Tovah Feldshuh, LILYVILLE: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles

Tovah Feldshuh, LILYVILLE: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles

Zibby moderated a conversation with actress Tovah Feldshuh about her memoir, Lilyville, as part of the Authors in Conversation @ Home series with the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC in Houston. Tovah answered questions about both her story and her mother’s, what her experience was like as a first-time writer, and why she decided to structure her memoir as though it were a theatrical performance.


Ellen Trachtenberg: Welcome to Authors in Conversation @ Home with Evelyn Rubenstein JJC in Houston. We’re so glad you’ve joined us tonight with Tovah Feldshuh as she discusses her new book, Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played. Tonight’s conversation will be moderated by Zibby Owens. I am Ellen Trachtenberg. Along with my good friend Sarah Bram , we were honored to be the book fair cochairs when Tovah was performing at the J in 1995. No one could’ve imagined what happened when Tovah was set to perform Golda’s Balcony on Saturday night. Yitzhak Rabin had just been assassinated in Israel. We were trying to decide if we should cancel her performance or not. The decision was complicated by the fact that it was Shabbat and communication was difficult. Tovah recommended that we continue with her performance, that the community would need to come together to process and mourn the tragedy. She assured us that she could add something appropriate to her performance. She was so right. We were so thankful for the sensitive and caring way in which she handled the delicate situation. This program is supported by the Evelyn Rubenstein JJC Patrons of the Arts, a grant from the city of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, and The Maurice Amado Foundation. Thank you to tonight’s community partners, Congregation Beth Israel, Houston Chapter of Hadassah, NCJW Greater Houston Section, and Sisterhood Congregation Emanuel.

We are so excited to feature iconic Broadway performer and six-time Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Fledshuh tonight. In her insightful, compelling, and often hilarious and always-illuminating memoir, Tovah shares the highs and lows of a remarkable career that has spanned five decades and shares the lessons that she has learned, often the hard way, about how to live a life in the spotlight, strive for excellence, and still get along with your mother. Tonight’s conversation will be moderated by Zibby Owens. Zibby is the creator and host of the award-winning podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and is the author/editor of the anthology Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. Named New York City’s top book-fluencer by Vulture and on Oprah’s list of top podcasts two years in a row, Zibby is a frequent contributor to Good Morning America, The Washington Post, Good Day LA, and other media outlets. The program is being recorded and will be available on the J @ Home platform. If there are friends who couldn’t make it to this evening’s performance, we know you have all received the book with your ticket tonight and we hope you will consider purchasing another copy as a gift. A few times tonight, you will see the link for the purchase in the chat box. At the end of the presentation, we will take your questions. Please use the Q&A feature which you will find at the bottom of your screen to type your question. We will try to get to as many questions as possible. Thank you for spending your evening with us. Please join us in welcoming Tovah and Zibby back to Houston.

Zibby Owens: Thank you so much. It’s such a joy to be here. I cannot wait to be interviewing Tovah Feldshuh tonight. Tovah, come on back. We can get started. Hi, Tovah. Thanks so much for doing this with me.

Tovah Feldshuh: Hi, Zibby. It’s my honor to do it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, first of all, I have so many great things to say about Lilyville. The thing that was the greatest was, even from the start, the way you structured this book as a play in three acts and used so much clever theater-isms all throughout. Tell everybody about Lilyville, what inspired you to write this book, and how you came up with this adorable, innovative structure.

Tovah: There was an agent on his way to his office, now at UTA, a wonderful man named Albert Lee. He was listening to an interview I had given Entertainment Weekly with Dalton Ross. My mother had recently died. Within five months of my mother’s death, I made plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I had just come down from that peak which I climbed with our son Brandon. He listened to my interview. He went to his office. He called my managers in LA and said, “Does Tovah Feldshuh have a literary agent?” They said no. He said, “I think she has a writer’s voice.” I’m glad he thought so. I had no idea. He showed up in my living room with his wonderful partner, Lane Zachary. They asked me, what did I want to write? I said, “I’d like to write about my mother Lily. She has recently passed way. She was remarkable. Our journey to find each other was remarkable.” When Hachette asked me to write a book, when the book deal was made and I was becoming a paid author, they wanted a celebrity autobiography. I’ve auditioned all my life. I tried to figure out how to stop the conveyer belt on this, not autobiography, but memoir. I don’t regard myself as some international entity. I’m a Broadway kid, so I’m local talent. I had the honor of playing Houston and love Houston. God, I think I got my first cowboy boots at a place called Cutter Bill’s. It was quite some ago. It was in 1980.

In all events, I decided to write about my mother. I decided to look at my life, not chronologically and say, I was born, I did this, I did this. Who cares? I decided to look at my life through the eyes of my mother and my mother’s life through my eyes. My mother and I are forty years apart, so we didn’t have a generational gap. We had a generational chasm. Then my friend Jeff Harnar, wonderful man who directs me in my one-woman concerts like Tovah: Out of Her Mind, Aging is Optional, because god I hope it is — Tovah is Leona Helmsley, that’s another one we did. He suggested, he said, “Tovah, what do you know best?” I said, “I guess I know the theater best.” He said, “Why don’t you write this as a theater?” That is when the whole manuscript took off. I structured it in three acts with two intermissions and a palate cleanser between each chapter. Instead of getting chapters, you get scenes. Instead of getting a forward, you get an overture. Instead of getting an afterward, you get exit music. Instead of getting acknowledgements, I go with cast party to honor all those who helped me, particularly Jeff Harnar and my wonderful assistant, Oliver Shaulson, who was a linguistics major at Yale who was typing the manuscript furiously and knew where every comma and every colon went.

