More than anything, the wonderful movie “The Fabelmans,” nominated for seven Oscars, is a beautiful story about a complex and ultimately loving relationship between a mother and son.
That mother, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, is inspired by Leah Adler, director Steven Spielberg’s larger than life Jewish mother. As mother and son writing duo Jeremy and Marla Fogelman wrote for Kveller, the movie “stands out for presenting a warmer, more nuanced and less stereotypical Jewish mother-son dynamic than most other films — even those made by Jewish sons.” And that’s all thanks to Adler.
Adler, who went by Lee Lee, was born Leah Posner in 1920s Cincinatti. Her father, whose Hebrew name was Shraga Fievel, came from Odessa, and his name later inspired that of the famous cartoon mouse of “An American Tale.”
Adler found a passion for playing piano as a young kid and attended the local music conservatory. She married Spielberg’s father, electrical engineer Arnold Meyer Spielberg, in 1945. As the film shows, the family moved around a lot — from New Jersey to Arizona to California.
She raised Steven and his three sisters Nancy, Anne and Sue while performing piano concerts and painting bright watercolors. Just like the character of Mitzi, she was had a magnetic, unusual, childlike presence, known for her Peter Pan haircut and collar, bright red lipstick and beloved Jeep. She loved camping and dancing — but more than anything, loved people.
When the family moved to Phoenix in 1957, Leah ran The Village Shop in the city, where she sold the works of local artists. After divorcing Spielberg in 1965, she left Los Gatos, California, where the family was living at the time, and moved back to Arizona, where she married her second husband, Bernie Adler, in 1967, whose “Fabelmans” counterpart is played by Seth Rogen in a central plotline of the movie. Leah gave him her blessing for the movie before she died in 2017, saying that if it was something that he would be proud of, then he should make it.
A decade after they married, Bernie and Leah opened The Milky Way in Los Angeles, a kosher dairy restaurant. Under Leah’s cheerful front-of-house position and Bernie’s meticulous management, the restaurant was a delight and considered by many one of the best kosher restaurants in the city. Its walls were adorned with Adler’s watercolors and whimsical reminders of her famous son — a Fievel doll, an E.T. figurine and some Gremlins. Leah would often walk around from table to table, chatting with its patrons and giving them advice like “guilt is a wasted emotion,” “be kind to yourself” and “always leave a party early — leave them wanting more.” Before the restaurant opened, she would often play the piano in the room — a gift from Bernie, who passed away in 1995. “The real soul of me is music,” she once said in an Only in Hollywood interview.
The restaurant also did something few kosher restaurants did at the time — it served flavorful kosher cuisine from around the world, like Thai and Mexican dishes, along with a few Jewish staples. The Milky Way, which is still open today, revamped its look and menu after Adler’s death, but it still serves Leah’s cheese blintzes and her famous cheesecake.
Leah considered herself a Hasidic Jew, according to an account from Sruli Broocker in “Jew In the City.” In fact, there exists a video in which she receives a blessing from the celebrated Lubavitcher Rabbi — even name-dropping her son. She said that the rabbi’s blue eyes reminded her of her father’s, and that her told her “the finest people in the world are from Odessa.”
Leah was an indomitable spirit, and she said she saw that kind of spirit in her children, including Steven. She knew, like her, he could not be stopped when he got an idea. “I became his ally, I was his best friend, either that or I was going to break his legs.”
Adler was never concerned about how Steven did in school, even though she says he was a “terrible” student. “I never thought, ‘What’s going to become of him?’ Maybe if it had crossed my mind, I’d have gotten worried.”
She told the LA Times in 1985 that she “raised my kids exactly how my parents raised me. You’re hungry? Have something. We had dinner at the table, but you didn’t have to eat if you didn’t want to. It sounds permissive, but it’s really not. I’m a disciplinarian like you wouldn’t believe.”
When Joan Rivers pushed her about Steven not being married to Amy Irving in a 1985 episode of the tonight show, Leah told the Jewish comedian, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m a mother, not a judge.”
Adler passed away in 2017. Her LA Times obituary lauded the grandmother of 11 for “the unique ability to make each and every person she met feel like they were the center of the universe.”
“Leah marched to the beat of her own drum, always being true to herself and never letting social norms define who she was or what she would accomplish,” it read.
“My mom always wanted more; she was ‘the more mom,’” Spielberg told CBS Sunday Morning recently. “Enough wasn’t enough for mom. That’s a wonderful thing for a kid, because she inspired me to be ambitious, and wanting more, more and more.”
And that spirit of hers is now immortalized in one of her son’s best movies. May her memory be a blessing.