Before David Weiss came to Hollywood as a 24-year-old screenwriter hopeful, the elders of his church put their hands on him to entrust him with a Godly mission.
"It was my idea. They sent me to Hollywood as a missionary," the "Shrek 2" screenwriter said over sandwiches at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. "The idea was to write projects that glorify God."
Now, 20 years later, Weiss is married with two children and has a different kind of mission and a different kind of life. He is no longer a born-again Christian but an Orthodox Jew who davens daily at Westwood Kehilla, wears a kippah and washes his hands with a blessing before he eats. He no longer toils without pay in the Hollywood trenches. He still dresses casually in khakis and sweatshirts, but with credits like "The Rugrats Movie(s)" and 2001's "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" under his belt, he is a much sought-after screenwriter.
Professionally, too, he has veered somewhat from the mission he came to Hollywood for. Weiss doesn't feel he has to make movies that glorify God anymore. Now he's concerned with creating family-friendly films, that, among the jokes and gags, contain universal truths -- and if they are Jewish universal truths then so much the better. He is proudest of his credits on 1991's "A Rugrats Chanukah" because it tells the Festival of Lights story to a wide audience. This summer he is going to be a senior fellow at Jewish Impact Films, a new program to teach novice filmmakers how to make short films about Israel and Judaism.
In his personal life, he still wants spread the word of God, only his mission now is to help fellow Jews "catch a joy in their tradition, their heritage and their birthright," he said. He wants them to use his professional success as an enticement to get them thinking about Shabbat, tefilin and God.
"I love that now when I run into an unaffiliated Jew, they say 'Wow, you keep Shabbos?' and they want to talk about it," he said. "I think people are more likely to accept your invitation for Shabbos dinner if you have some kind of substance in your professional life."
So far, it's his credit on this summer's record-breaking "Shrek 2" -- which has earned him write ups in The Jerusalem Post, the Ventura Country Star and Aish.com -- that have perhaps given Weiss the most "professional substance" of his career.
"Shrek 2," an animated film about a galumphing green ogre and his ogress wife, Fiona, surpassed "Finding Nemo" as the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Although it is not a Jewish film, it is easy to see its Jewish themes. With its perverse twist on the typical saccharine-endeding fairy tales, the film has a strong anti-assimilationist message: Shrek has a choice to shed his green lumpy skin and his skanky swamp and assimilate into the materially wonderful, aesthetically pleasing society of "Far Far Away" as a handsome prince, but he chooses to remain true to his real identity as an ugly grumpy ogre.
"It was not intended to be a subliminal message to the Jewish community," said Weiss, who explained that that part of the story was already present in the film before he was called in to write on it. "Really the theme is 'be yourself.'"
But Weiss injected the film with a Jewish theme of his own, which he learned in an "Introduction to Judaism" class taught by Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, the principal of Ohr Eliyahu school.
"He said [in Judaism] 'Love means what's important to you is important to me,'" Weiss said. "That has served me incredibly well in my marriage, and it plays out overtly both for Fiona and Shrek. Shrek wanted to take the magic potion and be a handsome prince because he thought that was what Fiona needed to be happy. He wanted it for her sake."
Like Shrek, who grows to accept himself as he was, it took a while for Weiss to reach the point where he felt comfortable with Judaism. He was raised Reform, but found the community he was in was more social than religious and he was plagued by a "search for meaning."
"I had a lot of questions about the meaning of life, and the inherent terror of death and nobody [in his Jewish community] really cared about that much," he said. "God was not that big in the synagogue, and a religion without God doesn't make that much sense."
As a teenager, Weiss found the answers he was looking for among Christian friends, who introduced him to their God. At first he couldn't get himself to accept "JC" (his term), but gradually "grew to love God passionately," so much so that he became a youth leader in the church.
He became a ba'al teshuvah (returnee to Judaism) as an adult, after meeting Orthodox Jews. He loved that they actually kept the laws of the Bible.
"I assumed my Christian friends would find that absolutely fascinating -- and they were [fascinated] while I was still in the church," he said. "Really naively and stupidly, I thought they would say 'Let's go over there' [to Judaism], but it was mostly like 'JC is the only truth.'"
But Weiss does not regret his church experience.
"It bought phenomenal meaning and purpose to my life, and it was a huge stepping stone to Orthodoxy," he said.
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