Fioretta – Roots Road Trip
Randy Schoenberg’s lifelong burning obsession with genealogy and tracing his family tree back through the centuries, is the subject of Matthew Mishory’s new documentary, “Fioretta.”
Ryan Reynolds, the A-list actor renowned for playing superheroes such as Deadpool, once declared that portraying Los Angeles attorney E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg in the 2015 film, “Woman in Gold,” was like stepping into the shoes of a real-life superhero. The film recounts how the attorney and philanthropist – grandson of the pioneering 20th century classical music composer Arnold Schoenberg – successfully sued the Austrian government to return five Nazi-looted Gustav Klimt paintings to a Viennese refugee from the Holocaust in 2006.
What is perhaps less known about Schoenberg is his lifelong burning obsession with genealogy and tracing his family tree back through the centuries. His preoccupation is the subject of Matthew Mishory’s new documentary, “Fioretta,” in which Randy, with his initially reluctant youngest child, Joey Schoenberg, 18, set off on a roots road trip from Vienna to Prague to Italy. Their goal is to track down the grave of their oldest known ancestor, Fioretta (nee Kalonymos) Chalfan, a woman who lived in the Jewish ghetto in Venice in the 16th century.
While perusing letters and other documents in dusty archives and ornate tombstones in overgrown cemeteries, the Schoenbergs meet a diverse cast of characters who help them on their quest: long-lost relatives, scholars and historians, as well as a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor who tends to an obscure cemetery where Jews of the Venice ghetto buried their dead. Along the way, the Schoenbergs learn more about how their forebears’ lives intersected with 500 years of European and Jewish history, including persecution during the Inquisition and the Holocaust.
Randy and Joey also visit the apartment house where Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna, recount how he fled Europe after the Nazis came to power and resettled in Los Angeles in 1934.
“Everyone in the family thinks I’m nuts,” Randy says in the film about his passion for family history. “[But] I at least know I’m crazy.”
In a Zoom interview, Randy told JLiving that he caught the genealogy bug back when he was 8, when a school assignment required him to create his own family tree. Randy’s project stretched back several generations, while his classmates “came back with [the equivalent] of father, mother, sister, dog,” he said. “There was no one else doing that kind of work in my family,” he added. “I must have intuited from my grandmother, who liked telling family stories, that this also would become my job.”
Eventually, Randy joined the board of directors of JewishGen.org and became a volunteer curator for Geni.com, a worldwide genealogy website. In 2010, he helped build and design the permanent exhibition of what is now called the Holocaust Museum LA.
Eleven years later, Randy told an Italian cousin, an artist and filmmaker, that he could trace her mother’s line back to the 1500s. She promptly suggested that the endeavor might make for a good film.
Enter writer-director Matthew Mishory, an Israeli-American who had previously made a documentary, “Absent,” about his own family’s experience in Moldova during the Holocaust, as well as “Arthur Schnabel: No Place of Exile,” on the pianist and composer who had been a childhood friend of Arnold Schoenberg’s. When Randy mentioned to Mishory that he was going to Europe to obtain further information about his ancestors, the filmmaker asked him just how much family history he was planning to explore. “I was thinking, optimistically, that he might say back to 1850 or 1860,” Mishory said in an interview. “But he said all the way back to the formation of the Venice Jewish ghetto and that the family history he’d be exploring in fact traced a 500-year arc of European history. That is why my producer, Brad Schlei, who went to high school with Randy, and I turned to each other and thought this could be an interesting film.”
During a scouting trip with Randy to Europe in January 2022, Mishory met some of the people who would also appear in the movie. “My producer, Brad, called this the ‘Wes Anderson quotient,’” Mishory said. “It’s where we introduce people who hang around in cemeteries and wear corduroy jackets with elbow patches. It’s a colorful cast of characters, very likeable and unusual people who’ve really become sort of a backbone to this story and our guides as we descend into the rabbit hole of the past.”
Joey, who in an interview described his father’s preoccupation with genealogy as “crazy but cool,” at first thought the trip might bore him. “We’d taken trips before where Joey had complained bitterly about me dragging him to cemeteries and things like that,” Randy said. “He was not overly interested in all of this and that’s totally understandable.”
Joey, an aspiring chef who wears black nail polish, recalled that his father told him “’You’re going to come with me and I’m going to teach you about your family.’ And as I say in the film, I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to go to Europe.” Ultimately, Joey, who doesn’t particularly like cemeteries, develops more of an appreciation for his father’s work and comes to realize that he’s part of the continuum of Jewish history.
During the film’s shoot in the spring of 2022, more information about Randy’s Venetian forbears comes to light. A scholar in Florence speaks of Fioretta’s life as a prominent early resident of the ghetto, founded in 1516, where gates were locked at night. While information about Fioretta remains scarce, more is known about her father, Calo Kalonymos, a doctor and philosopher who also served as the court astrologer to the Duke of Bari but eventually was forced to flee north to escape the Inquisition.
Fioretta’s husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan, was a prominent physician and scholar who was hired by King Henry VIII of England to write a legal opinion on the proposed annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. He also wrote a tractate about the views of his famous friend, the mystic Solomon Molcho, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1532.
After following new clues, the Schoenbergs learn that Fioretta is buried in the forgotten Jewish cemetery on Lido Island in the Venice lagoon. It is Joey who eventually finds his ancestor’s tombstone by using his religious school Hebrew to sound out the name. “I felt my family standing here at the gravesite 500 years ago,” Joey said.
The war in Ukraine had started just a few months before the documentary began production, and many of the people interviewed had taken in refugees. Randy could not help but find parallels between the refugees’ experience and those of his own relatives who had endured persecution and expulsions over the centuries.
Another war – the conflict between Israel and Hamas – broke out the day before “Fioretta” was to have its Israeli premiere at the ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. “I heard a siren go off, and there was a big boom, maybe two, and one of them turned out to be a building that was hit by a missile and was destroyed not very far from me,” Randy recalled. “I didn’t go to the shelter, because I did not even know where it was or what to do or if I’d make it anywhere. It was a mistake that I didn’t leave, but I was in my pajamas.”
Since the premiere had to be cancelled due to the war, Schoenberg and Mishory arranged to move the screening online, where it was seen by 150 viewers. “I think for a lot of people it was just taking a break from the terrible images of the war,” Randy said. “And this film of course was totally appropriate for that.
“It’s a film about the survival of the Jewish people and our history and why we are who we are and how we got to be here,” he said.
“Fioretta” will screen at the Laemmle Theatres Dec. 1-7 in Los Angeles. For more information, visit Fiorettafilm.com.