I am thrilled that it has been received so graciously. I hope, Zibby, that in writing this memoir, which also has palate cleansers between each scene — in vaudeville in the old days, the actors would come downstage to the most shallow curtain at the stage almost on top of the first row of the audience and do a song and dance, tap dance or sing, as they changed the scenery behind stage. You went from Henry Higgins’ house to Freddy Eynsford-Hill singing “I have often walked down this street before” when the curtain opens. To do that scene change, you had to be in what we call in one. My editor, Lauren Marino who is absolutely great, said, “Don’t say in one. It’s too . People won’t know what you’re talking about.” So I call them Lily-isms and Tovah-isms. That was a way, also, to bring in my career in between the chapters.

This is really a look of the ancient, ancient, primal relationship between a parent and a child. There’s a Persian saying that a tree, in order to bear fruit, a branch, in order to bear fruit must learn to bend. Our trees were on different lawns in Scarsdale, New York. Eventually, Lily lived so long and I grew up enough that our branches could bower together, become intertwined, and truly intimate. What the book really says — it has a happy ending. No matter what you are experiencing between you and another primary relationship, your husband, your child, your mother, or your father, it can be solved. I promise you. If I could solve this, you can solve that. That is my gift to you for Mother’s Day. I also thought, Zibby — last thing. Then please go ahead. How do you hit the river of universal experience so that this is a book not just for Tovah, but for you, Zibby, and for you, Amy, and for the JCC of beloved Houston? You have to get to the primal relationships that exist for homo sapiens, actually for the whole living world, which is that we all were given birth from somewhere. These people gave us our lives. They gave us our life. How do we manage this? They tried the best they could. If they didn’t love us in a way we could understand, somewhere, they tried the best they could. Somewhere, you can try to empower them to be able to love you the way you need. You have to do the work too. You have to do the work.

Zibby: I wish you were my therapist. I would’ve saved so much time and money if I had just had this conversation with you. It’s so funny, I love reading books about mother-daughter relationships, especially memoir where people really put it out there, their relationships and the difficulties they have. I’m continually struck, as I was with yours, how different every single one is. Some of the struggles, like your mother who — you are so funny the way you capture exactly who she was. I feel like I completely know her. The things that you throw in, like the fact that you talked about going to Julliard and she called it a trade school, like, oh, you’re not going to do that, you’re not going to do this, she was so dismissive of you at times, like when you got your big trapeze role and she was like, “Look, you have to go on a trapeze to get this job.” All of these things, these little digs as you grow and become your own person, it’s hard to get over that type of background noise. Tell me a little bit about — you write about it with such humor, but there’s also sadness in there.

Tovah: First of all, my mother was a mitzvah machine. She did deeds of kindness, probably deeds of loving kindness, except for one little thing, she was silent. Therefore, I don’t believe she told my older brother David either, or myself, that she loved us, like, I love you. I got up as a young mother with my own children and I always said, I love you because you breathe. I love you because you breathe. You have unconditional love in this house. When you go out of this house, you have to earn the respect of other people. When you’re sixteen, and particularly once you’re eighteen, you are subject to the laws of the United States of America. You are responsible. You are accountable. Be a mensch. Be a human being. However, my mother — there was a book. I forgot the author, but five different ways of loving. My mother loved through deeds, through actions. Many people say we are not who we are, we are what we do. She did these things, but she was a silent partner. My father was a litigator and very vociferous. I really played my father on Law & Order when I played Danielle Melnick. He had known death early. His father died when he was sixteen. Then he was drafted in the army and spend his years abroad in the intelligence and didn’t get home until 1946. He was there under General Dwight David Eisenhower for some time. He saw death and knew death from the fight against the fascists. As a result, because I was born well after the war, I became his only infant. He really never left my side. He flanked me. That saved my life. It saved my emotional life.

Finally, when I was eighteen, I went to my mother and I said, “Mommy, do you love me?” It came right out of Fiddler. “Do I love you? What do you mean do I love you? Who takes you in the Chrysler to Hebrew school? Who takes you to your singing lesson and your dancing lesson? Who buys you clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue, undergarments at Alexander’s? Who makes the nut cake? Who makes the strawberry shortcake? Who makes dollar pancakes? Of course, I love you.” That’s about as far as I got. Of course, I love you. Again, dismissive. When I took her to see Golda’s Balcony — Golda’s Balcony where I played Prime Minister Golda Meir did become the longest-running one-woman play in the history of Broadway in a hundred years. If you do what you’re supposed to do, the greater the transformation for the actor, the greater the actor gets credit. With Golda’s Balcony, I had a fat suit. I had big breasts. I had false legs. I had a false nose. I had a wig. I was a size sixteen, and I’m a size four/six. After the show I said, “Mommy, Mommy, how did I do?” She said, “Tovah, I rate your parts by how you look. Dolly Levi was a ten. Golda Meir, zero.”

