Michaela Watkins: A supporting player takes the lead

If you’re one of those people who pays attention to supporting characters and comedy, you probably already know who Michaela Watkins is. She has been in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (2008-09), as well as TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Enlightened” and “Trophy Wife”— and in memorable supporting roles in the films “In a World” and “Afternoon Delight.” She also wrote and directed the USA Network show “Benched.” And this fall, she’s starring in “Casual,” director Jason Reitman’s upcoming show for Hulu.

“This is the first time I’m entrusted with the lead of a show,” Watkins said over tea and a chewy sesame roll at Bricks & Scones in Larchmont Village. “It’s a beautiful experience to get to know your character, as the membrane that connects all the scenes together.” When you’re a supporting actor, Watkins explained, “unless you’re adding info to the scene, you’re not featured in it. When it’s your narrative, you get to see the minutiae of a person’s life. I’ve never felt more connected to and protective of a show.” 

The show opens with Valerie (Watkins) living in her brother Alex’s (Tommy Dewey) house with her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), and trying to get through a difficult divorce with her ex (Zak Orth). In the process, she tries to date and picks up Leon (Nyasha Hatendi) for a one-night stand, but he’s as awkward and clueless about the world of casual dating as she is. 

“Casual” feels more like an independent film, Watkins said, in that it has “that kind of pace and exploration of character. It’s a beautiful little show, and I hope people find it.” She called the casting “perfect,” Reitman “extraordinary” and the writing “so good,” calling out the ninth script as particularly impactful. “I had to put it down and cool off with a walk in the neighborhood because it just shattered me,” Watkins said. 

Although the show is a comedy, “I don’t remember a funny thing happening to my character,” she said. “She’s not a happy person. She is in the mourning process of a divorce and coming to terms with an effed-up childhood. She starts out at a low point and is learning how to walk again.” 

With this interview scheduled for the week before the release of the “Wet Hot American Summer” prequel episodes, in which Watkins plays Rhonda, a visiting choreographer, Watkins shared some camp memories of her own. “I went to music camp and played flute and piano. I saw myself as a bit of a chanteuse … I had a concerto in the morning, making out in the evening, and sailing, swimming and archery in the middle. In my real life, I was a bit of an oddball, but at music camp I was considered cute.” 

Her parents separated when she was 8; as the youngest, she saw her role as being “the one to keep everyone laughing, keep it light, bring some levity,” she said. “It was my way to be seen by my family and then the opposite sex. My way of flirting was, ‘Watch me shove a whole hamburger in my mouth.’ ”

Now connected to some of the most creative names in comedy — she recently booked a role working with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in “The House,” currently filming — Watkins has an explanation for her luck in terms of the projects she’s been offered. 

“I made a pact with myself when I was 12 that I would only work with people who make me happy. I choose happy. At one point, I felt I needed to choose pain and depth, because that is the reality of being an adult person. And while that is true, it doesn’t mean that you have to forgo happiness. You’re going to have moments of utter devastation, but for me, I keep striving to do what I want, and I’m a people person. I say yes to everything if I like the overall thing that’s being put out there. I’ll do anything with David Wain,” she said of the actor-writer-director with whom she has worked on “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” “Children’s Hospital,” “They Came Together” and “Wanderlust.” 

Watkins is also excited by the opportunities available to women in Hollywood today, noting special admiration for actor-writer-director Lake Bell (“In a World”), writer-director Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”  and “Transparent”) and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” executive producer Kari Lizer. “I feel like it’s a new time, a renaissance. The way they comport themselves is kind, respectful, loving, decent, and they get the job done their way. How Jill talks to background actors is more respectful than I’ve seen anyone do it.”

Watkins and Soloway have developed a close friendship and a working partnership as well. Watkins remembers their first meeting in 2007, and that Soloway made an immediate impression. 

“She said, ‘Here’s what I want’ — she made her demands,” Watkins said. “This woman came from a place of power and not of need and begging; she just completely owned her worth and value in this conversation.

“I was blown away. [Soloway] looked at me and said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I replied, ‘-ish.’ ‘Are you funny?’ ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘You’re funny, I can tell,’ Jill said. ‘I think you’re my muse.’ She was not wrong,” Watkins said. 

Over the course of a few years, the two became consistent collaborators, working together on a short film, “Una Hora Por Favora,” followed by “Afternoon Delight” and “Transparent,” all of which brought Soloway critical acclaim, a powerful reputation in the industry and — with “Transparent,” particularly — wild popularity. “We are going to keep that party going, I hope,” Watkins said, noting enigmatically that she would return for the second season of “Transparent,” “but not in the way you think.”

