Luzer Twersky meets me outside the apartment complex in Williamsburg where he’s been staying with a friend. The location seems somehow fitting: near the demarcation between hipster north Williamsburg and predominantly Hasidic south Williamsburg, and a block from Traif, a popular pork- and shellfish-themed restaurant. “Have you eaten there?” Twersky asks. “Amazing.” Twersky, an accomplished 31-year-old actor who left Hasidic Judaism almost nine years ago, apologizes for being late. “I don’t write things down,” he says proudly. He also has no fixed address, at least currently, and bounces between friends’ couches.
Strangely, Twersky’s intentionally disordered lifestyle hasn’t prevented him from achieving a certain precocious career success – but, before he can bring me up to speed on that, there is a more pressing concern. Twersky is hungry – ravenous, actually. He’s just woken up, having enthusiastically embraced the lifestyle of a stage actor. “If you only have to be at your job at six at night, why get up earlier? And why not make the most of the night?” he asks.
Traif would be the thematically appropriate venue for our interview, but it’s closed, so we set off in search of food elsewhere. Twersky, attired in a fashion-forward wool coat and a bomber cap with fur flaps, plows ahead. He walks in a sort of moseying forward slant, offering occasional muttered observations as he goes. After some trial and error he chooses the first seated restaurant we find, a small Mediterranean café whose signage gloats of its vegan and gluten-free options.
We take a table and order from the cryptic menu. Twersky banters with the waitress. He comes across as highly intelligent and even charismatic, blessed and cursed with an excess of manic, restless energy. In the course of our conversation he pauses often to fiddle with his phone, or glance at passersby, particularly if they are attractive women. I frequently have the impression he is not giving me his full attention, but, every time my patience is close to exhausted, he will suddenly snap back into the conversation and rattle off several cogent, organized thoughts before getting distracted by the next text message or passing pretty woman.
Twersky was raised in Borough Park, in the Belz sect – “slightly more chill, slightly,” by Hasidic standards, he explains – and was one of twelve children. His father was a rebbe – a religious leader commanding considerable stature in their small community. Twersky later joined the more conservative Satmar sect during a period of teenage religiosity.
As a preteen Twersky was molested by a yeshiva teacher, an experience he has written about in xoJane. Although a member of the Shomrim, the Hasidic para-police organization, reported the abuse to religious authorities, no real action was taken and the information wasn’t shared with civil law enforcement. “I think to me the bigger story is how it was covered up and how it was treated by the community,” says Twersky, though he adds that it was not a driving factor in his later decision to leave the faith.
Twersky got married when he was 19 and by all external appearances seemed destined for the standard life of a pious Hasidic Jew. But it didn’t quite work out that way. By the time he broke with Hasidism, in his early twenties, he had been idly fantasizing for years about leaving.
“I didn’t feel comfortable in that world,” he says. “I am a curious and questioning person. That lifestyle isn’t conducive to people with brains like myself – not that I’m very brainy, but the way I’m wired. I tried to make it work and it did, for a while, but I was getting really depressed. I was dying inside. It wasn’t working.”
The decision was spurred by both push and pull. “I wish I were that cool, to say that it was an intellectual journey [away from religious orthodoxy], but it wasn’t, or it wasn’t just that.” Of course, “a lot of Hasidic Jews say, ‘You just left for the sex and the bacon’ – which I did but didn’t. We live in a globalized world…there’s so much out there, and if you are the kind of person who wants to keep exploring then you have to get at that.”
And Twersky dreamt of acting – an almost farcical ambition for someone who, like many former Hasidic Jews, left the community with little to no knowledge of secular society, no career skills, no support network, and an uncertain command of English. Leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism is, in many ways, like emigrating to a foreign country – even if you grew up in the heart of New York City.
“Someone [once] asked me what it was like and I said I felt like I had grown up in Cuba and someone just dropped me off at Grand Central Terminal and walked away,” he says. “You don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture, you don’t have any marketable skills. If you take every challenge a person can have, besides health, that’s what it is – every challenge you could have except being physically ill.”
During the process of assimilating, Twersky, like many others, was greatly assisted by a New York-based organization called Footsteps, which helps former ultra-Orthodox Jews transition to secular life.
