When Harold Ramis Spoke Yiddish
by Hershl Hartman
While the late Harold Ramis has been rightly eulogized as a comic screenwriter (thirty-six credits, according to IMDb), it was for his acting work (twenty-three credits) that I assisted for all of ten hours — coaching him in Yiddish.
I found him to be a very friendly, studiously attentive listener, though he was amazed that I hadn’t seen his signature film, Ghostbusters. We kidded about sharing the name, Hershl. And his Yiddish lines were delivered flawlessly. His demeanor during a grueling day was in keeping with his self-description of a blend of “existential philosophy, Buddhism, and progressive Judaism.”
Here’s the back-story, as “we” say in Hollywood.
The film was the not-quite memorable Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). Ramis, in full Hasidic regalia, had the minor role of the title character’s record producer. His character was named L’Chaim; his partner was named Mazeltov. It was that kind of a movie.
In one scene, country singer Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly), arrested for drug use, is visited in jail by his producer. To avoid being overheard by the guards, yokel singer and Hasidic producer converse in Yiddish. The scene runs not much longer than sixty seconds and, in fact, has been excised in some television showings.
Seeking a Yiddish dialect coach, the film’s producers turned to the Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, where I’m a member of the District Committee. Upon receiving the sides (script section) for “my” scene, I was horrified by its mish-mash of bad German and worse Yiddish. Apparently, the lines had been supplied by someone’s relative who swore Yiddish knowledge. (A similar “expert” also seemingly wrote the opening scene of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Fortunately, real Yiddish writers re-wrote it — Allen Rickman and Wendy Zierler — but the English subtitles for the extensive Yiddish dialogue were based on the earlier, illiterate version.)
I provided the producers of Walk Hard with a transliteration of the lines I’d re-written, and they brought me a tape recorder in which to read the lines for the actors, weeks before filming began. Reilly, as the star, had disdained to use those aids, so most of my day on set was devoted to drilling him. To no avail. Finally, director Jake Kasdan had “idiot cards” made to be held off-camera so that Reilly could read his handful of Yiddish phrases during filming.
Ramis, on the other hand, met me in his trailer with the lines already memorized. I had only to correct some slight errors in pronunciation. He explained that, though he didn’t speak Yiddish as a child in his native Chicago, he had heard enough being spoken around him so that the task was not difficult.
The next day, I prepared and mailed a diploma-like certificate (atestat) to Ramis, nominating him to the Academy, for its consideration, as “Best Supporting Actor in Yiddish (Southern Hassidic Division).”
One more sidelight to that day on the set: On my arrival, I was greeted by the director, and immediately guessed that he was the Jake Kasdan whom my daughter had taught in a progressive private school and whose parents had been involved with the Humanistic Birmingham Temple in Michigan, where they were married by my colleague, Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Kasdan borrowed my cell phone to speak for a quarter-hour with my daughter, his long-ago teacher and babysitter, and then had me explain Secular and Humanistic Jewishness to several of his assistants.
All in all, not your typical movie-set day.
Hershl Hartman is education director of the Sholem Community and School and a Secular Jewish vegvayzer (leader) in Los Angeles.
Watch a YouTube clip of the brief scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story Hershl Hartman refers to: