November 20, 2019

A match made in Lithuania

It’s easy to understand Shahar Sorek’s immediate attraction to Agne Kudreviciute. The Lithuanian beauty, of mixed Polish and Russian heritage, would be the perfect casting choice for Snow White: long, black hair; light skin; striking green eyes; and a princesslike demeanor. 

Shahar, the ruggedly handsome star of the 2007 big-budget Israeli film “King of Beggars,” first met Agne when she was working the front desk of the Lithuanian hotel that accommodated the film’s cast and crew.

“I was filling out a form and I heard a voice,” said Shahar, who sat with Agne at a Beverly Boulevard cafe a few weeks before their late-July wedding in Israel. “I raised my eyes and she stood in front of me, and that was kind of the initial moment that was very powerful that threw me a little off and her a little off.”

After noticing the mysterious attraction between the two, director Uri Paster decided to cast Agne in the film, a 16th century tale that follows the transformation of a lame Jewish bath attendant (Shahar) into a warrior leading a pack of Jews against the anti-Semitic Polish leadership. Agne, at the time a 20-year-old law and journalism student who had no acting ambition, played a bit part as a beautiful Russian girl who bathes the Jewish warrior. The brief scene was shot in an old castle at Trakai, a medieval capital of Lithuania, located mere minutes from Agne’s childhood home.

Agne said she initially felt shy filming the scene, but eventually it foretold the real-life intimacy to come. “For a young girl, it’s a sign,” she said.

Shahar Sorek and Agne Kudreviciute dance at their wedding

The emotional wave that overcame them during their first encounter — call it love at first sight — embodied more than just physical attraction. Their relationship would soon usher in a rebirth and reconciliation: a tragic past turning the corner into an optimistic future, a process of self-discovery and the building of bridges between two nations.

Sima Skurkovitz, Shahar’s grandmother, is one of Lithuania’s most beloved prewar Jewish entertainers. With an ancestry said to hail from the Vilna Gaon, the great 18th century Lithuanian talmudist, Skurkovitz was the life of the Vilna Ghetto — also called the Jerusalem of Lithuania — where she performed for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

The Nazis eventually wiped out the ghetto, and with it Skurkovitz’s family. After World War II, she met her husband and they immigrated to Israel. She documented her story in her 1993 book, “Sima’s Songs: Light in Nazi Darkness.”

During her first visit to Israel in 2006, Agne said she was nervous about meeting Shahar’s grandmother, who is now in her late 80s. “It wasn’t about being Shahar’s girlfriend,” she said. “It was about being a Lithuanian girl who was coming and probably reminding her of that period.”

During the visit, the three communicated in various languages: Russian, Polish, German, English, Yiddish and Hebrew. Shahar describes an intuitive connection.

“She gave me a book with some of her songs that she performed in the ghetto, and that was kind of like a green light,” Agne said.

Agne’s own paternal grandparents had a painful, familiar history with the Jewish community of Lithuania. In a forest bathhouse not far from the hotel where Agne and Shahar met, they hid a Jewish family, only to have their location revealed by neighbors. Inside the forest is a mass Jewish grave.

During the ring ceremony

Agne suspects her grandmother witnessed Jewish executions but said she won’t talk about it.

“She didn’t even want to go back to those times,” Agne said.

Vilna is a modernized Western city today, but most Lithuanians are not aware of the country’s vibrant Jewish past as a center for talmudic learning or its role in Jewish persecution. Shahar was the first Jew Agne had ever met.

She first learned the extent of Lithuanian complicity during the Holocaust upon a visit to the Museum of Tolerance. “Everyone knew of the Holocaust, but unfortunately nobody spoke [about it] or took blame for the participation [in] these events,” she said.

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Shahar followed in his grandmother’s footsteps, earning local fame as a lead in the late 1990s television series “Ramat Aviv Gimel” — Israel’s equivalent of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

After shooting “King of Beggars,” Shahar settled in Los Angeles to act and produce. After a long-distance and intermittent courtship, Agne joined him in 2007 when she got a job as a marketing manager at a local hotel. Agne completed her conversion to Judaism through American Jewish University in June.

Skurkovitz was the guest of honor at their festive wedding on Poleg Beach, north of Tel Aviv, on July 27. Shahar describes it as “magical.”

About 200 people attended, among them Agne’s parents, uncle, sister, cousins and friends from Lithuania; the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel; UCLA history professor Peter Loewenberg, Shahar’s “L.A. dad”; and Israeli producer-director Paster. Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, rabbi emeritus of the Masorti Congregation Beit Israel in Netanya, conducted parts of the traditional Jewish chuppah ceremony in Russian for the Lithuanian guests. A violin trio played at the reception, with the chuppah followed by local singer Limor Shapira, performing songs in Yiddish and Lithuanian. Guests danced until 3 a.m. to a disco band and a DJ, with some continuing the festivities by the shore.

“They were blown away,” Shahar said of the Lithuanian guests. “Some of them said they’d never been to such an event. They weren’t prepared to see that kind of investment.”

Agne’s family also attended the Shabbat hatan, a pre-wedding celebration on Shabbat day, at the Soreks’ home in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion. It was their first time encountering Jewish tradition and learning about the Jewish state in depth.

Today, through their bond with Shahar and his family, Agne and her family and friends are Lithuania’s new ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people.

“Now it all makes sense,” Agne said. “When we go through the journey together and build the relationship a lot of these things that were a question mark or a feeling that didn’t have any substance now absolutely make sense. Overall we’re great friends and we share very similar views of life and similar expectations and that’s why it’s simple and easy.”