Cable Film Offers a Portrait of Catholic-jewish Friendship

"Snow in August" is an offbeat television film – - part gritty reality and part fantasy, centered on the curious friendship between an Irish Catholic alter boy and a refugee rabbi in post-World War II Brooklyn.

The two-hour production, based on the 1997 best seller by Pete Hamill, airs Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. on the Showtime channel.

The year is 1947 and the main topic of conversation in Brooklyn, and between Michael Devlin and his parochial school buddies, is the batting average of Jackie Robinson, just signed by the Dodgers as the first black player in baseball’s major leagues.

Michael lives in borderline poverty with his mother, an Irish war bride whose husband — Michael’s father — was killed in the war.

In the mean streets outside, an Irish gang terrorizes the neighborhood and kills a Jewish storekeeper, a crime witnessed by Michael. A code against squealing keeps the secret bottled up in the boy.

Actor Stephen Rea says he understands young Michael.

"In a place like Belfast, you have to learn to run very fast or talk very fast," Rea says. "It’s a rough and ready life — I grew up with that."

But in an interesting twist, the Irish Protestant actor, best known for his portrayal of an Irish revolutionary in "The Crying Game," was cast as the rabbi — a role Rea says he approached with "a lot of respect and trepidation."

Michael meets Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor and widower from Prague, who hires the boy as a Shabbos goy, a non-Jew who assists Jews with tasks they’re not allowed to perform on the Sabbath.

An unlikely friendship blossoms between the two, and in some humorous interludes Michael tries to teach the rabbi English, particularly baseball terminology.

"What’s a three-bagger?" Hirsch asks. "A kind of suitcase?"

In return, the rabbi teaches the boy Yiddish and tells him the legend of the Golem, who defended the Jews of Prague.

When the neighborhood gang leader assaults the rabbi and threatens the lives of Michael and his mother, the boy can think of only one protector: He must create his own Golem.

Director-screenwriter Richard Friedenberg has drawn sensitive performances from Rea as the dignified and tormented rabbi, Peter Tambakis as the boy struggling with a sense of justice and responsibility, and from Lolita Davidovich as his mother.

Reflecting on a certain kinship between the Irish and the Jews, Rea spoke of a "shared sense of oppression."

An experience while taping the film in Montreal gave him a taste of the real thing.

As Rea passed through town dressed as the Orthodox rabbi, someone hurled an anti-Semitic remark at him that he found too repulsive even to repeat, leaving him feeling "paralyzed and weak."

"It was shocking to me," he says, "how abuse so readily spilled out of him."

The incident enhanced Rea’s commitment to the film, and to honoring Holocaust victims with its message.

"It’s about something we should all be on our guard about — that’s racism," he says.

Rea says, "It is almost more important that the role was played by someone not Jewish, to show the world that there’s solidarity."

On the other hand, he says with a laugh, "I didn’t want to put a Jewish actor out of a job."

(JTA correspondent Michelle Dardashti in New York contributed to this report.)

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