His breakout role, only a few years after leaving Hasidism, came in the form of a poignant Québécois feature film, Felix and Meira (Félix et Meira). Twersky was approached after one of the producers saw a short film he’d been in. The fact that he was an ex-Hasid helped rather than hurt. The film is a trilingual Yiddish-French-English production, set in Montreal and Brooklyn, about a secret love affair between an unhappy Hasidic woman and a free-spirited French-Canadian artist. Twersky plays the part of the cuckolded Hasidic husband. Rather than a reactionary, patriarchal villain, his character comes across as sympathetic and admirably fully-realized. For the film Twersky also tutored Hadas Yaron, the Israeli actress who plays his wife, in Yiddish.
While working on Felix and Meira he also held a job as a sales associate at Duncan Quinn, an upscale men’s clothing store. Working at Duncan Quinn created an unexpected opportunity. Quinn conceived an ad campaign toying with the famous credo of ambitious Jewish men in midcentury New York – “dress British, think Yiddish” – featuring twinned images of Twersky, first in Hasidic garb, then in fine English suits. When he toured to promote Felix and Meira he attracted attention for his loud, dandyish bespoke suits.
Twersky later secured a recurring role in Transparent, the Amazon series, and will be in a forthcoming episode of High Maintenance.
He also recently appeared in God of Vengeance, a Yiddish-language play that just wrapped a critically acclaimed and sold-out run in New York. The production is a revival of a controversial 1907 play about an Orthodox Jewish family living above a brothel; when it premiered in 1923 it was banned for its profane content as well as its frank sexuality, which included Broadway’s first-ever lesbian kiss.
“It is a pretty sacrilegious play,” Twersky says. “Vulgar, violent, sacrilegious. A contradiction, because you are speaking in a language that is supposedly pure – I mean the ‘Jewish language,’ the thing that separates us from the rest of the world. The rest of the world talks about guns and drugs and violence and sex and in Yiddish we don’t.”
Doing a play in Yiddish creates interesting linguistic challenges. “Yiddish is a very expressive language, but a poor language” in terms of vocabulary, Twersky says. “It doesn’t have a lot of words. It has evolved less than English. I find it easier to think in English, now. A lot of the ideas I would like to get across I would have trouble getting across in Yiddish.” For example, “there are no dirty words in contemporary Yiddish. We make them up. ‘Schlong’ means snake.” Before taking on God of Vengeance Twersky had never explored the “dirty underbelly” of Yiddish – “where it’s Yiddish but with a very visceral humanness to it.”
The New York Times described Twersky, who plays a pimp, as “wonderfully slimy,” which is both flattering and somewhat appropriate. If you’re raised in an environment as stiflingly conservative as ultra-Orthodox Judaism, you may suffer, after leaving, a mild libertinism. Twersky gives off the energy of someone who wants to sleep with every woman, travel to every place, try every food, drink every drink.
After a period of estrangement, however, he is back in touch with part of his family. “I was dating a Jewish girl last year and I told my parents about it. I told them I was seeing this girl and all my mother wanted to know is, ‘Is she Jewish? Is she white?’ Someone told my parents I was into black girls, which is not untrue.”
Twersky is relieved to have some restored connection with his former life, but has no interest in returning to that lifestyle. “My priorities are different. Some people want to have a home and a wife and kids and a couch. I just want to act. To me, the most valuable thing is always going to be my autonomy. It doesn’t matter what you offer me. You could give me a million dollars but if it comes with conditions that restrict my autonomy – I wouldn’t take it.”
As we finish up and pay for our meal Twersky illustrates his point with an anecdote. One of the board members of Footsteps is financier Steve Eisman, the basis for Steve Carell’s character in The Big Short. Once Twersky met Eisman at a party. “He said to me, ‘You’re a smart kid. If you cut off your beard and payos I will give you a job at my hedge fund.’” To an intermittently homeless ex-Hasid with no money and no job skills this was an enormous opportunity. But Twersky wanted to be an actor. He declined. “If I had done that I would have been a millionaire by now. But if I had done that I would also be a different person. I would have lost sight of my dreams.”
Several years later he ran into Eisman again. Felix and Meira had been selected as Canada’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film; The Big Short had been nominated in multiple categories and ultimately won Best Adapted Screenplay.” Twersky could not resist pointing out to Eisman that he had done alright for himself despite turning down the offer. “I was just in a film that almost won an Oscar. That’s not so bad, is it?” Eisman, he says, smiled and said, “Yeah, but we did.”
Correction: The original version of this post misstated that Felix and Meira was nominated for an Oscar.