Just because Nancy Spielberg grew up immersed in film-making doesn’t mean she planned to have a film career—she didn’t. Even producing the successful 2014 documentary film “Above and Beyond,” which tells the little-known story of American fighter pilots who volunteered to fight for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence, was not what she was aiming for. “Film-making was something I was avoiding.”
Not only that, but Spielberg didn’t grow up with a strong Jewish identity or connection to Israel that would lead to producing this type of film. She grew up in Arizona where there were few Jews and where she experienced anti-Semitism. So how did she end up making an award-winning Jewish-themed film?
It was a journey. Spielberg credits her stepdad with helping her to discover her Jewish identity in her tweens and teens, as well as moving to California at age 18. As far as the film-making part, she was also always writing, mostly short stories and a few scripts. But 25 years ago, when her brother Steven made the film “Schindler’s List” and announced publicly that he refused to keep a cent and profit from Holocaust “blood money,” her phone started ringing.
At that time, as now, Spielberg was highly focused on charity work, but the more famous Steven got, the more scripts she got. People wanted her to pass their scripts on to her brother, which she wouldn’t do, but she did read the scripts that came from young adults and shared ideas with their authors on how to raise money.
And then one day someone told her the “Above and Beyond” story, and that “lit her on fire.” “It was the end of my ‘ho-hum’ boring life as I knew it,” she shared.
Spielberg had some previous film experience, but “Above and Beyond” was the first film she took the lead on. It was her “baby,” and she immersed herself in researching the story, raising the money, and pursuing her vision. And the film has since been honored with more than 20 awards at film festivals around the country.
When asked why she chose documentary film-making, Spielberg explained that “the documentary film-making world is pure. It’s not based on box office sales. The end goal is not how much money the film makes but how to get a story out there and how that story can change the world for the better by opening people’s eyes.” Spielberg loves being surrounded by people who are earnest about telling a story. “I feel comfortable in this world; it’s not Hollywood.”
That being said, there is room for at least one feature film in Spielberg’s life—one she is currently exploring based on “Above and Beyond.” “We need another great film about Israel, telling the American angle,” Spielberg said. “I want it to be great, a modern day Exodus.”
In March, Spielberg will speak to around 800 Jewish Orange County women about her film and her life at the Jewish Federation & Family Services Women’s VOICES luncheon. The theme of the event is also “Above and Beyond,” and its goal is to inspire and empower women to make a difference in their community. Spielberg has her own stories to tell about what women can accomplish together, like her mainly female crew for “Above and Beyond,” including director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain.
But she readily admits that speaking at events like this is relatively new to her. “I didn’t go to ladies lunches. My mother (Leah Adler) refused to join anything, so I was not a ‘joiner’ either. Then I started to go to Jewish Federation women’s events. I felt hugged by all the women. It’s really a community, a sisterhood.”
And speaking of her mother, Spielberg described Adler, who passed away at age 97, as “a unique force in many people’s lives.” Adler owned the long-standing Los Angeles kosher restaurant, The Milky Way, where she was a fixture. “She went to work almost every day,” Spielberg noted. “People would pay such respect to her.” The restaurant is currently being renovated and Spielberg will reopen it and head it up. “We’re updating but keeping her favorite dishes on the menu.”
Spielberg’s father, who is nearly 102 “with a very sharp mind,” recently accompanied her on a trip to Israel related to the “Above and Beyond” film. There he met Shimon Perez, and Spielberg said she enjoyed seeing these two “very intelligent men” interacting.
Spielberg is married and has two adult daughters—Jessica, age 30, who lives in Tel Aviv and sings, acts, and does voice-overs, and Melissa, 25, who lives in LA, where she works for Katahdin Productions and finds every possible opportunity to ride horses.
A lot has changed for Spielberg over the years. “I used to be afraid to fail, but at a certain age, I’m not afraid of public opinion. I’m going to say what I want to say and do what I want to do, and maybe that’s what’s allowed me to go forward.”
At 62, Spielberg is very comfortable with herself and where she is in life. She’s friendly and unpretentious and describes herself and her family as “down to earth.” “We’re normal,” said. “Well, sort of normal.”
She’s also grown into her Jewish identity; she now keeps kosher and observes Shabbat. “I found my right fit with ‘Open Orthodoxy’. I like what my life is.”
When asked what she does for inspiration, Spielberg shared that she reads a lot and really loves talking to people. “I go on road trips, drive through small towns and try to get a glimpse of who’s happy, who’s sad, what’s going on behind closed doors. I’m interested in ordinary folk and the wonderful things they do. Everyone has a story to tell.
BONNIE WIDERMAN is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.