Rosenbergs’ Granddaughter Tackles Washington ‘Hill’
What do you do for an encore when your first work is a powerful, heart-wrenching documentary about the life of your notorious grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?
The Rosenbergs were executed for spying for the Soviet Union in June 1953. Their personal story was told 51 years later by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, in the powerful 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”
Now the 36-year-old filmmaker has followed her ground-breaking and very personal film with a six-part cinema verite-style political series, “The Hill,” which begins airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 23. It gives viewers an unprecedented look into what goes on in the office of Florida Jewish Congressman Robert Wexler and the way in which his young staff dictate his actions.
At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Meeropol talked easily about her new film, in which she takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach capturing the behind-the-scenes intrigue and intimacies of the office of the Democrat Wexler, who is a strong supporter of Israel.
Meeropol lives on the East Coast with her husband, Thomas, a production designer in films and commercials, and their 15-month-old son, Julian. She is the first to admit that it was the emotionally stirring documentary about her grandparents that was instrumental in persuading the congressman to allow her and her all-seeing cameras into his inner sanctum.
Meeropol said she discovered her love of politics after working in Washington as a legislative aide and speech writer for Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston, Wexler’s predecessor.
“It makes sense that I would want to do ‘The Hill.’ I was feeling some nostalgia for my time in Washington,” she said. “I loved working there. And I was always amazed that people really don’t know what goes on. They don’t know that it’s all these very young people who are advising members of Congress — for better or for worse — on how to vote. It’s a compelling story.”
Wexler and his team gave her the green light after viewing “Heir to an Execution.”
“They all felt I had dealt with the subject very sensitively and I wasn’t someone who would exploit things,” Meeropol said. “And they quickly forgot that I was in the room with a camera. Since I had worked in the same capacity as some of the people you see in the film, I was able not just to gain access but tell the story in a way that others wouldn’t be able to do.”
The first episode, set in November 2004, focuses on Wexler’s support for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket. He and his staff go to a Boca Raton temple — along with actor Mandy Patinkin — to try to sell a “why I trust John Kerry on Israel” message to voters. Wexler discusses attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and refusing to deliver a soft speech. But all of his staff are utterly devastated when Kerry loses.
Wexler, his foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, and his staff come across loud and clear on their strong support of Israel, their opposition to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and President Bush’s Iraq policy — although Wexler originally supported the war.
Meeropol, an open, friendly young woman talked enthusiastically about her new film series, as well as her pedigree. While she had come to Pasadena to talk about “The Hill,” the conversation inevitably turned to “Heir,” her critically acclaimed film that humanized but didn’t lionize the grandparents she never met.
That first documentary gave her career as a fledgling moviemaker a huge boost. It was the calling card the young filmmaker needed, but it came with some built-in insecurity.
“I was essentially elevated immediately to the status of successful filmmaker on my first one out of the gate, and I wondered if that had more to do with who I am — that kind of celebrity status that came with it — or was it a good film as I thought,” she said.
Though she didn’t start out life to be a documentary filmmaker, her future was almost dictated by her history.
“I had been grappling with the story of my family for years as a writer, trying to figure out what I would contribute that would really demonstrate what I would have to say about it,” she said.
The documentary idea evolved, she said, “in part because I realized there were people out there who knew my grandparents who weren’t going to be around much longer. I knew if I didn’t get these people’s stories, then they were going to be gone, and I’d never forgive myself. So that’s how it started.”
After her grandparents were arrested during the height of the Cold War, the ensuing scandal stunned and rocked Jews in America. Her father, Michael, was only 7 when his parents were arrested, and he and his 4-year-old brother, Robert, soon discovered that their relatives didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In 1957, the boys were legally adopted by Anne and Able Meeropol, who were not related to the family.
Growing up, Meeropol said, “We were quite cultural Jews, not religious, very secular. Passover was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated, because it was kind of cultural, historic. So we had seders. But I was never bat mitzvahed. Ironically, though, I’m very identified as a Jew because of the Rosenbergs. You can’t get rid of it. You’re Jewish royalty, even though my mother is a Lithuanian-Irish Catholic,” she said with a laugh.
The fly-on-the-wall approach to “The Hill,” she said was a direct result of the personal nature of her first film.
“I wanted to do something very different,” she said. “I wanted to do the political series as pure verite as possible.”
Meeropol now says she feels comfortable about revisiting other periods of her life.
“I worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home because my other grandfather, Abel Meeropol [who died at 78 when she was a freshman at college], ended up in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s.
She visited him regularly and said she wanted to work in the home to make sure her grandfather was well cared for: “I had no idea what that really entailed. They were so desperate for nurses’ aides they hired me without any experience, and I was thrown right into that.”
Now Meeropol said she’s interested in making the nursing home experience the topic of her next film.
“I’d like to tell the story about life in a nursing home — focusing more on the people who work there,” she said. “It’s a very contemporary issue, and more and more people are going to have to deal with it. It’s a fascinating world — just like ‘The Hill.'” l
Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.