Meeting Soloway also had an impact on Watkins’ Jewish identity. In 2008, Soloway nominated Watkins for the Reboot Summit, an annual three-day conference of sorts, in which participants — many of them power players from various industries, including Hollywood, who were not particularly connected to Jewish life or practice — exchange personal experiences about Jewish identity. 

“Reboot was the biggest turning point for me,” Watkins said. Beforehand, “I barely identified as Jewish,” she said. “ ‘You’re the perfect candidate,’ Jill said. I looked around at the people who were brought up similar to me, realizing who we are, starting to feel connections to other Jews. They never make you feel that there’s any kind of agenda. It’s you realizing that this is not so bad.”

Two years later, Watkins was introduced to actor Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), on what she calls a “friend-date” — a brunch at Radnor’s place. There, she met entrepreneur Fred Kramer. “He had sweet eyes,” she said, noting that in an unfamiliar place, as a self-identified “extroverted shut-in, you look to the nicest person in the room to direct your conversation to. I didn’t want to date him; I just wanted to talk at his sweet face.” 

Once she and Kramer started dating, Watkins realized that he presented a challenge. “He was really the first Jew I ever dated seriously. When he told me he went to temple with some regularity, I had to figure out how to date him.” When Kramer —  the former board chairmam of IKAR who was very involved with the L.A. spiritual community — asked her to go to services with him, Watkins said that she regressed to the 8-year-old version of herself. “‘Ugggh, do we have to go?’ I got bitchy like a teenager. But when I heard [Rabbi] Sharon Brous speak — and I don’t even remember what she was talking about  — I was totally crying in temple. Kids were running around happy. You never saw that in temple. People were playing percussive instruments, and it was such a happy, connected, spiritual experience that I was forever changed.” 

Brous presided at the marriage of Kramer and Watkins in July 2013. Watkins admitted she still doesn’t attend synagogue with any regularity, but she said she has a real appreciation for IKAR.

“In the places I grew up with, people didn’t have the vocabulary about making it resonate, making it relevant on a spiritual level. I had completely separated from it, because there wasn’t anything connecting me in the first place. But here, the kids are so empowered with feeling … they’re connected to the community and the world at large, making the world a better place. That certainly wasn’t the way it was for us.” 

“Casual” premieres on Hulu Oct. 7.

Actress Shiri Appleby chats about Jewish influences and life on the small screen

It may sound surprising coming from someone who’s been acting on TV since she was a child, but Shiri Appleby (“Roswell,” “Life Unexpected”) insists she doesn’t watch much television. Nevertheless, Appleby found the lead role in Lifetime’s new series “UnREAL” — a scathingly satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a reality dating show — too good to pass up.

The series, which premiered June 1 to critical acclaim, casts the actress as the beleaguered, conflicted assistant to the producer (Constance Zimmer) of a dating show called “Everlasting” (modeled after “The Bachelor”).  It’s a job that requires her to lie to and manipulate the contestants for dramatic effect, which wears on her conscience.

“She’s very good at it, but she’s constantly struggling with the fact that what she’s doing is killing her on the inside,” Appleby said. “She’s one of these people that hasn’t found her place in the world. She’s not close with her family. She doesn’t have any real relationships. She lives in the back of the grip truck. This world is her family. It’s incredibly dysfunctional, and it makes her hate herself so much. But she’s found her community in this world and does what she can to take care of herself. She really thinks she’s doing the right thing.”

Appleby said she was drawn to the concept, which felt “really fresh” to her, and the idea that the characters are all “at odds with themselves and trying to figure out what they believe in and what their morals are.” She also loves that she only needs to spend 20 minutes in the hair and makeup trailer to play the unglamorous Rachel Goldberg. 

Appleby said that Judaism isn’t a focus of the show, but that Rachel is “definitely a Jewish girl.” 

“You see the relationship with my mother [Olive, played by Mimi Kuzyk], and in the second episode, I say, ‘Sheket b’vakasha,’ ” (Hebrew for “Be quiet”).

Appleby grew up in a kosher home in Calabasas, where her Israeli-born mother, Dina, teaches Hebrew school and her semi-retired father, Jerry, is a former president of their synagogue’s men’s club at Temple Aliyah. “They’re both really involved,” she said. 

She attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, and celebrated the Jewish holidays with her parents and younger brother, Evan, observing both her father’s Ashkenazic traditions and her mother’s Sephardic ones. “My parents spoke to us in both Hebrew and English,” she said.

Appleby said her Jewish heritage “gave me a strong identity growing up. I always really knew who I was and where I came from. … I knew what my morals were, [what] my values were and what was expected of me.”

Although she doesn’t keep kosher now, Appleby does celebrate Jewish holidays with her husband, Jon Shook, a chef, and their 2-year-old daughter, Natalie. “He comes from a nice Jewish family as well. That was important to me. There are so many challenges, it’s a lot easier when you’re of the same faith,” she said. 

