Embarking on a phone call with Tovah Feldshuh one recent morning, I had the feeling I was entering a conversation in media res. Perhaps it’s the high-energy quotient that animates her talk — no slow start with introductory pleasantries, even though it was 9 in the morning during a very busy week for the actress, singer, and playwright: She was in Florida for the world premiere of “Golda’s Balcony, The Film” at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, an event that, she said, was “astonishing” (and where it was crowned the “Audience Award Winner for Best Feature”). The night before we spoke, she had attended a “spectacular” symphony performance, and as we chatted, she set off in her car to find her way to a nearby nature and wildlife preserve she’d heard about (“I love nature like Golda loved her boys”).
But perhaps the most potent reason it felt as if we were in a talk-in-progress was that the main focus of the call was something, she said, that she has “proudly” poured her energies and spirit and talent into for more than 15 years: the lead role in “Golda’s Balcony.” It is, she said, the “greatest role of my 40-year career, playing Israel’s first woman prime minister facing the greatest challenge of her career.”
Calling Golda — that’s what everyone called her — “one of the greatest women in history,” Feldshuh said she owes playwright William Gibson a huge debt of gratitude for having written a play that continues to move audiences — and herself.
(Distinguishing “Golda” as her greatest role must be placed in the context of her acclaimed portrayals in 100-plus other vehicles of the stage and big and small screens, including the groundbreaking 1970s miniseries “The Holocaust,” the perennially popular TV series “Law & Order,” the massive hit zombie apocalypse show “The Walking Dead,” and as the over-the-top Jewish mom in the uproarious musical series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — as well as in the other plays that garnered her four Tony nominations.)
In our free-ranging conversation, what came through most forcefully was how Feldshuh (by the way, she wanted to clarify that it’s pronounced “Feld-shoo”) sees her portrayals — starting from the early performances and through the many times she has inhabited the role on stages throughout the world — as embodying Golda’s, and her own, passion for the nation and people of Israel.
When faced with the necessity of waging war — and, posits the play, the terrifying possibility of deploying nuclear weapons against Israel’s enemies on the eve of the Yom Kippur War — Golda never stopped “crying for peace” — for everyone, Feldshuh said.
Feldshuh also marvels at this “whirlwind,” a woman who “lived life to its fullest.” Golda’s unremitting energy not only serves as a model for Feldshuh, she said, but powers her own zeal to reenact the well-known saga of a young girl immigrating to Milwaukee after fleeing pogroms in her native Ukraine who rose to become Israel’s fourth, and still its only female, prime minister.
Furthering Feldshuh’s awe of her subject is how Golda’s life as a wife, mother, and schoolteacher was eclipsed by her unwavering commitment to not just supporting the Zionist endeavor, but to being on the ground to help bring it to fruition.
Golda’s unfaltering strength also inspires: Throughout the pressures she faced on the domestic, national, and international stages, Feldshuh said, she “was unshakeable, not a person who wept when confronted with troubles,” always presenting “a stalwart front to her people.”
Playing Golda fulfills another aspect of Feldshuh’s life: “tikkun olam,” improving the world, by personifying a woman whose revolutionary leadership was critical to the survival of her nation and its “right to exist and to live in peace.” That Israel does survive and thrive is a “miracle” of history, Feldshuh said. “I love Israel and the Jewish people,” she said; at its heart, “Israel is the prime example of how to live with hope,” and it was Golda who sustained that “tikvah” through the dark days of October 1973.
Feldshuh is quick to emphasize, “I love all people with all my heart,” extending that to those who many view as enemies. She has taken pains to befriend Palestinian Arabs — “It is hard to kill someone you’re familiar with” — and stated, “I want everybody to live in two peaceful countries, side by side.”
Key to her immersion in Golda and the many other strong Jewish women she’s portrayed, said Feldshuh, is her embrace of her own Jewish identity, a feeling deeply embedded — “My parents loved being Jewish,” she said — and she has continued the tradition of large holiday gatherings, including her home being “the magnet for some 45 people at Passover seders.”
It’s her love for Israel, Feldshuh said, that has motivated the supportive efforts of which she is unabashedly proud: raising funds around the world for Israeli and Jewish community service organizations, hospitals, and schools, including Magen David Adom, Ben-Gurion University, and Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
When making appeals for Israel, she said, she’s proved most effective by telling potential donors that she is asking “for something very inexpensive; I ask you only for money. I don’t ask for your sons’ and daughters’ blood. It is Israel that gives that.”
Her labors have not gone unappreciated; among the awards she’s received are the Israel Peace Award and the Jewish Image Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
So now that the Broadway performance of “Golda’s Balcony” is accessible via the big screen, will Feldshuh continue to bring her idol to the stage?
Without a doubt, she said. She learns something new each time she treads the boards as Golda, which she’s done many times in the last 15 years. “It’s a story that needs to be told and a voice and an opinion that need to be heard.” She revels in going live as Golda, “making strangers in a theater feel like family, connecting with them on a personal level, having them look me in the eye.”
But that’s also the reason she is so delighted with “this treasure”; “Golda’s Balcony, The Film” reveals the energy and zeal she put into it — like watching the charge of a “racehorse under tremendous duress” — and what happens “when a woman in her 50s, with commitment to the vision of a playwright, works out, dons a fat suit and a gray wig,” and goes “very, very, very deep, with restraint and respect” that convey the essence of Golda’s strength and humor and the charisma that ensured her place in history.
If you go
What: “Golda’s Balcony, The Film”
When: April 5, 11:30 a.m.
Where: JCC MetroWest, West Orange
Tickets: $11; $10/ticket for groups of 10 or more
Contact: Sarah Diamond at email@example.com or 973-530-3417 or visit jccmetrowest.org/njjff
Star Tovah Feldshuh will appear at the screening.
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