July 4, 2002
When Worlds Collide
Four writers discuss balancing observant lifestyles with their entertainment industry careers.
Much has been written about Jewish talent working in the entertainment industry. But what happens when you're a sought-after Jewish writer who also happens to be observant?
"When worlds collide" might as well have been the subtext of a recent panel hosted by Sinai Temple's Kesher Sinai group, which engaged David Sacks ("Third Rock From the Sun"), Ilana Wernick ("King of Queens"), David Weiss ("Clockstoppers") and Marv Silbermintz ("The Tonight Show with Jay Leno") on the subject of Hollywood values and pressures conflicting with Jewish ethics and ritual. The evening -- the first union of the Congregation Mogen David-based grass-roots singles group Aaron's Tent and Kesher Sinai (formerly Sinai New Leadership) -- included a java-fueled, post-panel singles mixer, courtesy of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Aaron's Tent founder Aaron Kemp moderated the evening, which took place in April and was co-chaired by Kesher Sinai's Faranak Rostamian and Cindy Stogel. Kemp, a Screen Actors Guild contractual lawyer, opened the discussion on a facetious note.
"I thought I would grow up to love my gentile partner and have comedic episodes with my non-Jewish in-laws," said Kemp, mocking the historical portrayal of Jews on television sitcoms.
Responding to the influence of such stereotypes, Weiss said that he was more impacted by Rat Pack-era celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. than network television's tendency to put Jewish males in interfaith relationships with WASPy women.
"I did not want to grow up to be a one-eyed black Jew, but I did want to marry Meredith Baxter-Birney," admitted Weiss, an observant Jew who, for a brief spell, converted to Christianity on his quest for spiritual satisfaction.
"I thought the entire world was Jewish growing up," said Silbermintz, raised on 79th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. "I thought Popeye and Batman were Jewish." Silbermintz became a staff gag writer on "The Tonight Show" in 1992, after years of sending Leno unsolicited jokes.
Wernick was not aware of Jewish representation on television while growing up, but added, "I was really excited to find out that the actor who played 'The Fonz' was Jewish in real life."
Panel members told personal anecdotes about the lines of sensitivity toward Jewish content drawn behind the scenes. Wernick touched on the inherent Jewishness of Jerry Stiller's character on "King of Queens," which portrays characters of Italian heritage. She also said that behind the scenes, she has become the arbiter of what is and is not Jewish.
"It's like I'm a rabbi on the show," Wernick said. "By default, I become that because I'm the most Jewish one there."
Sacks, a veteran of two long-running sitcoms -- "The Simpsons" and "Third Rock" -- set the record straight regarding his connection to Jewish-themed episodes on both series. He came onboard as a writer on "The Simpsons" after completion of the episode in which Krusty the Clown is revealed to be Jewish. But Sacks did have a hand in the "Third Rock" episode in which the alien family adopted the surname of the Solomons and declared their human alter egos Jewish. However, the idea was not his.
Weiss summed up his working relationship with his non-Jewish writing partner this way: "I'll write on Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday, you'll write on Shabbos and yontif." The pair, which penned a "Rugrats" Chanukah special, is currently scripting "Shrek 2."
The panel also discussed the line between homage and stereotype onscreen. Weiss lamented the day when Nickelodeon jettisoned the overtly old country Grandpa Boris from the "Rugrats" after the character raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, which deemed Boris too stereotypical. Silbermintz, whose father is Columbian and mother Dominican, became hardened to people referring to him as Puerto Rican. He dislikes the air of sensitivity and political correctness.
"You think the Italians are offended by 'The Godfather,'" he said, laughing, "they love it. It's like the Torah to them, and 'The Sopranos' is like the New Testament."
Wernick spoke of having to overcompensate in all areas and devote 110 percent in all areas in order to justify leaving work early to observe Shabbat on Friday evenings, when "King of Queens" tapes.
"My bosses are all nonobservant Jews, and they've been fantastic about the whole thing," she said.
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked the panel to comment on why so many Jews in Hollywood do not publicly back Israel. Silbermintz observed that the sole celebrity not mincing words about his support of Israel is Howard Stern, to which Kemp interjected, "Yeah, except he won't admit that he's a full Jew on his own show."