When Matt Axelrod mingled with congregants one weekend last fall during kiddush, a few commented on the fact that he had shaved his beard. He merely nodded and smiled back.
What Axelrod, who is the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Scotch Plains, couldn’t reveal at the time was that he had been asked to get rid of the beard to appear as a cantor in HBO’s six-part series, “The Plot Against America.” The show, based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, imagines what would have happened if aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose speeches and letters included anti-Semitic and white supremacist leanings, had been elected president in 1940. It focuses on a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey who watches in dismay as Lindbergh turns the nation toward fascism. As the family faces open bigotry from people on the streets of Newark, they struggle to comprehend how their country has changed.
In August, Axelrod received an email from a casting company “out of the blue” asking if he wanted to audition for the role, he said. A few days later, he sang “L’cha dodi” at a New York City casting office where others, who appeared to him to be professional actors, were also trying out. After singing “for 20 seconds,” he said, the casting people thanked him for coming. Later that week, he learned he landed the role.
Airing since March 16, the production, which stars John Turturro and Winona Ryder, was created by David Simon, who is Jewish and well known for his realistic portraits of society’s ills in shows such as “The Wire,” and his collaborator Ed Burns. The six-hour “Plot” has garnered praise — The New York Times calling it “a passionate, gutting adaptation,” and New York Magazine wrote that the show was “a devastating, relevant alt-history drama.”
Axelrod appears in the final episode, airing April 20, and his scenes were filmed at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, though in the story the family lives in Newark. He arrived at 5 p.m. and was given his costume — a black robe, a tallit, and a mitre, the traditional headwear worn by some cantors during that period — which he had been fitted for earlier, and shown to a small room in a trailer to change. Afterward he said a production assistant came by and told him, “John wants to see you.”
“John,” it turned out, was Turturro, who portrays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, an opportunistic Conservative rabbi who aligns himself with Lindbergh. The Emmy Award-winning actor wanted Axelrod to teach him “L’cha dodi” to prepare for the scene.
“I sat with John for 20 minutes and basically gave him a bar mitzvah lesson,” Axelrod said. “He was very serious about learning it. He wanted to make sure his pronunciation was right.”
Axelrod is not allowed to reveal details about the plot of the scene he appears in, which took place at the synagogue during a Friday night service. However, in the scene he stands on the bima with Turturro and sings “L’cha dodi,” which means “Come my beloved” and serves to welcome the arrival of Shabbat.
“I sang it over and over again. There were maybe 20 takes,” he recalled. “I would just sing each time until someone yelled, ‘Cut!’”
Axelrod has served as CBI’s cantor since 1990, first as the student cantor and then full-time after graduating from the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He sings with the New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble, which performs throughout the state to benefit scholarship funds for cantorial students. He has written two books, “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide,” and “Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder,” and is also a licensed pilot and flight instructor. His wife, Dr. Tali Axelrod, is assistant superintendent of schools in Parsippany-Troy Hills.
The cantor was paid a standard actors’ day rate for the gig. Before he was cast in the series Axelrod had never done any acting, “and I don’t expect to ever again,” he said. Even so, “doing this was so cool. It was a bucket-list item for something I didn’t know was a bucket-list item.”
Describing himself as “a big Philip Roth fan,” Axelrod said he read and loved “The Plot Against America” when it was first published in 2004. “I’m fascinated with the genre of alternate history,” he said. And with acts of anti-Semitism on the rise, Roth’s story of what might have been if Lindbergh had defeated President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election “takes on a completely new and disturbing relevance,” he said.
Axelrod and his family will be glued to the television when his episode is broadcast, and he hopes that viewers will appreciate the resonance of the story with the current moment.
“I hope it really hits home that history has a way of repeating itself, and we always have to be on guard,” he said. “We always have to be aware of the past.”