind the science is considerably less well known. The new 10-part National Geographic series “Genius” seeks to remedy that by dramatizing Einstein’s achievements, struggles and relationships against a historical backdrop that spans the seven decades of his life.

Adapted from “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, and executive produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Gigi Pritzker, the series stars Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, sharing the role of Albert Einstein. The two actors worked with the same dialect coach and compared notes via Skype to ensure consistency in their portrayals of Einstein in his youth and older years.

National Geographic’s first scripted series, “Genius” was shot on location last year in the Czech Republic. It was originally conceived as a movie, but Pritzker, who had optioned Isaac-son’s bio, spent “many years trying to fit the scope of his life into a movie, and it became very clear that that just wasn’t doable,” she said at a panel discussion in January.

Howard directed the first episode and, speaking on the same panel, said he was eager to direct “world class actors facing challenging material. The suspense comes from the fact that society came so close to not benefiting from Albert Einstein. Sometimes it was his own doing, his own foibles, but very often it was rigid thinking and sometimes bigotry that threatened to prevent the world from having what this remarkable individual had to offer. It’s not just a story of achievement, it’s also a story of struggle.”

That view is made clear from the beginning of the first episode, which opens in June 1922 with the assassination of a Jewish Reichstag minister, establishing just how dangerous times were becoming for German Jews. Einstein was 39 at the time.

“It was important to set the scene of what Germany was like in the 1920s, what kind of world Einstein was living in,” Noah Pink, co-executive producer and writer of the first and fourth episodes, said in a telephone interview. “In 1922, Hitler was a young man and just starting the National Socialist Party, but there were a lot of other right-wing groups that were prevalent at the time and very dangerous. Jews were being blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Einstein was on a hit list.”

From there, focus shifts to the younger scientist, whose nonconformist thinking and rebellious behavior put him at odds with his father and teachers. “He wanted to be a professor, but he pissed off so many people that he couldn’t get hired,” Pink said. “He was forced to take a job as a patent clerk and he was depressed about it, but it was one of the most fruitful periods of his life, scientifically.”

Pink said presenting science in an understandable way was “an everyday challenge” for all of the writers, who relied on the expertise of a physics adviser to the production.

Pink related a story, included in the series, about the time Einstein was asked for his input on a film script about the making of the atomic bomb. “Einstein had a lot of notes. His main concern was that they weren’t getting the science right,” Pink said. “Knowing that story, I — and all the writers — tried to do our best to stay as true as possible to the science.”

Even so, their goal “wasn’t to get everyone to understand the intricacies of relativity, but to grasp what Einstein was going for and how he saw the world differently,” Pink said. “It’s not a science lesson. It was very important to pay homage to his work, but it was equally important to tell a story about a man with all his flaws.”

Einstein’s complicated love life — his marriages and affairs — also plays out in the series. “He didn’t believe in monogamy,” Pink said, noting his surprise at that detail and many others he learned while immersing himself in Isaacson’s source material, biographies and Einstein’s papers and letters, quotes from which were incorporated in the script.

Also used were Einstein’s views on religion and his relationship to Judaism and God, which were “ever-changing,” Pink said.

“His parents were Jewish but not practicing; his dad had a bit of an animosity toward Judaism and religion in general. To rebel against his father, Einstein’s reaction was to become extremely Jewish. He observed the Sabbath and kept kosher as best he could. When he gets to college and begins to read philosophy, he becomes atheist and believes the answer is in science, not spirituality.

“But as he makes his big discoveries, a new kind of spirituality grows in him, because the more he figures out about the universe, the more he realizes it can’t just be a fluke. He had a very human relationship with his religion, and I can certainly sympathize with that,” Pink, who is of Romanian and Polish-Jewish ancestry, added.

“I was always intrigued by his gall and his quirky humor and his brilliance, but after going down this two-year road, I became fascinated by this man who was not only a brilliant scientist but also a brilliant writer, philosopher, musician,” Pink continued. “He was a humanist, an outspoken pacifist, a Zionist. He was in many ways the first international celebrity. He lived through two world wars. He’s an icon, but few people know what he went through, who he was.”

True to its title, the series also explores the concept of genius, which Pink asserted “isn’t just something you’re just born with. Genius has to be cultivated your entire life, and it stems from an innate curiosity about the world and your surroundings. No matter his age, Einstein never stopped looking around him, taking nothing for granted, and asking questions.”

