I was cross when I arrived at The Jewish Journal on Oct. 9, 1986. I had earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University and had fantasized about becoming an arts writer (at least eventually) for, say, The New Yorker. Also, I was a bad Jew, having been turned off by lackluster synagogue services.
So after I settled down at my Journal IBM Selectric, I was shocked to discover I liked — no, loved — working at a Jewish newspaper. I learned that there are all kinds of Jews, including many I liked, and that I was covering stories I would never have landed at a metropolitan daily. For the first 16 years, there were news assignments along with the arts stories: I found myself interviewing victims of the Northridge earthquake, as well as actor John Cusack (who played Hitler’s art dealer in 2002’s “Max”), for example.
Along the way, I discovered that asking Jewish questions affords me an intimacy with subjects I might never achieve at a mainstream newspaper. Ben Stiller told me he felt pressured to assimilate, because he hates when people typecast him as “ethnic.” Winona Ryder described her Jewish spirit guide: a Russian cousin, also an actress, who looked like her and died in the Holocaust. And Robin Williams (who played a Polish ghetto inmate in “Jakob the Liar”) said he loved Yiddish, because it’s a great language for comedy: “There are so many great words, and ‘nu’ is the greatest word of all,” he enthused. “It encompasses everything: ‘What? How are you? Everything good? Bad? Hmmmm? Nu?'”
Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne Barr
I expected to be verbally eviscerated by these two Queens of Ascerbity, especially Bernhard, who is known for slaughtering the sacred cows of celebrity and politics with a sneer on her Mick Jaggeresque lips. Instead, she spoke of eviscerations of a Jewish kind, vacuuming out the lungs of kosher chickens during her teenage stay at a kibbutz, a job she actually enjoyed.
As I recovered from the “eew” factor, she breezed on about the Shabbat dinner she was preparing as we talked: kosher steak, potatoes, vegetables and homemade challah. Sounding more like a balabusta than comedy’s reigning loudmouth, she described attending synagogue every Saturday and her daily kabbalistic meditations.
In a separate interview, her fellow Jewish mysticism enthusiast, Roseanne Barr, confessed that she once became so incensed by her then-husband’s hair transplants, she “just, like, pulled a whole handful of ’em out.” Alarmed by her rage attack, she called her rabbi, and wondered if, as teshuvah (repentance), she should “give money to f—- — crippled children or something.” Instead, he advised her to just try to be nice — which Barr found to be “a walk through hell.”
This approach sounded sensible to me, but then Barr began talking about how she asked kabbalistic “face-readers” to help her select the executive producer of her 2003 reality series, “The Real Roseanne Show.” On the show, they made remarks such as, “The nose is about the honesty of the person.” Like one observer, I wonder how this works if the candidate had had a nose job.
Paul and Chris Weitz
I caught up with filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz, directors of the raunchy teen classic, “American Pie,” several months after the death of their father, legendary fashion designer John Weitz. Instead of focusing on their film’s iconic sequence, involving a libidinous youth and a pastry, they wanted to talk about dad, who had fled Hitler’s Berlin and served as an OSS spy at 19. When the filmmakers were growing up, John Weitz overtly “identified as Jewish almost out of spite toward [anti-Semites],” Chris said.
The brothers inherited their father’s subversive streak, tormenting their German nanny (at ages 7 and 11, respectively) by repeatedly asking what she thought of Hitler until she blurted, “He made the country work.”
“We were like little OSS guys, undermining her authority and her politics until she got so aggravated that she left,” Paul said. Dad was chagrined, as he was with his sons’ preference for shlumpy jeans rather than twin navy blazers.
But the classy designer cheekily stuck up for his boys two decades later, when someone called “Pie” vulgar.
“Where’s the chartreuse suit with the polka dots?” I asked actor David Arquette during a conversation about his 2002 Holocaust film, “The Grey Zone.” The actor was known for his outrageous off-screen outfits and for portraying goofy dufuses onscreen. But he was wearing a three-piece herringbone suit to discuss his “Zone” role as a Sonderkommando, one of the prisoners who ran the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau.
Arquette played Hoffman, the most fragile and guilt-ridden of his squad; he said he was drawn to the role as a way to connect to his late Jewish mother, Mardi. She had died five years earlier, after battling breast cancer; Arquette experienced a stinging flashback when he lifted a naked, bald extra, whose body was painted to look like a corpse, evoking memories of when she was suffering from the effects of her cancer and chemotherapy.
“I felt I was looking at my mother,” he said.
When I met Jason Alexander in 2000, he had just directed a sexual coming-of-age-film, “Just Looking,” set in the Bronx in 1955. The actor was diversifying to shake his pop culture image as the cantankerous George from “Seinfeld.”
“If I were to walk onstage as Hamlet, everyone would go, ‘Look, it’s George,” he quipped. But his voice began trembling as he discussed his own sexual coming of age, which would now be legally defined as child abuse. As a young actor, he had had his first experience at 13 with a woman in her 30s in a wing of a theater during rehearsal.
“The show ended and so did the relationship,” Alexander recalled. While the affair had been physically gratifying, it was emotionally confusing for the bar mitzvah-age boy. Referring to his “Just Looking” protagonist, Alexander said, “I didn’t quite have his period of innocence.”
