March 29, 2020

Producer Nancy Spielberg reflects on finding, forming Jewish identity

Three and a half years ago, Nancy Spielberg read an obituary that would change her life. It noted the passing of Al Schwimmer, a Jewish-American pilot who smuggled 30 surplus planes into the new State of Israel in 1948 and recruited the pilots and crew to fly them, assembling the country’s air force. Spielberg immediately was intrigued. 

“I could not imagine that Israel’s grand and mighty air force had these beginnings,” she said. “The fact that Israel’s air force was started by Americans and volunteers from around the world with really crappy planes — it’s an incredible story.” That story is now the basis of “Above and Beyond,” a documentary Spielberg produced that opens Feb. 6 at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood and Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

Interviewing as many surviving participants as she could locate, Spielberg discovered that “these guys consider themselves very much Americans, not Zionists, but they felt it was their duty to go. They had shunned their Jewishness. But in the process, they found their Jewish pride, their Jewish identity. And they realized that they were a part of, not separate from, it.”

Simultaneously, Spielberg, who’d joined forces with writer Sophie Sartain and director Roberta Grossman (both of whom worked on both “Hava Nagila: The Movie” and “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”), sought funding for the project and had to explain to some people she approached why she wasn’t calling in a favor from her famous brother Steven. “I’m not about that. I love my brother and we’re very close, but that’s not the way I roll,” she told them.

Ultimately, she secured financing from Danny Abraham, the founder of Slim-Fast, and Al Berg, and started production in 2012. “I have one regret, that I did not do this earlier, because I would have been able to get many more people. We lost so many of these guys in the last 10 years,” said Spielberg, whose film combines interviews, archival footage, photographs and digital re-creations to tell its story. 

She’s gratified that “response at the film festivals — Jewish and not — has been overwhelmingly positive,” as have been advance reviews. “I’m verklempt!” she declared, hoping audiences take away “a sense of Jewish-American pride” and think about how they might have responded in the same situation: “How far would you go? What risks would you take?”

Spielberg also pointed out that the film celebrates the American spirit of pitching in to help and “a more innocent time, when [Americans] didn’t question Israel’s right to exist.” Not surprisingly, she wants to make a feature film version “and take this story to a much wider audience.” 

Might her brother be interested in directing? “I’m sure he’s one of the guys I’ll talk to. But he’s got things lined up for years!” Spielberg said, laughing. But in truth, she confided, being the younger sister of Steven Spielberg “is a blessing and a curse.”  

“I’m grateful, but it needs to be managed. It can’t become your persona. I don’t want to make my life about what it was like growing up with my brother.” 

He was the reason she initially shied away from the film industry. “I thought I’d never be given a fair shake,” she said, noting that she used her married name, Katz, while studying writing at Sarah Lawrence College and The New School.

Spielberg and her two older sisters, Sue and Anne, spent their childhoods helping their budding filmmaker brother create his 8-millimeter movies. “I have the scars to prove it. We were the guinea pigs for all the scary ideas that he later put on the screen for the world.” 

She appeared in Steven’s first feature, “Firelight” (1964), and was an extra in others, but realized acting “was not my thing. I’m a storyteller.” Jewish themes are of particular interest to her. With “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals” to her credit, in addition to “Above and Beyond,” she’s currently working with Grossman on “Who Will Write Our History?” about the Oyneg Shabes archive from the Warsaw Ghetto. 

She’s had her own experiences with anti-Semitism. Her computer executive father was repeatedly transferred, and the Spielberg family, originally from New Jersey, found itself living in non-Jewish neighborhoods in Saratoga, Calif., and Phoenix. “We were made to feel like outsiders. The neighbors called us ‘dirty Jews.’ They would steal our toys and taunt us with names. I was young, so I didn’t quite understand.” On Passover, she “went to school with salami on matzah, and people would move away from me because my lunch smelled. They made me feel different.”

Today, that feeling has arisen anew. “With what just happened in Paris and what happens on the streets of Jerusalem, L.A., Florida, everywhere, I’m feeling more and more threatened and irate that it’s open season on Jews,” Spielberg said. “I want to feel safe wherever I go, and for the first time, I’m afraid. But these things make me a stronger Jew.”

Spielberg’s Jewish identity coalesced when she began attending an Orthodox Jewish school in fifth grade along with her sister Anne. The family started keeping kosher, at least at home, so their friends could eat over. Later, she lived in Israel for a year on an Orthodox kibbutz, Be’erot Yitzhak. In 1983, she married a rabbi’s son, Shimon Katz, an American commodities trader she met in Los Angeles; they now live in Riverdale, N.Y. They have two daughters, Jessy, 26, a singer in Israel, and Melissa, 21, a student at Rutgers University and an equestrian.

Spielberg describes herself as Modern Orthodox. ”I don’t use my phone, don’t cook, I don’t drive on Shabbos,” she said. “But I wear tight jeans, and I curse.” 

She remains close with her siblings and divorced parents, Leah, 95, who owns The Milky Way kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills, and Arnold, who just turned 98 and “is sharp as a tack,” she said. She works with the charities Children of Chernobyl and Project Sunshine, and is helping Sartain get her film “Mimi and Dona,” about Sartain’s autistic aunt and the mother (Sartain’s grandmother) who is growing too old to take care of her, either theatrical or television distribution. 

And she’s doing whatever she can to promote “Above and Beyond.” 

“Life, for the most part, is full of blessings,” Spielberg said. “I’m grateful for everything.”