Michael Aloni Brought His Mother's Polish Lullaby to 'We Were the Lucky Ones' – Kveller
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Michael Aloni Brought His Mother’s Polish Lullaby to ‘We Were the Lucky Ones’

We talked to the "Shtisel" and "Beauty Queen of Jerusalem" star about why there are so many Jewish holidays and his middle name.


via Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

For years, I have been writing fan letters to Michael Aloni in the form of articles for this very website. I couldn’t help it – the Israeli actor is that good onscreen in “Shtisel” as the ever tortured artist Kiveh, in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” as patriarch Gabriel and in “Scenes from a Marriage” as a surprising Jewish businessman.

But what is he like in real life?

Well, I can’t really tell you that, but I can tell you what he is like over Zoom — which is funny, thoughtful and charming. And it seems like his fellow “We Were the Lucky Ones” castmembers can attest to that, too — Hadas Yaron says he delivered vitamin C all the way from Israel to her on set, and Robin Weigert, a fellow “Shtisel” fan, may have been a little star-struck herself.

Am I a bigger Michael Aloni fan after interviewing him? You bet I am.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

First, an important question: Do you go by Mee-cha-el or Mai-kl? 

I go by me Mee-cha-el in Israel; I go by Mai-kl in the States or in England or any other English-speaking country. And then if you go with me to France, it’s Michel; in Italy it’s Michele. I was filming in South America and it was Miguel there. So it depends on where I am and who’s the director or the makeup artist. I think we can go by Mai-kl if it’s more comfortable for you.

I like the Hebrew pronunciation, my brother has the same name. 

OK! I have a middle name, too. We can use that, it won’t create any issues.

What is it?


Oh, wow, where does Mark come from? Apparently I’m only going to ask questions that are unrelated to the show. 

OK, so “We Were the Lucky Ones” is a show that researches of the origin of Michael’s middle name. It’s a great show that discovers…

[Laughs] OK, can you tell me a little bit about the lullaby that you sing to Felicia, your daughter, in the first episode?

So in the first episode, just before Selim, my character, goes off to war, I’m holding my baby for maybe the last time I’ll ever see her — I don’t know if I’ll come back alive, or ever see my wife again. And I sing her a little lullaby, holding her in my hands. And actually, it’s a real lullaby that my mom used to sing to my sister when she was a little baby. I asked my mother for the words in Polish and for the theme that apparently she invented, and Thomas Kail [the director] was generous enough to allow us to put it in the show. So it was like resonating with the story of [author] Georgia [Hunter’s] family and my family. It was all connected, coming together, and it was very emotional. I hope my mom, when she sees it, is going to be as excited as I was to sing it.

Wow, I’d love to see that reaction.

I’ll send you a picture! [We are still waiting for the picture, Michael.]

How did your family history connect you to the show?

Well, I guess every Israeli actor on this show has Holocaust history one way or another. We can’t avoid it in our lives. It’s a part of all Jewish people all over the world. And I guess the way that this story is told, so beautifully, in such a very human way, no one can stay indifferent to this one. I don’t think there will be one dry eye after watching the first 20 minutes.

Yeah, I was ugly crying.

Well there is no ugly crying, there’s only beautiful tears.

All tears are beautiful! You have this thing, in “Shtisel” too, where you’re kind of the baby whisperer in this show. It was really interesting to see Selim have this instantaneous connection with Felicia in a way that is juxtaposed with Mila, right? 

Each and everyone finds themself in a different position when you have a newborn. For the first time, you become a family, and it changes your life completely. For Mila, she’s also losing her husband right from the beginning, not knowing where he’s going and when she’ll ever get a chance to get his supporting shoulder. It’s a very brave and strong character that Hadas [Yaron] is portraying there, being left to deal with all that by herself, and realizing what it means. It’s hard enough to be a mom as it is. But then having to survive the horrific events that surrounded her — it’s even more difficult.

I thought it was so interesting, the two of them very quickly decide for themselves that they’re not holding onto hope that the other person has survived. Do you feel like that’s a survival mechanism?

I guess that’s why they’re together, in a way. There are couples that would be like, “But he’s alive!” and the other person would be like, “But she’s still alive,” and that would give them hope. Mila and Selim, maybe they’re such a great match because both of them don’t want to hold onto that hope because they need to let it go in order to survive. They have a different survival mechanism in them. In normal times, that’s what makes them a good couple.

When they reunite, they’re not running into each other’s arms. There’s something reserved about both of them.

