Hulu's 'We Were the Lucky Ones' Helped Star Robin Weigert Reconnect to the Beauty of Jewish Rituals – Kveller
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Hulu’s ‘We Were the Lucky Ones’ Helped Star Robin Weigert Reconnect to the Beauty of Jewish Rituals

Weigert spoke to Kveller about drawing from her German and Polish Jewish roots to play matriarch Nechuma in the powerful limited series.


via Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

In my interview with Robin Weigert, who plays Nechuma, the matriarch in Hulu’s Holocaust drama “We Were the Lucky Ones,” we never seem to wade in shallow waters — every answer to every question went to the deepest depths of her family history, of her connection to this project, and of her own deep, soulful observations.

Weigert plays a soulful mother, too, in this show. Her name, Nechuma, comes from the Hebrew word for comfort, and she is very much a comforting presence onscreen — and also a powerful and incisive woman, one who helps her family quite literally survive, who arms them with strength and care and secret treasures that she sows into their clothes to barter with.

Weigert always plays powerful, fascinating women, from Dr. Amanda Reisman in “Big Little Lies” to Calamity Jane in “Deadwood.” She talked to Kveller about how she drew from her family history for “We Were the Lucky Ones,” how it has helped kindle a new connection with Jewish tradition and about her love for the Israeli show “Shtisel.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I love Nechuma so much; her name is very appropriate. Were there any Jewish mothers in your life you were inspired by?

I do have a wonderful mother. But Nechuma reminds me of someone that I’ve never met, who I only know through my grandfather — my grandfather’s mother, Sophia. I’ve seen her in pictures. And I’ve heard stories about her from my grandfather. That’s the closest person in my own family of Polish Jews. They were out of Poland before the Second World War. My grandfather was actually born in Milwaukee. Sophia was a mother of four —  my grandfather had three older sisters. The stories he told me about her kind [revealed] a particular kind of nurture that was so attuned to the specific nature of each child.

In his case, being the youngest, he would grow up to become a surgeon, and many other things as well. He was one of those Renaissance men that somehow abounded in that generation. He played the violin beautifully and he painted and drew — just this extraordinary man, my grandfather. But in any event, he was jealous of his older sisters for having homework, at 4 and 5 years old, which is just an amazing thing to me. So she sat him down and gave him a clock that they had to disassemble, and then try to reassemble again and study the parts. She just got that he was curious in that way. That seems very much like something that [Nechuma] would do. Part of the strength of each child in their particular harrowing journey in this series comes from her having inculcated in each one — differently — a sense of their own potential, their own strength, their own creativity, their own ingenuity, just a particular kind of dialing in.

I began the journey [of this role] by writing each child a letter. I drew from the book liberally and then also from my own imagination — and little pieces of my own family wove their way in. My father was a very good amateur pianist, but my mom is a concert pianist, and her sister a cellist; they had a piano-cello duo together. This love of classical music permeated my family growing up, so I allowed this character to have that same passion for classical music. That’s part of why [Addy] is so special — he’s realizing something, that he’s becoming an artist. As expert as Nechuma is with stitchery and embroidery and other things, she might have been an artist if she were less driven by practical necessity. So there’s a living through this middle child, and in a way, the freedom he has to go and pursue that. In the letter I wrote to Addy in particular, which is Georgia [Hunter’s] grandfather in real life, I allow that my character might have had regret, that she was so practical with him and insisted that he become an engineer. But then, as Logan [Lerman] reminded me, were it not for this engineering…

He might not have survived…

He might not have as good a case; he was a societal value, which is part of what helped him get out of danger. So it’s very interesting in this way. It’s like a tapestry in a way of Georgia’s family and mine. And then, I would say, because all of us us in the cast share some amount of common history, which is very unusual, all of us have tendrils that go back to the Holocaust. So in a way, we were all woven in with our own personal stories, and I think that gives a texture to it.

Watching the scenes of the Jewish family gatherings, like the Passover scenes, felt like such a warm, real Jewish family.

Absolutely. We were having joyful dinners out together. I’m sure you’ve heard from other [castmembers], the kind of banter and rapport and delight and humor at the table were all the element that we were living in.