“I just love talking about my vagina,” Eve Ensler said of her taboo-busting feminist global hit, “The Vagina Monologues.”
The playwright-performer also frankly discussed how her Jewish father had raped her and ridiculed her weight as a child. The abuse, in part, inspired “Monologues” and her latest play, “The Good Body,” was sparked by her midlife midriff crisis.
In light of all this personal talk, I was shocked by what the actress wouldn’t reveal.
“You’ll discuss incest but not food,” I incredulously asked.
Finally she said that during her drinking years, she went through periods when she would stop eating or subsist solely on marinated mushrooms.
“I’ve never, ever felt relaxed with food until the last [several] years,” she said.
The change came when she began wondering how a radical feminist like herself could become so obsessed with her post-40s stomach (she even fantasized about contracting a parasite). She wrote “The Good Body” to explore how societal pressure to look like Britney Spears distracts women and keeps them disenfranchised.
I told her that women want to look good because men lust after attractive women of breeding age. “Men won’t change, but we can change things by creating positive images of older women,” she responded.
I felt somewhat cheered, but continued to wonder exactly when I would need Botox.
Independent filmmaker Julie Davis (“I Love You, Don’t Touch Me,” “Amy’s Orgasm”) is known for stories about neurotic Jewish virgins holding out for Mr. Right. But she’s incredibly candid about sex for a woman who’s only slept with one man: her husband.
She told me her self-imposed chastity began when classmates called her a “slut” in junior high for dressing “really sexy,” like her movie star idol, Marilyn Monroe. In response, she kept the clothes but carefully guarded her virginity, preaching abstinence to anyone who would listen. She remained virtuous even when her first full-time job — editing erotic promos for the Playboy Channel — made her squirm lustily in her seat.
So she felt like a “fraud” when she met her husband-to-be, a hunky film executive, at 28, and immediately jumped in the sack. She poked fun at her own hypocrisy in “Orgasm,” in which a know-it-all author preaches celibacy until she meets a studly disc jockey.
Ron Jeremy told me he’s just a nice Jewish boy with one vice: more than two decades of porn films. Yes, he’s nicknamed the Hedgehog because he’s short, fat and hairy, but he’s been paid huge sums to bed more gorgeous women than James Bond.
“If a shlub like me can get lucky, there’s hope for everyone else,” he said of his popularity.
His family’s response to his career choice illustrates why so many Jews are in porn, he said. His physicist father didn’t tell him he’d burn in hell when Playgirl published his first nude photograph in 1978. But dad was chagrined when potential suitors began calling Jeremy’s grandmother, Rose, at all hours (she was listed under the family name in the directory).
“[Grandma] had to move out of her apartment for a month,” Jeremy (actually the actor’s middle name) sheepishly recalled. “My father told me, ‘If you want to get into this naked, crazy business, so be it, but if you use the family name again, I’ll kill you.'”
The Persian Gulf War
I was on a press tourism junket in Israel on Jan. 17, 1991, when a fellow journalist banged on my door and shouted, “Get the hell up. This is it!” We all ran to the mezzanine level of our Tel Aviv hotel and fumbled to put on our gas masks, as an employee ushered us into a sealed room, slammed the door shut and stuffed a wet towel under the doorjamb.
The radio informed us that the five loud booms we’d heard were five Scuds. Over the next 72 hours, I dashed six more times to the shelters as I slept in my clothes and bonded with the some 40 remaining guests in the vast, eerily empty hotel. In this surreal world, politics didn’t matter: Israeli Arabs tenderly helped infirm Jewish guests down to the shelters.
I also bonded with the international journalists who raced outside every time the sirens sounded. Following one such sojourn, two videographers were tired but cheerful at having captured valuable footage of the second attack. “If it happens again, we ‘Ghostbusters’ will be there,” one of them said, looking like a character from that movie in his plastic chemical-protection suit.
I thought about the blind senior citizen, with his seeing eye dog, who had come to our hotel so as not to brave the Scuds alone. I felt guilty about the excitement I was experiencing as an accidental war correspondent.
MEETING MY HUSBAND
Given my penchant for good horror stories, I was intrigued when I received a press release in late 1992 for a play called, “Dracula Tyrannus: The Tragical History of Vlad the Impaler.” I noticed that the author, Ron Magid, had a Jewish surname and wrote for Monsterland magazine, so I phoned the publicist to inquire if there were any Jewish angles to the play.
The PR guy replied that Vlad was a metaphor for genocidal dictators such as Hitler — and that the playwright had long hair and “looked like a rock star.” I had previously written about dozens of men, but had never dated any of them — although I was single and looking. But as I prepared for this interview, I had a strange premonition: “Am I going to meet my husband?” Just in case, I put on a nice outfit.
At the Tiffany Theatre, a tall man emerged from stage right, looking dazed amid the fake impaled corpses and severed head props. He explained that he’d slept in the building the night before in his rush to prepare for opening night.
Ron proved fascinating and articulate, so I was thrilled when he offered to show me my own private screening of Dracula movies. I knew he really liked me when he phoned me the morning after opening night. I laughed when he told me how he had once left a realistic-looking corpse dummy in his car and the coroner had come calling.
These days, our 18-month-old son, Harrison, is a chip off the old block: He grins broadly when his Darth Vader toy intones, “You don’t know the pow-ah of the dark side.”