Yeah, I guess it is not believing that this would be even possible. On the contrary, Logan [Lerman’s] character, Addy — he always believes that he will see his family. They don’t believe in that. But then when they do see each other, it’s like all of a sudden finding someone who you buried, almost. After almost seven years of not seeing each other, you feel so many things, a mix of emotions. You’re angry at yourself, like, “Why did you lose hope?” And then you’re mad because you don’t know what the other side has gone through. And how can you start explaining what happened to you, and where you have been? The journey that you went through? And then looking into each other’s eyes for the first time… It’s like, I don’t even know where to start. You almost look like a stranger to me. They are facing one another in such a distance, with great love inside. It’s almost breaking the ice slowly to get to know each other all over again, because you’re a different person after this.

With Felicia, too. There’s that beautiful moment at the train station, when he gives her the coin he held onto for her for so long. But he is hesitant too, asking, “Can I hug you?” It’s really moving. Another really powerful scene for me was when Selim, in Italy ahead of battle, is counseling Genek, sort of as his spiritual guide, maybe his rabbi. Do you think that he is spiritual? Do you see him as a believer?

I think he is very dogmatic. Selim is a very pragmatic person; he’s a scientist and a doctor. He is a serious man, but he also carries a more spiritual side of him. And at that moment, it’s not even being a rabbi, it’s just being a brother. Saying, “You have your wife, you have your kid, I lost all of it. I don’t even know if they’re alive. And you should be happy with what you have, look at the half-full glass instead of looking into this black hole that you’re in.”

I feel that that scene is more of a moment between two good friends, and one friend can’t see above the horizon, and you’ve got to lift them up and send them out there because he’s going to war. You can’t be crumbled in your own thoughts that way. So it’s like two good friends who are supporting one another — two brothers in arms.

What did it mean to you for Selim to come back to us in Tel Aviv?

It happened a lot in the history of that time. A lot of people went to Siberia, to gulags there and in Russia, and were recruited to the Russian army, or the Polish military brigades, and they found their way to their allies in Israel, which was then controlled by Britain, where they were also sending troops to Europe to fight the Nazis. So the circle of Jews that escaped Poland or Germany, or parts of Russia, and found themselves in Israel — many families survived the Holocaust that way, and some of them stayed in Israel, Palestina at the time.

It is really special for Selim to resurrect himself in this ancient Jewish land. What was it that drew you to Selim’s character?

What was really helpful as an actor is the fact that you have the book — you have all the resources and all the pages and the great words that Georgia Hunter put there. And then you have Georgia with you. And of course, it’s a real life story of her family. So you have all the pictures and information and the research that she did. It’s all laid out in front of you. So you have almost all the materials you need to complete your research and just dive into this special character, which is very thoughtful, and also very emotional, but at the same time is very kept together and not showing all his inner feelings.

What is Passover like in your family, and how did that echo back to the Passover in the show?

The Jewish tradition… one of the greatest traditions is that we have so many goddamn holidays! You always have something to celebrate! You have Yom this and Yom that, and you always find yourself around the family table. Something that separates Judaism from other religions is that you have this togetherness… it’s sometimes too much! Keep me away from my family for a little bit! But boy there’s something that is so special about it.

When you’re coming around the table, there’s little fights and teasing between the brothers and my mother who always brings up a subject right at the wrong time. There’s little moments that happen around the Passover table, and that’s what makes it so warm and real. A real family. That’s real love. It comes with all the colors of it.

And also you tell the story of our survival. You sit at a table and tell the story of survival, and in the show, you’re telling a story of survival.

At the Passover dinner, we tell the story of how we survived, escaped the Egyptians at a time in our history. And it’s becoming a tale as well — the Holocaust, it just happened. It’s not history that happened thousands of years ago. It just recently happen. It’s a generation that is passing and we now need to live without the people who experienced that. And we will have to tell it, and it’s not a story. It’s not a haggadah. No, it’s our lives. We know it, it happened. It’s not a story. It’s real life. And now we kind of have to prove it. That’s what’s dangerous about it.

How has the current moment changed your perception of the show?

It’s very important for us to not let antisemitism raise its ugly head ever again.

What are you working on next? Is there another season of “Beauty Queen”?

Well, they’re writing it, I can tell you that! I don’t know when we’ll film it, but it’s in the writing process. And there’s one show that’s supposed to come out called “Stronghold.” It’s about the Yom Kippur War. There’s another show that is coming, I can’t say much about it, but it’s an international project as well that was filmed in Argentina and Uruguay. And it’s kind of like a thriller, about a terrorist attack that happened in Argentina in 1994.

That’s intense! Really intense projects!

Like my life, very intense! What can I say!

The Holocaust, the Yom Kippur War — you’re not getting a break!

The next one is going to be a rom-com. A nice little comedy, hopefully. Let’s summon it.

Please! Someone! Give Michael a break!

You got to do a little comedy. Life is funny. But in those stories, even “We Were the Lucky Ones,” you have those little moments that are almost like a rom-com sometimes. The love and the romance and the disappointments and all that. You have those twists in the story that make it close to the heart and more easy for people to identify and find themselves in.

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