This is what we were up against. There is an Eastern European tradition, I don’t think it’s just Jewish, where you’re not to overpraise your child lest they have hubris and they are struck down by the gods. From that come the little red ribbons we tie around our cribs and our strollers so that the devil will think he’s already been there and pass over our children. That trickledown of that kind of superstition is what led my mother to this tough love thing, plus the fact she was born in 1911 on a dining room table in the Bronx. She put herself through NYU where she met the love of her life, Sidney Feldshuh. She was seventeen. He was eighteen. She paid for her entire college career. In those days, a woman was as good as her match. She married her Harvard lawyer. The sun rose and set around my father along with her incredibly dutiful obligations to her children. She also remained silent so that Daddy could take the sun and the spotlight. It wasn’t until my father died on May 11th, 1996 — I’m actually writing a pitch now for a TV series; it starts at my father’s funeral — that my mother unexpectedly bloomed. She was the only survivor of my six aunts and six uncles. Each parent was one of four children. Twelve people were dead, and with my father, the thirteenth.

When I say survivors, please understand we did not experience, god forbid, the European Holocaust. We came to this country in 1902. She was the sole survivor of her generation. The light came to her given to her by our entire large family. Aunt Lil was very wise. Aunt Lil used to give out wisdom like a sage. My brother who graduated summa cum laude from medical school and also was a director of plays, he headed the theater of Cornell, he practiced emergency room medicine on Saturday and Sunday, and he was a professor during the week at Cornell. He still is. As a matter of fact, he’s doing a lot with COVID now, set up a stand and is busy inoculating. My mother says to him — this is a great scholar, my brother. She says, “David, I’m so glad I’m not your patient.” Two days a week, he practices. “You break your leg on Saturday, fine. You break it on Wednesday, call Gutterman’s.” Gutterman’s is a local Jewish funeral home. Let me put it this way. Though all my roles as an actor took place on Broadway, off Broadway, in concert halls, in film and television, they all truly took place under the dome of Lilyville where my mother Lily reigned supreme. Applause of thousands was created by me to substitute for the lack of applause of one human being who finally came my way. When my dad died, she lived for another eighteen years. We did not waste a second making sure that we were intimate.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so funny how you have to look to these external rewards and praises for this primal need for love that’s deep down. I know it was offset by your dad. The image of you on stage with everyone applauding and your mom being like, ugh — even when you got the same fellowship as your brother or whatever that was and she was like, “Two actors, oh, my gosh,” just so not —

Tovah: — What did I do wrong to have two people in the theater? What did we do, Sidney? What did we do? I’ll tell you what my mother gave me. There’s light for all of us. Any obstacle that a parent unintentionally or intentionally dishes out as they’re trying their best — people really do try their best. Nothing is personal. I can’t imagine how my mother was brought up by her British mama. This is British Jewish. Pass the matzah please. Pass the matzah. . It isn’t exactly the queen’s English. It’s back here, you see. It’s not the very, very, very elegant, upper-class thing. It’s more the dentalization just like when you go to Long Island, they have “ts” for “d.” I’m going to the dentist. The dentist, he’s going to drill my cavities. Anyway, what my mother gave me was resilience. That was a thing. When the going got rough at the Guthrie when I was a McKnight fellow, the no I got from two directors, as in, you are worthless as an actor, was not new news. It was similar earlier experience when it was much more traumatic because it was my mommy. It was my mommy. I had a mommy who said to me — I say in this in respect to anybody who is adopted. My mother did say when I was three or four years old, “Are you adopted?” like that. I was worried that I was adopted. What she said she meant later is, you’re so capable. You’re so extroverted. I’m so shy and so introverted. You couldn’t be mine.

Well, tell that to a three-year-old. We’re dealing with a time in life when you say to a three-year-old, keep your eye on the ball — you’re trying to train them for baseball. Keep your eye on the ball. The little boy takes the ball, and he puts it on his eye. This is the situation with a mother who just lovingly, I suppose, not a loving style I could understand, miscommunicated with her child. I went to my brother David. I said, “Does Mommy love us?” He said, “Of course, she loves you.” I said, “That’s what she says. How does she love us, Davy?” He said, “Mommy loves us because she’s always there.” That was remarkable. I don’t know about you guys, but I was a careerist as well as a mother. I wasn’t always there. I had this alternate vacation universe called theater, film, television, entertainment. Even in my marriage, I told my beloved husband — we’re married almost forty-five years. “I will never give up my work,” I said to Andrew Harris Levy. He said, “It’s okay.” I said, “You better really look at this. I will never give up my work, not because I love it so much, but because I need a backdoor. I need a vacation. I need a vacation from myself if the going gets rough.”

Zibby: That’s how you perceive your work?

Tovah: I love my work. I’m playing Ruth Westheimer now. I’m doing a one-person play. I’m going to be filmed as Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She is an orphan of the Holocaust. She has such a will to be optimistic that she lifts up the end of all her sentences. You see? They go up. They go up. They go up.