It’s also important to her to pass down Jewish traditions to Natalie. “We’re doing Shabbat more and more now. Now that I have a child, I feel that it’s important to light the candles, have a family dinner. And getting her together with her cousins for Chanukah, that family experience, was amazing,” Appleby said, noting that she does the cooking for the family and Shook mans the kitchen when they entertain.

“Passing on the wisdom and the experiences that my mother gave me and being able to replicate that in my own way, and also share that with my mother, is lovely. I appreciate the way I was raised much more now that I’m a parent.”

Appleby is enjoying her life as a working mother, but she hesitates to bring her daughter to the set, even though she herself grew up on them. “Having been a child actor, I don’t think [the] set is a place for children,” she said. 

She started out acting in commercials at the age of 4, segueing to guest spots in shows such as “thirtysomething” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” before landing her breakout role as Liz Parker in the teen alien drama “Roswell” in 1999. 

“I never really chose what I was going to do as a profession, which was a struggle I faced in my life,” Appleby admitted, adding that she began to enjoy it as she took classes and worked more. “Obviously, I’ve chosen it at this point. I was really good at it, and I was able to purchase my own home, not be dependent on anybody else. Being an actor is great, but it’s a challenge, and like anything that has great reward, it takes a lot of work.”

Her more recent credits include guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Elementary” and recurring roles on “Chicago Fire” and “Girls,” which she said has reinvigorated her career. 

But Appleby said she’s proudest of her work on “Life Unexpected,” a 2010 series on The CW, and of her experiences working with John Wells on “ER” and the late Mike Nichols on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the future, she said, she would love to do a period piece and to be directed by Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater. “I really respond to great directors,” she said. “It’s like when you’re playing tennis with a great tennis player. It makes you better.”

As for “UnREAL,” she had been optimistic about it getting picked up for a second season before it even premiered. “Since I did ‘Girls,’ I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to do things that are riskier, and this show is that,” Appleby said. “It’s an exciting time for me, and it’s great to be putting something out there that I’m proud of.”

The show was renewed for a 10-episode second season early last month. 

Jerry Seinfeld made me famous–sort of

My agent called one day with an audition for a few lines on a new sit-com.  A better-known actress had turned it down, saying the role was too small for her.  I figure a day’s work is better than staying home and re-organizing my spice rack.  My attitude is, “There are no small roles, only short people.”  I got the job. 

When the show aired, my husband, Benni, didn’t get it.  “It’s not about anything,” he said.  How right he was.  The show was SEINFELD.  My few lines turned into the recurring character of Doris Klompus in the Florida condo.  My husband, Jack Klompus, is always fighting with Jerry’s father so I’m in some of the classic episodes: The Pen, The Cadiallac, Raincoats.  My role was so minor that the audience didn’t even notice when I played a second character: the obnoxious lady sitting next to Elaine on an airplane.  (Obnoxious characters are my specialty.) 

The set always smelled of take-out Chinese food, which gave me a pleasant buzz of New York Jewish Nostalgia.  Larry David, Jerry, and the rest of the cast couldn’t have been nicer, but I wasn’t anything more than a bit player – until the day I realized that I was sort of famous.

I was at a party, and met one of those SEINFELD fanatics who watches every re-run.  Not only did he know who both my insignificant characters were, but he could quote all of my insignificant lines.  Another guest was impressed, even though it was clear that she’d never seen the show.  “You were on STEINFIELD?  Could I get an autograph for my nephew?  Then I went to Australia to perform one of my solo shows, and the newspaper headline said, “SEINFELD actress coming to Sydney!” 

Benni has a friend who is a Major Hollywood Player.  This guy is so uninterested in me that he introduces me as an afterthought: “Oh, and this is Benni’s wife.”  We were eating with him in a show biz deli, which means that I chewed my brisket sandwich in silence while Mr. Hollywood spoke exclusively to my husband. 

I noticed some guy waving at me and calling my name.  I went over, and it was Jerry, who – nice guy that he is – just wanted to say hello.  Everyone in the restaurant stared and I could sense them thinking, “Who is that woman?  She must be Somebody.”  When I returned to our table Mr. Hollywood actually began to include me in the conversation.  He now introduces me as “And this is my very dear friend Annie Korzen.  You’ve probably seen her on SEINFELD.” 

The shows are always on the air, so people get the false impression that I have a successful career.  A few years ago I was rushed to the ICU for a bleeding ulcer.  Enter the big gun: the Gastroenterologist, 12 years old with a long foreign name.  As we’re discussing my symptoms, he keeps staring at me in a weird way and finally says, “You look so familiar, I know you from somewhere.. Wait a minute, I just saw you last night!  You’re Doris Klompus!” 

