David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.
Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.
Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?
David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?
JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?
DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.
JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?
DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.
“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”
JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?
DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?
JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.
DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.
JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?
DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?
Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?
I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?
JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?
DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”
JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?
DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.