Zibby: Is this how you are at home? Do you always do the voices like this? Is that just what you’re like?

Tovah: No. I’m here with you and Amy and the JCC and fabulous Jake. There’s a tech guy here who is a genius. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa. Bravo, Jake, bravo. I’m here to be with you, to be a master storyteller, to entertain you, and to hope that you take Lilyville as your favorite Mother’s Day gift. It’s not just for mothers. It’s for fathers and sons. It’s for parent and child. It engenders hope. If I solved Lily, you can solve anything. No, at home, I listen. I’m much more of a listener because the children are there. They’re not there. They’re married now with children. One tries to be flexible. One tries to be available. I’m now in rehearsal and getting ready to be filmed in the next two weeks. Then I’m going to the Hamptons. I’m going to open with Becoming Dr. Ruth live in Bay Street at Sag Harbor, which is the first time they’ve opened theater. Equity only allows us a hundred people a night. The theater will be one third filled. That’s what’s allowed. It’s person, space, space, person, space, space, person.

Zibby: I’m going to come. I’m so excited. I’m totally going to come. I didn’t know that was opening. That’s exciting. The other thing that I loved, aside from the structure and all the amazing stories and everything else in the book, I love that you say, are you here for this book to get all of my salacious stories about all these famous people I’ve worked with? Okay, you’ll get some of that, but this is mostly about my mom. Yet then you go into this whole thing about Barbra Streisand. You’re so funny about it, how you wove in the most famous people of all time and then the most tender moments with family members and how it is to land in Scarsdale and suddenly feel so lonely. Yet the next moment you’re emailing with Barbra Streisand and everything. How do you catch your breath in the midst of these big personalities and your on-stage life and your — I think that’s why I was asking, are you like this all time? For public personas, I wonder, how do you shuffle back and forth? What does that do to somebody?

Tovah: It’s like what I taught the children. I would put in the children what I hoped for the children. I have a son, Brandon, and a daughter, Amanda. Brandon married a marvelous woman named Jamie. Amanda married a phenomenal husband named Joel. At night when I would put them to sleep, I would say, “I’m the luckiest mother in the world because I have the most empathic child.” I have a child who walks into a room and knows what’s wanted and needed in that room and does the right thing, a person who knows the difference between a library and the Yankee stadium. Amanda would say, “Mama, what empathic?” I’d say, “That’s to feel with somebody.” You would put in them what you hope for them. Likewise, my function as a mother is very different than my function as your author tonight. The first thing, the children call me every night. I miss them terribly, but I love my work. I’ve had to balance. Like many actors, I haven’t worked in a theater in fourteen months. My last concert was in Houston, February 22nd, unless I’m crazy. I sang somewhere in Houston February 22nd. I came home, and I got COVID. I got COVID starting March 9th to 19th, over a year ago. Like most elder statesmen, I’ve been double vaccinated since February. New York State really had it together. How are you guys doing in Texas? Are you getting your vaccinations?

Zibby: I’m in New York City.

Tovah: I know, Zibby. Sorry. You’re with me, so we’re fine. I assume you guys in Texas are not going to do any hocus pocus and believe in anything but science. Anybody who doesn’t get double vaccinated in my book is selfish. You’re jeopardizing your countrymen. You’re jeopardizing your family. You’re jeopardizing your children. That’s what I say. We had a great time in New York getting those things. Anyway, I switch channels depending on what’s wanted and needed in the space. When I’m with my wonderful director David Ellenstein and he has something to say, I’m quiet. I listen to him. I will be with Scott Schwartz in Bay Street at Sag Harbor to do Becoming Dr. Ruth. He directed me in Golda’s Balcony. That’ll be a lot of fun. I’ll finish this filming, which is streamed for all their subscribers. You can buy a ticket to the North Coast production of Becoming Dr. Ruth. It’ll be released June 8th through July 4th as I am opening in Bay Street June 5th through June 27th. It’s so wild. We should write a piece about that, Zibby. I think it’s the first time in pandemic days that an actor is both live and on film with the same property at the same time.

Zibby: Having written this book, do you feel like you want to write more books about all sorts of other things? Is this your magnum opus, you did what you wanted to? This is what you wanted to achieve with literature and now you’re back to your — you have so much creative energy. It’s just radiating off you. You could do, obviously, a zillion things. Is writing not your thing, is your thing? How did you feel about it?

Tovah: If you’re a writer, you know this, it’s the hardest thing. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It was an opus. Then also, you want to curate your book. You want to curate your work. There’s mom, and mom and dad, and being a flapper. She was a flapper, oh, god. You want to curate your book. You need to pick your verbs, your subjects, your way of inviting the reader into the canvas, which you don’t need to do in the theater. In the theater, if I move a shoulder or look at somebody and have a clear thought, the audience is brilliant, they’ll pick it up. In a book, it has to be on the page to invite the reader into the canvas of your life. “I was on my way to the Galapagos with Andrew. The day before I was to board the plane for Ecuador, I got a call from my Hollywood managers to ask if I could audition for a series called The Walking Dead. Have you seen it, Tovah? they asked. No, I replied, I’m close enough to death that I don’t have to see it walking.” That takes honing skills. That’s not a first draft. That’s figuring out, what is the music of this? How do I make this not only apprehendable, but how do I engage the audience and tell them that I’ve taken care with language? I also have the audiobook for those of you who are interested. I do sing on it. Sony gave me permission to sing parts of, “Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the bathroom? I need to find your bathroom. Tell me that you have your bathroom in a hovel you call home.” I do that on the audiobook.