If he could ask Einstein anything, Pink said he’d request “a reading list, ask him advice on how to stay curious, and I’d ask him to explain general relativity, because no matter how hard I study it, it still confounds my brain,” he said, laughing.

Genius” premieres at 9 p.m. April 25 on National Geographic Channel. 

Stories of Catastrophe, Domestic and Otherwise

Last year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a fellowship to Deborah Eisenberg in recognition of a body of work as a short-story writer that spans three decades.  The fellowship is commonly and rather crudely known as a “Genius Award.”  But we should always be pleased when a writer whose name may not appear on the best-seller lists is certified as a genius.

The credential is less important than the work itself, of course, and that’s why the publication of “The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg” (Picador: $22.00, 992 pps.) can be seen as an honor, too.  Here is a single volume that contains all of the stories from Eisenberg’s last four collections, ranging from “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (1986) to “Twilight of the Superheroes” (2006), nearly a thousand pages of prose.

“Deborah Eisenberg has built an estimable reputation by marginalizing herself even within the precincts of literary fiction,” wrote critic Jonathan Dee, “by disregarding – more out of idiosyncrasy than rebellion – whatever it was that writers of her time and place were supposed or expected to do.”

So we might hope that “The Collected Stories,” no less than the “Genius Award,” will take Eisenberg out of the margins.

Her short stories are crafted and polished, but they are also fully alive with the kind of observed detail, both physical and psychological, that catches and holds our interest.  The first sentence of the first story in the collection, “Flotsam,” is a good example: “The other evening, I was having a drink with a friend when the sight of two women at the next table caused me to stop speaking in midsentence.”  It’s a moment of intentional misdirection, but it’s a line that compels us to keep reading.

“Flotsam,” like many of the other stories in the collection, is about the lives of contemporary urban-dwellers and how they struggle (and often fail) to connect with each other. Eisenberg is less interested in plot-lines than in the rituals of social intercourse, and conversation among the characters is often the engine of her story-telling.

“It took me long enough to find you, you know,” complains a mother to her adult daughter in “Under the 82nd Airborne.”  “You didn’t even tell me you’d moved.” To which the daughter promptly replies: “Did someone just dump you, Mama?  Is that it?”

The words that men and women utter to each other are weapons rather than a way to communicate.  “[E]verybody has something, some little thing, my darling, they’ve been waiting so long to tell you,” says a reporter in “Someone to Talk To,” but it turns out that he is congenitally (and comically) unable to complete an interview with a touring pianist named Aaron Shapiro.  And we’ve already witnessed how Shapiro himself cannot seem to reach his partner, Caroline, with mere words: “Was that his voice?” he muses about his own awkward and hurtful efforts. “Were those his words?  He could hardly believe it himself. Those stiff words, like stiff little soldiers, stiff with shame at the atrocities they were committing.”

Some of her more recent stories are edgier if only because Eisenberg finds herself forced to acknowledge the horrors of the here and now.  In “Twilight of the Superheroes,” for example, the Y2K panic is already entering the realm of myth in the mind of a young artist named Nathaniel, creator “Passivityman,” which she describes as “a comic strip that was doted on by whole dozens, the fact was, of stoned undergrads.”

“Might one be fatally trapped in an elevator?” he muses, thinking ahead to the stories that he will tell his yet-to-be born grandchildren. “Would we have to huddle together for warmth and scrabble frantically through our pockets for a pack of fancy restaurant matches so we could set our stacks of old New York Reviews ablaze?”

No such stories will be available to Nathaniel, but he was not wrong to imagine an apocalyptic incident at the opening of the third millennium. Eisenberg conjures up “that shining, calm, perfectly blue September morning [when] something flashed and something tore, and the cloudless sky ignited.”  Characteristically, the horror first manifests itself as “the annoying racket of a low-flying plane” that disturbs the ritual of morning coffee on the terrace of an elegant high-rise apartment.  But even Eisenberg, who otherwise so cool and so aloof, seems to be shattered.

“Oh that day!” she writes. “One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real – the intended – future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day not to have happened. But it had happened.  And now it was always going to have happened.”

Such moments of high drama are rare in “The Collected Stories.”  More often, she focuses on catastrophes that consist of aborted love affairs, stalled careers, estranged families, marriages that crash and burn.  But all of the stories are written with the sure hand, the clear vision and the refined sensibilities of an American master.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, blogs at