From then on, the nurses on the floor – also with long foreign names – all referred to me as “Mrs Annie Korzen, famous actress.”  And who was I to disillusion them?  The doctor and nurses gave me spectacular care.  I don’t really believe my “celebrity status” got me any special treatment: they were all dedicated professionals.  But I can’t help wondering if “Mrs Annie Korzen, out-of-work actress” would have gotten the same attention

Now comes the bad news.  At first, I was pretty comfortable with Jerry and Larry.  Then the show became a global phenomenon and I got intimidated by their fame.  They hadn’t really changed, but I became shy and awkward in their presence.  When most people get shy and awkward, they get tongue-tied.  I have the opposite reaction: I get tongue-untied, and can’t stop chattering. 

Each time I ran into them, I launched into a crazed, desperate, non-stop, inappropriate monologue.  My brain would say, “Shut your stupid mouth, you are making a gigantic ass of yourself,” but I just yammered on even though I saw the glazed look in their eyes.  Two men I admire now think I’m a total nutcase – but I’m still glad I took the job.

I sometimes think about the actress who turned down the role because it was too small.  I’m still getting residual checks, plus my association with the show – however modest – has opened all kinds of doors for me.  When I pitched a humorous essay to the venerable NY Times, the editor wrote back immediately that he wanted the piece.  The very next thing he said was “So tell me, what was it like to work on SEINFELD?” 

Lena Dunham posts wedding plans on Instagram

You probably think Lena Dunham is nothing like the lovely cast members of “Princesses: Long Island.” You are most definitely wrong.

Not only is the “Girls” creator a Jewish woman dating a Jewish guy (Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff), but like the reality starlets, she too harbors elaborate wedding fantasies. On Saturday Dunham posted to Instagram this sketch of her dream “Pretty In Pink” style wedding dress, accompanied by a list of the music (Sade) and food (Tofurkey) to be featured at her nuptials.

“An upsetting document from 2002, back when I was fienden’ to get hitched,” Dunham’s caption reads.

Okay, so she did draw this up when she was 16. Since the princesses are all mentally 16, though, we felt it was okay to draw the comparison.

Lena Dunham's sketch. (Instagram)  

Actress Bonnie Franklin dies of pancreatic cancer at 69

Actress and humanitarian Bonnie Franklin, died at her home on March 1 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 69.

Best known for her role as Ann Romano on the long-running hit CBS series “One Day at a Time,” Franklin helped define the role of single working mothers on television at a time when divorce rates were climbing.

Born Jan. 6, 1944, in Santa Monica, Franklin’s career spanned more than 60 years, making her television debut at 9 on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” and continuing as a young teen on such television shows as “Gidget,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Munsters,” among others.

Franklin graduated from Beverly Hills High School and briefly attended Smith College before transferring to UCLA, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in English in 1966. Franklin married playwright Ronald Sossi in 1967, but the couple divorced in 1970. Franklin returned to acting that same year, making her Broadway debut in the musical “Applause,” in which she sang the title song and received a Tony Award nomination.

Her career flourished after landing the starring role in Normal Lear’s “One Day at a Time,” earning multiple Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations during its nine-season run from 1975 to 1984.

While working on the series, Franklin found time for other projects, including returning to the stage and touring with an autobiographical cabaret act in the early 1980s. She also starred in several television movies, most notably as the women’s health advocate Margaret Sanger in the 1980 telefilm, “Portrait of a Rebel: The Remarkable Mrs. Sanger,” which was produced by Marvin Minoff. Franklin married Minoff in 1980, and the couple was together for 29 years until his death in November 2009.

Franklin was a devoted and longtime activist for a wide range of charities and civic-oriented issues, among them AIDS care and research and the Stroke Association of Southern California. In 2001, along with her sister Judy Bush, she founded the nonprofit organization CCAP (Classic and Contemporary American Plays). Partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District, CCAP introduces and implements great American plays into inner-city schools’ curriculum.

Franklin is survived by mother Claire; stepdaughter Julie (Glenn Mar) Minoff; stepson Jed (Madoka) Minoff; 2 grandchildren; sisters Victoria (Arnold) Kupetz, Judith (Michael) Bush; brothers Bernard (Judy) Franklin, Richard (Stephanie) Franklin.

Donations can be made to CCAP (c-c-a-p.org), 11684 Ventura Blvd., Suite 437, Studio City, CA 91604

Actress Mila Kunis opens up about Jewish history

Actress Mila Kunis said she had to hide her Jewishness as a youngster in Ukraine and was miserable during her early years in the United States.