Zibby: What was the experience of recording the audiobook like for you?

Tovah: It was thrilling. I had just done a very, very complicated major opus called The Slaughterman’s Daughter by a man named Iczkovits. The woman who directed me in it, Christina Rooney, was brilliant. When I asked to do the audiobook by Hachette, I said, “May I please have this director?” They gave me that director. I think we did a bang-up job. I haven’t listened to it, though I did get it on Audible. I can keep you company. All of you who jog or who exercise or you’re on your elliptical, you can put me in your earphones. I’ll keep you company.

Zibby: Having gotten through to the end of this journey and now the book is coming out in the world and it’s so exciting, what advice would you have for someone who’s just starting out or who wants to do a writing project, wants to be a writer?

Tovah: The first step toward brilliance is to know you don’t know. I was a first-time author. I knew I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew that. I knew I knew how to tell a story. I told stories very, very well. I handed in my first manuscript. My editor had said, “This is brilliant. This is brilliant. This is brilliant.” I would check with her every week. I went to Sarah Lawrence College. It was under the Cambridge Oxford system. We had , Ilja Wachs. Professor Ilja Wachs, thank you for believing in me, first person who believed that I could write. In all events, I handed in that first manuscript and my editor said, “This is not a book.” I said, “What?” “This is not a book. These are pearls on a coffee table not strung together.” Then it was Jeff Harnar that said, “What do you know best?” I said, “Theater.” He said, “Write it as a theater piece.” I put Harnar and Schultz — that’s Oliver Shaulson and then Jeff Harnar — in the writing room with me. I’d write. I’d write. I’d write. Oliver’s typing. I’m talking. I’m talking. We go back. I redo it. I say it to Jeff. He says, “Is that the verb you really want to use?” I’d look up the synonyms. I’d start to hash through, cultivate, curate every word.

It was a real upward journey, but it hung together beautifully in a play format because I know plays. I’ve been doing them for fifty years. This is my fiftieth year as an Equity actor. Do I have sequel, like Sidneyville? Maybe, but my biggest ambition now is to make this into a television series. If you dream of being a writer, as Joseph Campbell would say, follow your bliss. This was not sought by me. This was, if you will, thrust upon me. I was given the opportunity. Then the world collaborated. The pandemic broke out. Actors had no work. I was a paid author by Hachette. I had a very, very nice advance. I wrote this book because I wanted desperately to write about my mother. Why do I really want to write about my mother? Because I want her to live forever. I want her to be ubiquitous. I want her on my shoulder. I want her here. This is the night of my bat mitzvah. “I’m in a dress from Bonwit Teller with a Kelly-green cummerbund and matching green shoes that we had dyed to match from Miles Shoe Store in White Plains. I had a little pillbox hat made by my mother’s that looked something like Jackie Kennedy because she was coming into fashion. I have on my bat mitzvah pearls.” One thing that’s great about a memoir is that you revisit your whole life. You excavate your life. You choose the best, best finds to give to the reader and say, this really was unique in my life. Maybe it will help you. We’re still in service to each other. If we’re not in service to each other, who are we?

Zibby: I completely agree. There’s a question that came in, so I wanted to make sure that we have time to read all the questions and everything. Actually, I’ll just ask people to put more questions in if they would like. Somebody was saying that you were at the J in 1995, Tovah Cross-Ovah!

Tovah: Yep, Tovah Cross-Ovah! From Broadway to Cabaret. In February 2020, I was at Congregation Beth Israel. It was my last concert. Thank you, Beth Israel. Thank you. James Bassi and I came back on that plane. I don’t know if we got it on the plane. Probably not because it was February 23rd, and we didn’t get sick until March.

Zibby: Tell me about your COVID experience. Tell me about it.

Tovah: First of all, it was so early. We didn’t even know that no taste and no smell was the red flag. I got a cold. I started to feel lousy. It starts in your nose. It goes down with your throat. You get a little sore throat. Then I got up in the morning. I wasn’t getting better. I took a deep breath, and I felt a tickle in the bottom of my lung. That’s when a red flag went off. I’m a singer, so I immediately not only irrigated with the medi-rinse, which everybody should do actually, particularly if it’s a — it’s so pollen heavy here in California where I’m working. I took very deep breaths, three showers a day, changed my linen and my nightgown every night, and of course, separated immediately from Andy, immediately. He stayed in the master bedroom with the master bath. I moved into Amanda’s room, who was married with children, and used her bedroom and bathroom for the duration. As a matter of fact, we did not sleep in the same bed from March the 9th until — for six weeks. Yes, March the 9th through 19th, through the Seder, which was April 8th if I remember. At least April 20th or maybe close to May that we didn’t — we were afraid.

