An Interview With Albert Maysles On Judaism, January 2014

May 2010, Harlem

May 2010, Harlem

Elon Green: Did you grow up in a Jewish household? What were your parents like?

Albert Maysles: My mother was an ardent civil libertarian. But even without that, being Jewish, the tendency was very strong for her to be on the side of the outsider, to protect other people’s rights the way our own had been violated. My father was a postal clerk and a musician.

Were they observant?

My father was observant enough so that we would observe the Jewish holidays and sometimes attend the synagogue.

Did you and David [Maysles] have a bar mitzvah?  

Bar mitzvahed and also when I was very young I put in as many as six years of Hebrew school in Dorchester.

I came from a lower-middle class family where being it was taken very seriously that I would marry a Jewish woman.

Growing up, did you date Jewish girls?

More or less.

So you thought that was important...

I thought it was, but I ended up marrying a woman who was a Catholic-turned Buddhist. She caught my eye and my heart, and I knew that she was the right one.

And your parents?

My father had died by then. My mother took her as she was, and loved her very much.

Tell me about growing up as a Jew in Dorchester.

Something that was very important to my life was battling the Irish kids in Dorchester. They’d come up to me to fight, starting when I was maybe nine years old. The Jews and the Irish would fight pretty often. I developed into a good, solid fighter, so I could defend myself pretty well.

Behind all that, I always wanted to become friends with the Irish kids. That never happened. But one day, I was walking home, and the top Irish fighter came up to me and picked a fight. We end up exhausted. As we’re sitting on the curb, he turns to me and says, “I’m fighting the wrong guy. I should be up on Beacon Hill fighting the English.”

Was it an anti-Semitic area?

Oh sure, and an anti-Semitic time. Can you imagine? There was this guy, Father Coughlin, a priest. Every Sunday, he’d be on the radio—a national broadcast—preaching a message of anti-Semitism. You can the impression that the outside world is very much against you.

Let's talk about your family. I assume you didn’t have a Jewish wedding?

I had a Jewish and a Christian wedding, with both a rabbi and a priest.

At that point, did you attend services?

Not by the time I got married, but I very much considered myself Jewish.

What about now?

I definitely look at myself as being Jewish. I’ll never give that up.

And the kids?

My son has a girlfriend now, and she’s not Jewish. And he was never bar mitzvahed. I asked him, when bar mitzvah time was coming around, whether he wanted to be bar mitzvahed or not, and he said he’d rather not go through all that. I said, “Well, I’ve got an idea. What if I recite the most important prayer in Hebrew—Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad, and we shake on it? He said, “Let’s do that.” So that was our own little bar mitzvah ceremony.

What about the work? Showman seems, at the very least, to be an implicitly Jewish film.

Yes, it’s a Jewish subject. We actually ran into trouble on that one. The subject of the film, Joseph Levine, is Jewish, and when we showed the film to the Hollywood types, they all walked out within a few minutes. I later learned that they thought the film was anti-Semitic. Joseph Levine sort of represented a stereotype that was not to their liking. He was not a creative artist; he was a businessman. To a certain kind of mind, he came off as a fat little Jew who was only into making money. To you or to me--to most anybody--that would not come to mind.

You obviously disagreed with their interpretation.

Yeah. It made for difficult relations with Levine because, to some extent, he thought we had created a film that was anti-Semitic. He, to some extent, bit the poison. There is this thing, it’s almost an anti-Semitism amongst Jews, which [Anna] Freud explained as “identification with the aggressor.” It’s an odd kind of thing, but I guess every group has it’s own self-deprecators.

He’s now passed away, and we’re still trying to get a better release from the children. We didn’t get a release from him until we’d finished the film. We should’ve gotten it at the beginning, but we had no idea that we’d encounter that kind of problem.

That’s incredible that you didn’t get a release early on.

I don’t think we made that mistake again. It was the first real film that David and I made together.

So...Brett Ratner.I’ve always been a bit mystified, and delighted, by your friendship with Brett. As I understand it, he, too, grew up in a middle class Jewish household. Is this a bond you share?

Could very well be, but I haven’t recognized it in any explicit form. He’d come up with this idea, of doing 15-minute portraits of people. We both had a list. One Jew on his list was that Secretary of State--Kissinger. When Gillian saw that, she said, Oh my god, he was a terrible person. So we struck him off the list.

That’s how we met, this project. I visited his mansion in Hollywood. Fantastic, splendor.

What Jewish writer, thinker or filmmaker influenced you the most? In a formative way?

I wasn’t that much of a reader, so I can’t cite much literature. But I remember, as a child, doing my homework in the public library. And one day, I got bored and browsed the shelves. I found book called Architects of Ideas: The Great Theories of Mankind. There were sixteen chapters, each one on a great thinker, whether it was Plato, Descartes or Marx. But what was interesting, above all, was Freud, because it intrigued me that you could study the mind. So I went out and got his basic writings. This is when I was only 12 years old.

I didn’t even know much about what sex was, so there was a lot I didn’t understand.