Did you celebrate Passover or other similar traditions growing up?

I did not. I had a very proudly Jewish grandfather on my father’s side; his father was Jewish and had a high position in the Weimar Republic. He was Minister of Labor, and for legitimate work reasons, was able to get out — but really dodgy, like in 1933 — to help Atatürk start social security in Ankara, Turkey. My maternal grandmother was a psychoanalyst; she stayed behind a little later and then joined them there. I’ve often thought it would make an extraordinary story, maybe a play — what it would have been like for her in the years 1933, 1934, to be dealing with civilization and its discontents. I’ve just envisioned what it would have been like to talk to a series of patients — one might be a Jewish professor who lost his position at university for reasons he couldn’t understand. The next one might be a kid whose parents were pressuring him to join the Hitler Youth. You just think of the multiplicity of issues that would have been in society that time and how she could sit with equanimity and receive all of that and still maintain her mission, which was to help heal people, in this environment.

That’s so complex, wow.

I feel like I kind of went astray from your question.

So you didn’t really grow up with Jewish tradition?

My mom felt like the rabbi at the most convenient synagogue had kind of an adenoidal voice…

There was this sort of pride, pride in the good sense, I hope, of an association with this lineage, certainly complexly manifested on my father’s side. I think a lot of his sorrows came from stories that never got told in his side of the family. I think Oscar, his father, had people die in the camps that were never mentioned by name that he took to the grave. There was on that side more of a sense that Judaism was — like with Georgia’s family — very much in the background. Nobody really talked about it. I think my grandfather would have preferred that we were bar and bat mitzvah-ed but we weren’t. And we sort of did a Chrismukkah, very American style — my brothers started to put a Star of David on top of the Christmas tree. But that was about as far as we went. But the cousins on my mother’s side were where we would do Passover, because they took it more seriously.

But since we shot this series, I fasted on Yom Kippur, I lit candles on Hanukkah — something clicked about the power of such rituals, from the experience of playing this character.

There’s something so beautiful in this story about how they maintained rituals in dark times. Like that Rosh Hashanah scene, during a time when it’s hard to hold the meaning of that Jewish holiday — of forgiveness and atonement — and still they celebrate.

I’ve seen the power of simply lighting a candle in the dark, the power of connecting with light in all of its forms during dark times. Even metaphorically, it’s so powerful. And this year as I performed this ritual [of lighting the Hanukkah candles], probably for the first time in my life, it turned out that from a combination of old age, COVID and other illnesses, there was a person for each candle that had passed away. And when they were all lit, I saw them as kind of this beautiful collection of souls watching over me. It had beautiful resonance this year.

And you were acting with Lior Ashkenazi, whose name means “my light.” What was it like acting with him? And having all the Hebrew around from the Israeli cast?

I’m a very sincere person, as you can probably tell, and Lior is very humorous. For example, I had rhapsodized about how much I fell in love with his hands over the course of working with him because he’s got these gorgeous hands. He’s very kind with them. I mean, I wasn’t a fetishist…

No, it’s just something that draws you to a person!

So I had said that in a group setting and the next morning at breakfast, he came in sort of dangling his fingers. You know, he never wastes an opportunity to take the piss.

He’s delightful.

He’s a delightful, delightful person. And very, very funny, very sharp. And these Israeli actors are all among the most successful actors in Israel. They all sort of knew each other coming in. So that was a beautiful thing to be around: their camaraderie and their mutual respect for each other and their humor and their bluntness and all the things that are just classically, culturally Israeli.

As an Israeli person and a fan of Israeli TV, I felt like, oh my gosh, all the stars are in this! I don’t know if a lot of American viewers realize this.

I don’t know if you saw the gorgeous series “Shtisel”…

I love “Shitsel!” Are you a fan?

Michael [Aloni, who plays Kiveh in “Shtisel” and Selim in “We Were the Lucky Ones”] and I became good friends.

And Hadas [Yaron, who plays Libby in “Shtisel”] was your daughter, Mila, in this show.