We didn’t share the bed. He never got sick. I have four girlfriends, including Brooke Baldwin, where we got COVID and the husbands didn’t get sick. Go figure. So I had a tickle in my lung. I’m from an Austrian Jewish background. I said, let’s go exercise. I was walking the in the park. I used to be a jogger. I’m a biker. I had real trouble walking. It dawned on me, duh, that maybe I should rest. Normal people rest. I just sweat it out. I rested. I slept for thirteen hours. Then my brother David called. I said, “Dave, I don’t feel right.” He said, “Do you have taste and smell?” I said, “No.” He said, “Tovah, it has just come out that is a red flag for COVID.” That was it. There was no treatment. There was nothing. I wasn’t hospitalized. Certainly, we didn’t benefit from what Mr. Trump got at the time. I lived. Adam Schlesinger, the brilliant composer for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend who was fifty-two, he died. It was quite an experience. You don’t want to get this disease, which is another reason you have an obligation to get double vaccinated. Remember that.

Zibby: I know. I have my “Stay Safe” shirt on that I collaborated with Citizens of Humanity. I’m donating all the proceeds to COVID research. I lost my mother-in-law during COVID. I had COVID myself.

Tovah: You lost your mother-in-law to COVID?

Zibby: Yes. She was sixty-three, perfectly healthy. Her mother passed away, gave it to her. She was in the hospital for six weeks. We had to manage everything from afar. It was awful. Anyway, I won’t ruin your Lilyville with this. We’re very aware, like so many people who have been touched by this loss and illness and tragedy. It’s really unbelievable.

Tovah: The bright side of all this horror is that gratitude is quickest path to happiness. Be grateful for every day. Those of you who are Jewish, be grateful for that prayer where you say, thank you, God, for another day of life. Thank you for the orifices in my body. I actually thought about that. Part of the Feldshuh bunch is our orthodox. We are not. We are not even kosher, but we love being Jewish. We love being Jewish, love who we are, la, la, la. In all events, the gratitude of getting well, the gratitude that Andy never got sick, that our children never got sick, that their infants didn’t get sick, that’s the bright side of this. I think we’ll slowly come back together. It would be much harder for me to be Becoming Dr. Ruth and being in Houston tonight. It’s wonderful to be with you, Zibby, here in New York. Other people in Texas, God bless you. Do I have any other questions?

Zibby: Not yet. Everybody out there — there are a bunch of people. They’ll come in. Maybe they’re shy. We’ll see. Don’t worry, I could just keep asking in case people are a little reluctant to do so.

Tovah: Go for it.

Zibby: In terms of your next projects, I know you have a lot of going on, how do you feel going back into this world after this little forced sabbatical and coming back not just as an actor, but an author as well? Are you over-the-moon excited, hesitant?

Tovah: I’m over-the-moon cautious. These are muscles I haven’t used in fourteen months. Want to try to memorize forty-four pages of text when you haven’t done it for fourteen months?

Zibby: I don’t know how you were doing it before. That’s amazing. I haven’t memorized anything in years.

Tovah: I’m going on camera and they want to shoot the whole performance, in other words, stream it. Maybe we’ll have to stop for sections because it’s a huge and complex piece. There’s a lot of in it. I feel wonderful and very careful about going back. I’m still at the igloo stage. Nougatine has wonderful igloos where you can have a separate bunk, your own house down at Columbus Circle. That’s a very wonderful restaurant we have. I like to go to Picholine and another one, Majorelle. Those are my favorite places. I haven’t been there. I hope to get back there. What I really miss is the congregation of people at the opera, the congregation of people in a house. Even though we’re doing it live in Bay Street, and I’m very grateful for it, it’s a third of a house. You try and get a big laugh when people are sitting far apart. You think we’re having trouble getting questions here? You’re even on Zoom . You better get a very bold personality who’s willing to laugh when they’re isolated. They usually laugh to themselves. Never you mind, gratitude is the quickest path to happiness. I’m choosing it. As my mother would say, happiness is a choice. She also said, you want to have a good marriage? I’ll show you how to have a good marriage. Just shut one eye.

Zibby: Yet she was the one meeting your dad at the train station with a drink and hors d’oeuvres that he could eat on the way back. I was like, wow, look at this. That is dedication.

Tovah: Very much so. It was happy hour for Sidney. It was right out of Mad Men. My mother, when she got older, she said, “My only regret was I only slept with one man in my whole life.” She was a riot. She said, “Your father.” We don’t know anything about Daddy, but Daddy was away in the war for almost three years. He was at death’s door, so who the heck knows what happened? I know they were deeply in love and deeply physically in love for sixty-three years of their married life.

Zibby: What is your secret to your long marriage?