In an interview published in Britain’s The Sun on Saturday, Kunis said that most of her family was killed in the Holocaust and that she had to hide that she was Jewish in Ukraine out of fear of persecution.

“My parents raised me to know I was Jewish. You know who you are inside,” said Kunis, who starred in the film “Black Swan” and the TV sitcom “That ‘70s Show.”

Kunis, 28, said she saw anti-Semitic graffiti in her school in Chernivtsi, a city in southwest Ukraine.

Arriving in the United States at age 7, she said she was miserable in part because she did not know English.

“I cried every day. I didn’t understand the culture. I didn’t understand the people,” Kunis said.

Kunis began acting classes at 9 and two years later had a role on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” She won the role on “That ‘70s Show” at the age of 14, though applicants were told they had to be 18. She also has appeared in the movies “Friends With Benefits,” “Date Night” and “The Book of Eli,” among others.

Kunis told the Sun that she is happier in the U.S., where she is free to express herself.

“I’m pretty Jewish, I’ve got to say. I go ‘Oy’ and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re very Jewish,’ the actress said.

“When I’m in New York, I become super-Jew. When I’m in L.A. I’m like a California surfer girl.”

Anti-Defamation League honors actress Mayim Bialik

Actress and scientist Mayim Bialik, communications strategist Renee Fraser and former U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang all were selected as honorees for the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 18th annual Deborah Awards on April 26, which recognize women who are “unspoken heroes in a lot of ways,” said Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The main criteria is that they meet the characteristics of the biblical Deborah — courageous, wise and having leadership qualities,” Susskind said. A committee of ADL lay leaders and donors chose Bialik, Fraser and Yang, all of whom, on top of their busy work lives, devote time to philanthropic endeavors.

Bialik stars on the CBS sitcom “Big Bang Theory” and made a name for herself as the title character on ’90s TV show “Blossom.” She also earned a doctorate in neuroscience and is the author of the recent book “Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.”

Fraser, president and CEO of the advertising and public relations company Fraser Communications, works with United Way of Greater Los Angeles toward ending homelessness.

Yang is a partner at the legal firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She’s also a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Bialik was an unusual choice for a Deborah Award, given that the recognition of entertainment figures by the ADL usually takes place during the agency’s other annual awards ceremony, the Entertainment Industry Awards Dinner.

But Bialik is “not a typical television star,” Susskind said. “She’s really a brilliant woman.”

Elizabeth Tayor dies at 79

Famed actress, Elizabeth Taylor has died at the age of 79.  She had recently been receiving treatment for congestive heart failure at a Los Angeles hospital. 

Taylor was raised a Christian scientist, but converted to Judaism at age 27.  Her Hebrew name is Elisheba Rachel Taylor.

MTV has the story:

One of Hollywood’s most legendary beauties, Elizabeth Taylor, died on Wednesday (March 23) at the age of 79 after spending two months in a Los Angeles hospital for treatment of congestive heart failure. One of the brightest stars in the history of the American movie business, Taylor starred in a string of hit movies in the 1950s and 60s, including “Giant,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Cleopatra,” while becoming an international sex symbol and object of tabloid fascination for her string of love affairs with leading men.

Read more about her Judaism at Hollywood Jew.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor dies

Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, who maintained a support for Israel after converting to Judaism in the late 1950s, has died.

Taylor, known for her violet eyes and her plethora of husbands, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks. She was 79.

Taylor converted to Judaism following the death of her third husband, Mike Todd, who was Jewish, in a plane crash and before marrying Jewish actor Eddie Fisher.

She denied that she had converted because of her Jewish husbands, saying that she had wanted to do it “for a long time.” Her 1959 conversion at Temple Israel of Hollywood was well attended by the press.

Taylor made a point of traveling to Israel and fundraising for the Jewish state during the Arab boycott in the 1970s. Her films were banned in much of the Arab world. She was a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit challenging Taylor’s ownership of a Van Gogh painting that was claimed by a Jewish family. The family said the painting was looted from their relatives during the Holocaust.

A child star, Taylor won two Oscars for best actress, and is remembered for her roles in “National Velvet” and “Cleopatra,” among many others.

She also supported with her time and money several AIDS-related charities, including founding the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.

Taylor was a friend and staunch supporter of Michael Jackson when he was accused of molesting children. Jackson wrote the song “Elizabeth, I Love You” and performed it at her 65th birthday celebration.

Oscars 2011 Slideshow

Find more photos like this on EveryJew.com

Actress Claire Danes arrives in Israel

Actress Claire Danes has landed in Israel to film scenes for a new television series based on an Israeli show.

Danes arrived Monday in Israelto film the Fox television series “Patriots,” based on the Israeli series “Kidnapped,” in which Israeli soldiers return after 17 years being held as POWs in Lebanon.

