Adam Tsekhman wasn’t supposed to be an actor. When the Torontonian transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, he was focused on finance. It was idle curiosity that led him to an Orthodox Jewish theatre group on campus. And pure luck that got him a leading role.
“The play we chose, the lead and female had to kiss. [The director said,] ‘Who’s willing to kiss?’ I was the only one that put up my hand. I was the lead.”
It took more than just a bit of luck for Tsekhman, who eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, to land a starring role in Israeli director, Amos Gitai’s, film, Tsili. The actor had met Gitai in Israel around six years ago, and the two stayed in touch. “He knew I was an actor living in L.A. I was a fan of his films. He told me about this [film] and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it.”
There was one catch. The entire dialogue would be almost entirely in Yiddish.
“I didn’t know Yiddish at the time, but I accepted the task,” Tsekhman said, adding it was the film’s story that intrigued him.
Tsili is based on a novel written by Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor. The film follows the story of a 14-year-old girl who is left to fend for herself during the Holocaust. While surviving in the woods, she meets Tsekhman’s character, Marek, who was able to escape from a concentration camp, but had to leave his wife and child.
“I willingly wanted to be a part of that,” Tsekhman said. “I always wanted to work on a Holocaust film. There’s just so many endless, incredible stories about survivors. That era was filled with unbelievable heroism, shocking situations, incredible perseverance.”
After accepting the role, Tsekhman turned to his grandmother.
“I had a Yiddish teacher in L.A. Also, I sent the script to my grandmother in Toronto. I was on the phone with her for one hour, two hours a day,” he said. Eventually, Tsekhman, whose parents were from Ukraine, spoke Yiddish better than he spoke Russian, the first language he learned at home.
“I don’t even know. The language started to feel natural. It started to come naturally to me, which doesn’t make any sense,” he said. His grandmother disagreed. “In her mind, of course it makes sense. ‘You’re a Jew. Of course you speak Yiddish better than Russian.’”
Tsili, which will be shown at the Venice International Film Festival, was filmed in Israel and parts of Europe.
For Tsekhman, the main challenge was to properly portray the life of a Holocaust survivor.
“The emotional life of the character and situation, how can you prepare for that? I read about the Holocaust, watched every Holocaust movie I could get my hands on. I’ve done the March of the Living, but at a certain point, as an actor, that’s a tough thing to do. That’s the epitome of human desperation,” he said. “I hope I achieved it.”