What would have become of Anne Frank had she survived the Holocaust? That intriguing hypothetical is the premise of “The Book of Ruth,” a short film premiering online at the DeadCenter Film Festival on June 11. The debut film from Israeli American actress-writer-producer Chen Drachman stars Tovah Feldshuh as a Jewish grandmother whose secret identity we discover via a conversation with her granddaughter (Drachman) after a Passover seder.
Drachman got the idea for the film from a 2015 news report questioning the date of Frank’s death, and that made her think: “What if it had gone differently? Where would Anne be today? Would we know she was alive or would she keep it a secret, and what was the logic behind that? I found it fascinating on many fronts,” she told the Journal.
So did Feldshuh, who admired Drachman’s focus, dedication and passion and wanted to help her get the film made. What also appealed was the premise: What would have happened if Anne Frank had lived? In the film, her titular character opts to stay anonymous and live out her life in peace, preserving Anne as an iconic figure whose young life was cut tragically short, as well as preserving the myths surrounding her.
“She chose to remain anonymous so the world could continue to relate to her story and be impacted by it. She was more powerful dead than alive,” Feldshuh, the Emmy- and Tony-nominated actress said in a separate interview. “I’m happy to represent this choice of Anne’s, but I don’t think it would have been my choice.”
“[Anne Frank] chose to remain anonymous so the world could continue to relate to her story and be impacted by it. She was more powerful dead than alive.” — Tovah Feldshuh
Feldshuh has played many Jewish icons in her five-decade career, including Golda Meir on stage and screen in “Golda’s Balcony” and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Sisters in Law” at the Wallis Annenberg Center last fall, a role she hopes to reprise on Broadway. (After meeting with Ginsburg four times, they’re now email pals.)
Her first major recognition came in the 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” and she more recently played Jewish mother Naomi Bunch in Rachel Bloom’s television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” She has fully embraced the “Jewish roles that came to me on a Magen David platter” since changing her name from Terri Sue to her Hebrew name, Tovah.
“Why fight it? If you’re going to be pegged as an actress with Jewish expertise, you might as well go global,” Feldshuh said, emphasizing that her repertoire also includes Catherine the Great, Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” a trapeze-swinging grandma in “Pippin,” and, in her youth, Shakespeare’s Juliet. She doesn’t hesitate to play elderly women, declaring, “I have no vanity about myself on screen anymore.”
Feldshuh was Drachman’s first choice, but it took four years of fundraising including crowdfunding before she and director Becca Roth and their diverse, mostly female crew could begin filming in April 2019 at a picturesque lake cottage north of New York City. “We did it in the way we wanted to do it, in terms of casting and filling positions,” Drachman said. Her story’s themes of Jewish roots and history and being an immigrant living apart from family reflects her own experience.
From Holon near Tel Aviv, she now lives in New York and became a U.S. citizen last year. Like Feldshuh, Drachman has a familial Holocaust connection. Both grandfathers survived camps and her maternal grandmother, Tzipora, to whom the film is dedicated, fled persecution in Romania and made aliyah. She said her paternal grandmother was involved in the Belgian underground during World War II
Drachman learned English by watching un-subtitled American TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and knew early on that she wanted to write, produce and act. She sang in the school choir and moved to New York to study musical theater a decade ago. She flew to Israel for a visit in February just before the pandemic hit, but hopes to return to the U.S. in late June. She plans to take “The Book of Ruth” to other film festivals here and internationally, and is considering expanding her story as a feature film. Her next project will be a comedy feature, also with Jewish themes. Meanwhile, she’s working for the Israeli nonprofit ELEM, which serves at-risk youth.
Native New Yorker Feldshuh is living at her country home on Long Island with her daughter, son-in-law and baby grandson after a bout with COVID-19. She believes she contracted the virus at a bat mitzvah in early March. She developed a “weird cold” and lost her sense of taste and smell but was never hospitalized and recovered in a few days. Eating well and swimming half a mile a day, she lost 14 pounds in quarantine. “I’m two pounds under my wedding weight,” she said.
Her upcoming films include “Bleecker,” an intergenerational family drama about love and loss, and “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” a live action-animation hybrid, are due out in the fall. Feldshuh adopts a thick Russian accent to play one of the people who discovers the outsize canine. She’s also writing a book called “Lillyville,” about her relationship with her mother. “The subtitle may be ‘How to Get What You Want and Still Get Along With Your Mother.’ It’ll come out Mother’s Day next year,” she said.
As her film’s premiere approaches, Drachman awaits the feedback. “I’d like people to talk about what resonates with them, how they felt about the logic behind [Anne’s] decision,” she said. I’m interested to see how others feel about it.”
“The Book of Ruth” premieres in the shorts program online at 7:50 a.m. PDT June 11 here. Tickets go on sale that day, and ticketholders can log in to watch the film and a pre-recorded Q&A with filmmakers through June 21.