In the American series, Danes plays Carrie Anderson, a bipolar CIA agent who is suspicious of a U.S. Marine who miraculously reappears after being taken prisoner and presumed dead during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Filming began Wednesday in the Arab-Israeli village of Barta’a, near Haifa, which was turned into an authentic Iraqi street, Ynet reported.

Danes will stay in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Ynet reported.

Last month she won a Golden Globe for best actress in the HBO production of “Temple Grandin.”

‘Nick and Norah’ star Kat Dennings is infinitely Jewish, in her own way

Who would use tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, as a lead-in to a movie love scene?

Norah Silverberg, the lead character in the hit teen comedy, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” that’s who. The film tracks an offbeat love story between high school students Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) as they traverse through New York City in search of a mysterious band (“Where’s Fluffy”) and Norah’s lost, drunken girlfriend.

Along the way they meet an interesting cast of characters, including Norah’s ex-boyfriend, the sleazy Tal (Jay Baruchel), who is using her in hopes her famous dad will produce his Jew-power album. Oh yeah — and Norah tells Nick about tikkun olam — right before she makes her move on him.

But actress Kat Dennings, who is Jewish, like the character she plays, didn’t know the concept before the film. “I had to ask people around the set about the Hebrew words,” she said in a phone interview with The Jewish Journal. “I couldn’t pronounce it.”

Dennings, who is 22 and lives in Los Angeles, is different from Norah, an 18-year-old who lives in Englewood, N.J. For one thing, she’s not a “JAP” — as Nick calls Norah in the film.

“I don’t even know what JAP really means,” Dennings said. “That’s just something kids say to each other.”

She said she is very different from Norah, except “for both being brunettes and Jewish,” and “I tend to worry a lot and take care of my friends — I take a mothering role,” she said.

The trailer

Still, she was attracted to the film, based on a 2006 novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf Young Adults) that had far more Jewish references. (In the book, Norah talks often about Judaism.) The film’s Judaism has been “moviefied,” Dennings said.

“I liked that Norah was a strong and unique female lead, not the type of girl I was used to seeing in films like this,” Dennings said. “I liked that she was Jewish — it’s different from what I’ve seen in the past.”

Although she says she’s “a billion percent Jewish” (“I don’t think I have any relatives who aren’t Jewish”), she considers herself more ethnically and culturally affiliated than religiously so, as do many of her generation.

For example, on her blog — which she’s had for an astonishing seven years — she has posted a video titled “Happy Purim!” about her and a faux pregnant friend clowning around. “It had nothing to do with Purim, but we filmed it on Purim,” she said.

After an article about her appeared in Vanity Fair, she blogged, “push Aunt Nancy aside and throw open the screen door, because ‘Hollywood’s Next Wave’ just got a lot Jewisher.”

The youngest of five children raised in Philadelphia, “I went to my little friends’ bat mitzvahs, but I’m not that into religion,” she said.

Which is funny, since the pale-skinned, pouty-lipped actress’ first standout role was in “Sex and the City,” playing Jenny Brier, a teen who hires Samantha to do publicity for her bat mitzvah.

She says she’s not worried about being stereotyped; she’s also starred in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Charlie Bartlett,” and guest starred in TV’s “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace.” She is also set to film “Sendor,” with Woody Harrelson.

Judaism, she said, “is an important part of my history, but, as a whole, religion is not a part of my life.”

“It’s a background thing, but I’m proud to be Jewish.”

Israelis build new traditions at L.A. seders

Nitzan and Shaul Barakan

Nitzan and Shaul Barakan had to come all the way from Israel to the United States to learn words like “afikoman” and “seder plate.”

The couple, both born and raised on Kibbutz Kinneret, didn’t have a clue that there is a haggadah that looks nothing like the one they used on the kibbutz.

“We had huge Passover seders every single year, with 1,000 participants in the kibbutz dinning hall” recalled Nitzan, a Hebrew teacher. “Every class performed a song, but those were not necessarily the songs from the haggadah, but spring songs. Even the songs from the original haggadah had a different melody. This holiday was all about nature, the beginning of spring and little to do with religion.”

The kibbutz, Nitzan admitted, never had much to do with religion. They were careful not to place a loaf of bread on the seder table, but bread was part of every meal in the days to follow.

It’s funny, they say, that they discovered their Jewish roots only after emigrating, but over the years, for the sake of their children and friends who came to their home to celebrate Passover, they have combined materials from the kibbutz haggadah with more traditional ones and created their own family version.

“We don’t have the traditional blessings, we created our own,” she said. “Our seder today is much more traditional than the one we had in our youth. We have the seder plate, and when the children were younger, we used to hide the afikoman.”

