It is strange to be alone with Billy Crystal. He's still funny, insightful, charming -- but the venue is all wrong. The Castle Rock headquarters where he works in Beverly Hills has all the ambience of a mortgage brokerage. Crystal's own office is more homey: Craftsman furniture, a "City Slickers" riding saddle in one corner, foreign language film posters (as in, "Mr. Sabado Sera") on the walls.
Nice decor -- kind of Mission-Goes-to-the-Movies -- but what's wrong is the audience. There is none. If you're used to watching Crystal entertain hundreds via the big screen, or hundreds of millions at the Oscars, then getting Billy Crystal all by himself in a quiet room seems unnatural. The conversation will go three, four minutes without a punch line.
Anyway, what's so funny? On Jan. 28, at a dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Crystal will receive the National Scopus Award of the American Friends of Hebrew University. If you go to the Jerusalem campus, you can read the names of a handful of past honorees inscribed on a stone wall -- Frank Sinatra, Elie Wiesel, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and others. But as the comic explains, just getting his name carved next to theirs wasn't enough. "I wanted to do something," he said, "not just have an award and a dinner."
In past years, individual dinners have raised more than $1 million. A portion of the proceeds from this year's banquet will create the Billy Crystal Endowment for Peace Through Performing Arts. Programs funded through the endowment will use theater, dance and music to bring together Palestinian and Israeli children.
Said Crystal: "Every day you turn on the news, and every day you see this hatred and this misunderstanding, and it's just frustrating. No one can solve this like that, but you can take little steps. If Palestinian and Israeli children side by side, starting as little kids, can just dance, or sing, they can learn that we're really not that different. Then they can occupy not just a stage together but a place, a living place, together."
The idea is hardly naïve. Israelis and Arabs themselves have started at least three similar programs already in Israel, funded in part by the New Israel Fund. What Crystal can bring is the spotlight of star power. He intends to travel to Israel once projects are up and running. His last visit was 20 years ago, on a Hebrew University mission with Dinah Shore.
"Starting with kids, that's your best chance," he said. "If they're going to throw rocks, it might as well be at critics."
That joke recalled another. At the Oscars last year, Crystal jabbed at Orthodox rabbis in Israel who had declared Reform and Conservative Jews not Jewish. "I just found out I'm a Gentile," he deadpanned.
Like the majority of American Jews, Crystal doesn't much care for Israel's religious and political extremes. Contrary to a report published last year in The Jewish Journal, Crystal said that, had he been in town, he would have wanted to participate in festivities marking the country's 50th anniversary. But keeping quiet about his concerns over Israel never occurred to him.
"We should mind our own business?" he said. "If you go to Hebrew University, look at the names you're going to see. People who have donated their time, and millions of dollars, non-Jews and Jews. It's everybody's business. When that happened last year [with the rabbinate], it was insulting to say we're not Jews. It was insulting to deny our heritage, our parents, and how we were taught. Plus" -- his delivery picks up here -- "I was worldwide, so it was a chance to slip one in."
People who know Billy-the-Jew say the strong and certain sense of identity stretches backward and forward in the Crystal family. "He is a very committed and passionate Jew," said Chayim Frenkel, cantor at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades where Crystal has belonged for 14 years. "He's the biggest mensch you'll ever meet."
Last year, at High Holiday Selichot services, Frenkel introduced Crystal to a boy whose father had recently been killed. Crystal spoke with the boy -- a fellow baseball fan -- and later arranged for him to visit the Dodgers dugout and meet his favorite players.
Janice, Crystal's wife of 28 years, helped organize the temple's Tikkun L.A. task force following the 1992 riots. Their daughters were bat mitzvahed at Kehillat Israel. Jenny, 25, is an actress, and Lindsay, 21, is a directing major at New York University.
"I'm not a very religious person, [but] it's in your gut, it's your heritage," he said. "You wear it. I love when my daughters call up and they go, 'I've made a noodle pudding.' They call my mother for the recipe."
Crystal's identity, as both Jew and comic, was forged growing up in a close-knit Long Island family. Raucous family gatherings always included a performance by Crystal and his brothers.
"My house was a nightclub with gas. A lot of laughing, a lot of joy," he said.
The Crystals were Reform Jews and orthodox Yankees fans. Crystal's father was a jazz promoter who co-founded the seminal Commodore label. He died of a heart attack when Billy was 15. The father's passions for jazz, baseball and Jewish life have described the son's life, as has a search for the man himself.
Last year, Crystal and his wife began uncovering their family roots through the Sepia Guild, a New York-based genealogical search service.
"I lost my father when I was young," he said, "so my research is to find out who he was. I want to know who he was at 15, who he was at 30. Who was this kid who became this man? What did he feel like, what did he do? I never got to ask him when he was alive."
Part of the Crystal Endowment at Hebrew University will fund a scholarship for jazz study as well as a collection of Commodore records at the university library to honor Crystal's father.
The search for his past comes at a challenging time in Crystal's career. He turned 50 last year. He's no longer the hot new standup from "Saturday Night Live," but he's still two decades shy of not needing makeup to play the Buddy Young Jr. character in "Mr. Saturday Night"