Rabbi Diamond hits the big time on the silver screen

Rabbi Diamond hits the big time on the silver screen

Actor and director Ewan McGregor and Rabbi Chuck Diamond (Photo provided)
Actor and director Ewan McGregor and Rabbi Chuck Diamond (Photo provided)

In his synagogue and at summer camp, Rabbi Chuck Diamond is recognizable.  With a gregarious smile and windblown white hair, Diamond is a familiar face amid the Pittsburgh Jewish scene. In 2016, Diamond’s audience will increase exponentially. While making his film acting debut, Diamond, senior rabbi of Congregation Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, will join Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Ewan McGregor, Uzo Aduba and David Strathairn in “American Pastoral,” a film based upon Philip Roth’s 1997 novel of the same name.

For Diamond, acting in the feature film was unexpected. As he explained to The Chronicle, several months prior he was contacted by Zane Weiner, a Sewickley resident and co-producer of “American Pastoral.” Diamond was asked to meet with Weiner and McGregor (who is both starring in and directing the film) at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.  Although Diamond was initially asked to consult on a scene involving a Jewish funeral, midway through the meeting McGregor asked Diamond if he would be interested in playing the role of rabbi.

“I guess they were overwhelmed by my personality. I think it was my hair,” said Diamond with a smile.

Diamond acquiesced to McGregor’s request and continued to assist in assuring the authenticity of the scene.

“I put them in touch with Urbach’s and Schugar’s.”

The former, Urbach Memorials, created unique headstones representative of a Jewish cemetery. The latter, Ralph Schugar, Inc. Funeral Chapel, lent traditional coffins for burial. Diamond then worked with the film crew to create a small Jewish section in Allegheny Cemetery before filming.

“They were trying to be as authentic as possible,” Diamond said.

The desire to achieve credibility went so far as actually inscribing Hebrew names on headstones. Although the film characters possessed English names, Diamond was asked to assign Hebrew names for inscription alongside. While many of the names were generic, Diamond said that on two of the headstones he included his deceased parents’ names, Shaul and Rut. He also asked the crew to place smaller stones above the fictional headstones — a customary practice in Jewish cemeteries.

Although Diamond maintained that the scene is only two-to-three minutes of the movie, it required a day’s worth of work. Upon reporting at 7 a.m., he went to wardrobe. Dressed in his own suit and black suede yarmulke, Diamond received some makeup and an unexpected haircut. He said that he was told that the haircut was necessary to better see his yarmulke. Diamond was then given an overcoat and taken for filming at 9:30 a.m.

“It was the longest darn funeral I was ever at,” remarked Diamond. “I must have said the Mourner’s Kaddish 30 times.”

Diamond explained that despite getting his lines right, the scene was shot numerous times from various angles.

“We were there until 5 p.m.”

When asked how this funeral differed from others that he has performed, Diamond focused on the similarities.

“I prepared for it like a regular funeral,” he said.  

In whole, the experience was something that Diamond would be open to again. Between takes he was given a trailer for use, fraternized with actors and was treated well.

“I actually plan on joining the Screen Actors Guild,” he said.  

Having resumed his regular duties as rabbi, Diamond is pleased with his time in the spotlight.

“I made the most of it,” he said.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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