Another new discovery was the Elijah cup that is left on the table for the prophet.

“We decided to adopt this custom as well,” Nitzan said, “but instead of leaving the cup of wine and chair for Elijah, we leave it for our kidnapped soldier, Ron Arad, in the hope that one day soon, he’ll come back home.”

Shirly Brener

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ align = ‘right’ hspace = ‘8’ alt=””>non- Jewish friends that we invite to the seder, so they can learn about our tradition” said Nazarian, founder of CECI (Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel).

In Iran, the family often invited guests who didn’t have anywhere to celebrate the seder. Here, the Nazarian family keeps up tradition and will celebrate both nights of Passover with dozens of guests.

A well-loved Iranian tradition at the Nazarians’ house comes when they get to the part of “Dayenu” in the haggadah.

Joan Rivers’ ‘Life’ — audacious, as always

“I’m angry about everything,” comedian Joan Rivers says.

“I’m angry about getting older, about men being morons, about Hollywood being such a use-and-discard business. I’m angry that for women it’s all about looks — when it isn’t for men — and you can tell me ‘No,’ you can yell and argue, but if you’re good in bed with big boobs and looking gorgeous, you’re gonna get someplace.”

For more than four decades, Rivers has used her rage to carve her niche as comedy’s most seething yenta. Whether she is skewering celebrities on the red carpet, doing stand-up or performing one of her autobiographical plays (“Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress” runs Feb. 13 through March 16 at the Geffen Playhouse) her acid tongue deliberately provokes.

What does Rivers claim to have told Mick Jagger? “Iron your face.”

Jesus “freaks”?: “If Jesus loved you, he would have given you an f— chin.”

Paris Hilton?: “Memories are precious — make more home movies.”

New Yorkers after Sept. 11?: “So who do you wish had died?”

You’d think she’d be booed off the stage for some of her most vitriolic bits, and audience members do boo, but mostly they relish her shtick, because “I tell the truth,” she says. “I say not only what I think, but what everyone thinks.”

Rivers’ new play, which she calls “a one-woman show with four characters,” was spurred by (what else) something that made her livid. She was preparing to work the red carpet at the Academy Awards four years ago when her job was on the line.

“Something horrible, just awful was done to me,” she says in her raspy voice. “My response was ‘Uch, nobody would believe this; this would make a great play.”

Rivers won’t divulge specifics about that incident (she wants to surprise audiences), but she will say that the show is set in a dressing room at an awards show where her cheese plate is puny and her producer is “the bigwig’s nephew, not the bigwig.”

The shabby milieu prompts Rivers to reflect upon her tumultuous life. In 1986 Rivers was perhaps the most successful female comic of her generation when a feud with Johnny Carson, for whom she had been a favored fill-in host, devastated her career. She reinvented herself as a QVC shopping channel diva in order to hawk her own jewelry, then reinvented herself yet again, as a red carpet interviewer, after suddenly finding herself $37 million in debt as the result of a business setback. Along the way, she survived the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987, and reworked her face with cosmetic surgery because “stretched-looking is better than wrinkled.”

Today Rivers is as known for her face-lifts and botox shots as she is for her catty patter.

“I’m a big advocate,” she says of nips and tucks. “You redo your car and repaint your house. So if you want to feel better and have a better looking nose, or lift your eyes, what’s so terrible?”

Onstage, Rivers ridicules her own vanity, claiming “I wish I had a twin, so I’d know what I look like without plastic surgery.”

She also professes to hate old people: “I really do hate them, because they remind me of me,” she says in a telephone interview. “Of course it’s all self-loathing. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s making me a great living.”

Some of that self-analysis comes through in her plays, which, she says, are “quite different from my stand-up. They’re more controlled and there’s much more serious stuff happening. My new play is about survival and starting again, no matter where you are in life. It’s about when you do have to go back to the [proverbial] old dressing room, the old dirty dressing room that is waiting for you.”

Bart DeLorenzo, who is directing the play, says he was drawn to the piece because “it shows you the Joan Rivers you expect — the outrageous, manically funny, brutally honest performer — and also a side she’s never presented onstage, which is the story of her life. The stories she tells are funny and embarrassing and they’re also heartbreaking. Obviously, there was the huge crisis when the personal and the professional came together, when she was fired by Fox, and her husband died shortly thereafter. But Rivers has been tested throughout her life. The humiliation and the rejection she encountered is overwhelming, yet she endured and was driven to move on.”