Tovah: Stay on the field of play. Most importantly, I give you Lily’s advice. If you’re serious about a boy and he’s serious about you or if you’re serious about a girl and she’s serious about you, don’t walk, run to their parents’ house. Meet the parents. Look at the home. If it doesn’t feel like a warm bath, it’s a red flag. My marriage is a warm bath. My mother-in-law was a beautiful classical pianist. My mother was a classical pianist. I was a classical pianist. Andrew Harris Levy and I were brought up with the same music. My father went to Harvard Law. My husband went to Harvard and Harvard Law. My son went to Harvard College, etc. There were so many traits that had cellular coincidence, enough in common without any effort. When we fought, we fought at the opera. It’s all good. I’m not making judgement. God knows today we can’t make any judgements. It’s not like Andy happened to be a carpenter and I happened to be an astrophysics professor. We had similar early experiences. Sometimes when I’m rehearsing the one-woman shows or my nightclub act or the concerts, he goes, “Do you really have to vocalize in the house?” I say, “Andy, intercourse? Vocalize? Let’s see.” “Would I say that to you if you were on a conference call?” “Yes, but the noise…” I said, “Sweetheart, just shut the door. You have that big office at the law firm. This is my office. My office is our home. I’ll try to adhere to your schedule to the best I can.” With the piano, he has never asked me not to play, never, because as I play the piano, he’s visiting his mother. That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’m hoping for the reader or the listener for Lilyville, that as I tell you, I weave the tale that is as ancient as man itself, as mankind, that you start running your tape about your parents, your intimate others and it gives you insight, it gives you laughter, it gives you solution.

Zibby: It’s funny. I am also of Austrian German descent from that same time. My grandmother had the same mentality as your mother. Although, she wasn’t quite as funny. She never told my dad and my uncles that she loved them. That just wasn’t part of the shtick.

Tovah: Not part of the shtick.

Zibby: Then when she got dementia, my uncle said to my dad, “How’s mom doing?” They all were like, “Not good.” “Why? What happened?” “Well, she said, I love you.” They’re like, “Oh, no.” All right, we have a question. Marilyn would like to know, “What was it like doing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?”

Tovah: Fabulous. My beloved agent at that time, Arthur Toretsky, he called me and said, “There’s this new series called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They want you to play the mother of the crazy ex-girlfriend. You have to know how to sing and dance and act.” I said, “I’m in.” It was based on Rachel Bloom’s genius along with Aline Brosh McKenna. Rachel Bloom had a YouTube called Rachel Does Stuff. She did some wild, no-boundaries stuff. It was seen by the Academy Award writer or nominee Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada and is a graduate of Harvard. She took Rachel, who’s a graduate of Tisch, very talented girl, under her wing. They collaborated. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was born. The prejudice they had to hire the New York actor was lucky. I got to do what I was trained to do, so it was thrilling. I said yes. The first thing I got was a five-page solo called “Where’s the Bathroom?” If you want to hear part of it, buy the audiobook. It was just a gift from the gods, that hysterical number, followed by “The Holocaust, the Holocaust, let’s not forget the –” .

The family is named Bunch, so I’m Naomi Bunch. She’s Rebecca Bunch. We were at a Bunch bat mitzvah. I think it was bat mitzvah, or was it a bar — on the East Coast. We did this absurd horah to these horrendous lyrics. It gave Springtime for Hitler a real run for its money. I loved the job. I loved the job on The Walking Dead. Loved it, very serious actors. Who gets to be in the number-one cable show in the world? What that looks like is — you’re at a gelato store across from the Duomo in Milan. I had gone to see an architectural exhibit. I’m wanting to get a gelato. The person serving me, the young Italian boy, said, “?” I said, “.” “?” “ Law & Order?” “No, Law & Order.” “ miniseries?” “No, .” “ Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?” “No, no.” “ Walking Dead?” “Walking Dead! Walking Dead! !” It was just crazy. Fame can be very convenient. I’ve never experienced that kind of wholesale recognition except when I did the Holocaust miniseries and when I did The Walking Dead. I loved being with Rachel Bloom. I was just on email with her today. She is helping me pitch Lilyville as a television series.

Zibby: She was also on my podcast. I got to get to know her as well. She’s very nice. Debbie Kaplan says, “You have portrayed many strong women on stage and on screen. Do you have a favorite?”

Tovah: No, they’re like different children. You love all your children. Some are more difficult than others. Playing Sarah Bernhardt was no party. It was a tough script. I don’t think it was a great script, to be honest with you, but maybe I wasn’t a great actress. Who knows? I’ve had quite a run recently. There was Golda Meir which I then took all over the world and the country. I’ve been playing it on and off for fifteen years, Golda Meir and then Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Right before the pandemic, I played the supreme court justice. Now I’m playing Ruth Westheimer. It’s a great gift to play these phenomenal heroines. This is besides Lillian Kantrowitz in Walk on the Moon and Judy Stein in Kissing Jessica Stein and Naomi Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Deanna Monroe was a very strong woman, but not a Jewish . I’m very proud to play any icon. I usually am cast as a protagonist, not as the antagonist, though I have played Leona Helmsley. That was quite an experience.

Zibby: I’ll ask one more question. We’ll see if anything else comes in. If not, then we can maybe say goodbye. Oh, here. Wait, never mind. “Do you meet with and discuss the portrayal with Dr. Ruth?”