Hadas was my daughter and we all became very good friends with each other. Under what other circumstance could that have happened, I wonder? This was such a gift to all of us.

Nechuma is a clothing person, she’s very tactile in that way. Was there anything about the clothing in the show and that experience of sewing that helped you connect to the character?

There’s a lot of sewing things into people’s clothes over the course of trying to help people get through, be it money or silverware, things that they can barter with if they get the chance. And so I actually consulted with the Romanian seamstress about sewing.

Of course the handkerchief [that Nechuma gives to Addy] becomes a very important piece. That’s another similarity with my great-grandmother, my beloved grandfather’s mother — he had this magnificent doily that she had made for him. Her father had been a clothing designer and had designed the uniforms for the Polish army in World War I.

It’s so incredible, how much people like your grandparents and great-grandparents contributed to the society of the places that they lived in, but that generation of Jews isn’t there anymore.

I do feel incredibly humbled in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life, when I think about that generation of my grandparents. My grandfather, as a surgeon, was inventing procedures while he was forced to operate under less than ideal conditions. He was a cardiovascular surgeon, and was able to come up with ways of stitching people back together that actually involved innovations that were then employed by surgeons in less dire circumstances.

I’m so awed by that generation, how they were able to harness their intellects and abilities and really do some meaningful good in the world. Looking back in a historical way, I miss the purity of intent of that generation. We get so muddied by this by self-promotion, by social media. I think going back a few generations, they didn’t have all this distraction.

I keep thinking about the Israeli Polish hostage, Alex Dancyg, and how he said that Polish Jews had so much impact on their society — that the story of Polish Jews isn’t just the story of the Holocaust.

Is your family Polish Jews?

Yes, and that made the show so touching to me.

My family is Polish and German Jewish. And there were great contributions made there, too.

My grandfather, after he survived the Holocaust in Poland, went to Germany to study psychiatry, actually. 

Maybe this is going to sound Pollyannaish, but I feel like extreme hardship for those who do survive can in itself contribute to the strength of character and resilience and all that. In this show, what’s remarkable is that for each of these kids, it’s really a coming-of-age story. You get to watch their characters form around the difficulty of their circumstances. And so, more than just being hopeful because they survived, the seeds of hope are there because they grew, do you see? That’s the greater reason why this series has hope to offer. As opposed to bleakness, death and gas chambers — it is the very fact that they are challenged to the degree that they are, that allows them to mine the very best within themselves.

I’m particularly moved by the journey of my older daughter [in the show, Mila], who is so challenged by motherhood, just the basics of motherhood, but by the end, she has been unbelievably heroic as a mother, and has learned her capacity to mother — which is unimpeachable. She may never have learned that of herself, had she lived during normal times.

Nechuma talk too about the strength that children give us, how they make us more fearful and more strong. 

I also think that not only does that make parents more strong, but children themselves become more strong through confronting adversity. We’re allergic to what we call trauma today, and think that it’s going to capsize our children. But I actually think that if we rebranded this trauma as challenge and difficulty, it would be give kids a better shot of using their hardships to grow. If there’s a powerful thing that I would wish this series would communicate to a younger generation, it’s that old adage of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It is the idea that through the severest, most unimaginable difficulty, if you meet it with dignity and with ingenuity, it can add to your character, not detract from it.

I think about that a lot as a parent. We have this desire to shield our kids from everything, but it’s not helpful for them. They need to be in the discomfort and the hardships themselves and feel it and be inured to that, so when you’re not with them, they know how to deal with challenges.

Even in terms of the quality of debate that exists when people disagree around certain issues. I think there’s a healthiness to debating those issues, even in the public square. Debating is a lost art form because we think of people with differing opinions or values or concepts of how society should run as being aggressive enemies that want to kill us or silence us. We’re very eager to look to see who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy above all else, and we don’t engage the ideas anymore. And that’s something that they did back in those days. They very actively — strenuously, I would say — debated different philosophies, different value systems, different approaches to government and so on. Let’s talk about things so that we can come to a better understanding ourselves about the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, what it is that defines character, and how we rise to meet the challenges of the modern day.

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