Tovah: Dr. Ruth was at both my children’s weddings. She is a friend of mine. I don’t even remember when I met her. She’s such a supporter of the Jewish community that I have no doubt that she might have come to Yentl, not because she loves Tovah Feldshuh, but because it’s Yentl by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was my first marquee. The play did very, very well. The Jewish community came to see it. I didn’t meet her formally until after that. She was always very famous and very loving. Then I would invite her for dinner. She said yes. It was great. Then of course, we included her to come to the weddings of our children. Now I see Ruth every Wednesday. I don’t see her now. The minute I was offered this role, this wonderful director called me and said, “We would like you to come do Becoming Dr. Ruth. We would like to film you doing it,” I said, “Film me doing it? I’ll take it.”

I’m a senior citizen now. I like to have my work recorded as a legacy. I did see Ruth. She made some corrections in the script. I went over everything with her. One of the lines is, “I was born in Frankfurt.” She said, “I was not born in Frankfurt. I was born in Wiesenfeld.” I changed the line with the permission of Mark St. Germain, the playwright. “I was born in Wiesenfeld, but I was brought up in Frankfurt .” She’s been very helpful. I have her recorded on my iPhone so that if I forget to do the way she speaks — she speaks in dots that are not connected. “Hello. My name is Ruth Westheimer, and you’re on the air. This is Sexually Speaking.” Dots not connected, starry dots on a piece of paper. She does not talk like this. She’s not from the South. She doesn’t connect her words. She separates her words. Also, she’s German. She has a German, Swiss, Hebrew, French, American accent. I do know Dr. Ruth. She’s a great inspiration to me.

Zibby: Last question. “Looking back on the Holocaust series, how do you view its educational effect?”

Tovah: Well, it redid the textbooks in Germany. That was a big one. They adjusted all their textbooks to actually include what happened. I just did a documentary with Michael Moriarty and Rosemary Harris about the fortieth anniversary of the Holocaust. It was released in ’78. I guess I must have been flown to Vienna in 2017 to be released 2018 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary. I was very proud to be in it. Elie Wiesel did come up to me. He said, “Tovah, how could you do this miniseries? How could you reduce the Holocaust to a soap opera? It cannot be expressed in language.” I said, “Elie, my love, we’re not doing it for you. We’re doing it for people in the west side of our country way up in the hinterlands who think the Holocaust is the horah. We are doing it for the people who don’t understand what happened to the Jewish people. We are doing it for people just like they did Roots for us, for Caucasians to have some sense, some visceral contact for what the heck that –” What happened in our country that we enslaved an entire people for so long? The effect it had l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation, likewise, the Holocaust has had a tremendous effect on us. It is no accident that the most Nobels come out of Israel. It is no accident that the most copyrights and inventions come out of Israel. Do you know why? Because death is right here.

When I’m doing Ruth’s play, she is not a survivor of the Holocaust, she’s an orphan. She always says the same thing. “The first thing I did when I got to New York is I got the German Jewish paper, the Aufbau, because we needed a home to rent. It was very cheap. I found this big advertisement from The New School of Social Research announcing a scholarship for a victim of the Nazis. I immediately went down there to apply that day, right now.” That’s what she does. When she wanted to study with Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, the greatest sex therapist of her time, she went up to Dr. Kaplan and said, “May I please join the wonderful program you have in training people under Cornell?” Dr. Kaplan said, “Of course.” Then the next line is, “That was a Wednesday. Thursday, I was in her class.” She doesn’t wait. She’s doesn’t wait for the cows to come home because the cows may never come home. Grip the brass ring of your life. Live the rainbow colors as best you can. We really don’t know.

I have a friend who has pancreatic cancer. She’s beaten all the odds. She’s from Norfolk, Virginia. She’s the most remarkable woman. She said, “Tovah, the only difference between you and me is that I know how I’m going to die.” There you go. Take each moment. I think both my parents, particularly my father, but my mother too, knew that. She waited like patience on the monument for Sidney to come home. That’s when I early decided I would always have a career. I was not going to stand like this waiting for my man. I was not going to do it. I had to live my own life with my own trajectory. I needed to find the right mate that really understood and relished that. I fortunately found a man who had a big career himself and honored that. There’s no reason to leave. He’s a great guy. Also, I have one more thing. If you marry for love, don’t ever underestimate the empty nest. It’s a very romantic, sexy time because it’s the third act of your life. You are so grateful that you still have your marbles, that you’re functioning, that you still hug and kiss and touch each other and physically express yourself and enjoy life and can still travel and can still drive. If you get to that third act in the marriage, it’s fabulous, baby.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, Tovah, this was such an honor to talk to you. I could listen to you all day, as I have in the theater and will and so many people have. I loved your book. I think it is a fantastic gift for Mother’s Day. I hope everybody picks up Lilyville. Thank you for bringing her into our lives and keeping her alive for all of us, bringing her to life for all of us.

Tovah: It is my honor. As Lily would say, did you call your mother today? So do it.

Zibby: I did, actually, but okay. Thank you so much. Thanks to the JCC. Thank you, everybody, for coming. Have a great night.

Tovah Feldshuh, LILYVILLE: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles

LILYVILLE by Tovah Feldshuh

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