On a recent afternoon, Rivers is ensconced in digs that seem light years away from that dressing room at the Oscars four years ago. She says she is sitting in her large bathroom-office — half the sink counter has been transformed into a desk — gazing out the window at a spectacular view of Central Park. She describes her outfit — “Chanel-they-should-only-drop-dead-because-they-hate-Jews pants” — and the Thanksgiving joke she told on “The View:” “Mel Gibson gave me my turkey recipe; it says, ‘preheat the oven to 9,000 degrees.'”

“I just like to remind people about Mel Gibson,” she says. “He made ‘The Passion,’ with the Jewish characters and their hook noses, and he says he’s not anti-Semitic? Bad, bad, bad. Any Jew who sees a Mel Gibson movie should be ashamed of themselves. I certainly won’t.”

If Rivers identifies in any way as a Jewish performer, it’s in the emphasis she places on survival — a skill she first learned from her immigrant parents.

“They both had to flee Russia because of the revolution, but my father left because his family was so poor, and my mother left because her family was rich — ‘court Jews’ who sold fur and bricks to the czarist army,” she says.

“My mother was only 6 years old when she left, but she remembered servants carrying big silver platters with pears stuffed with caviar in for dinner,” Rivers adds. “And then when her family came to America they were desperately poor, and my grandfather couldn’t take it. He went back to Russia and died of starvation in St. Petersburg. It was my grandmother who made the transition to life in America. And it was only in America that my parents could have met and married.”

‘Purple’ actress cherishes her own colorful history

It’s not unusual for an actress to assume a professional name, but it was quite a stretch for the daughter of Haya Kapelovitch and granddaughter of Sofia Katz to become Stephanie St. James and star in the African American cast of “The Color Purple.”

St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.

Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.

St. James isn’t sure how her grandmother survived.

“She never liked to talk about it,” the actress said.

At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.

“One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem,” St. James said.

In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it,” St. James recalled. “I can still understand quite a bit, but I don’t speak it.”

Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.

“I am Jewish,” she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother’s dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.

Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.

“My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English,” St. James said. “She wasn’t happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day.”

In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.

Her mother recognized Stephanie’s talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of “Grease,” “Fame” and “Footloose,” as well as in films.

When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.

“The Color Purple” is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical’s Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny’s Child.

For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Stephanie St. James

Sheer inspiration

Pnina Tornai probably hasn’t been the only one to dream of wedding dresses falling from the sky. But instead of rolling over and reaching for the snooze button, the designer took her dream as a sign.

Although she had never studied fashion design, Tornai shut down her clothing boutique in Tel Aviv, hired a seamstress, a beader and a patternmaker and began designing wedding gowns. Now, 17 years later, she’s Israel’s leading bridal and evening wear designer, with two freestanding boutiques and a staff of 50.

In recent years, she’s made a name for herself among the U.S. fashion set, where her gowns are No. 1 sellers at Kleinfeld in Manhattan. And now, she’s in talks to bring a store to Los Angeles.

“I’m deeply spiritual,” she said. “I believe that was a message from God.”

Tornai’s gowns are such hot sellers that New York’s Kleinfeld held a second solo fashion show in her honor at the end of October, featuring her 2008 collection. Tornai’s dresses, known for their provocative see-through corsets and glittery Swarovski crystal detail, start at $4,000 and average around $18,000. She jet sets between Israel and New York, spending roughly two weeks out of every month to fit and personalize dresses for her customers at Kleinfeld.

In Israel, Tornai doesn’t just dress celebrities — she is one herself.

“I can’t walk down the street,” she said. “I wear sunglasses, but people rush up to hug me.”

She’s played minor roles in Israeli movies and has starred in a commercial for the Israeli lottery, decked out in one of her own designs. Most recently, she was featured on The Learning Channel’s “Say Yes to the Dress” reality TV show.

“I’ve always wanted to be an actress; that was my dream,” she said.

Tornai grew up in South Africa, where her father, Shaul Assis, was a diplomat. She later studied at a famous acting school in Paris.

Acting and fashion design have a lot in common, Tornai said. “It’s all about acting and drama,” the designer said of her work. “I prepare brides for the show of their lives. The greatest mitzvah is to prepare a bride for her groom.”

As elaborate as her gowns are, Tornai’s look is surprisingly understated. She wears sleek, dark pantsuits; large diamond hoop earrings, and stilettos. She is every bit the artist. Her hands move with a flourish as she gushes about her dresses. The way she puts it, her designs come to her in a “vision.”

“I’ll wake up in the middle of the night,” she said, “and I’ll put the light on and begin drawing. Every time, my husband groans, “Another dress?”

The muse can strike her anywhere, including a Parisian cafe, where she was seated. She grabbed a napkin and began sketching. “It has to be drawn immediately, or I lose it,” she said.

Black ribbons in her new collection memorialize the untimely passing of her father this year and mourning. Father and daughter were close, and the death shook her.

“I had five to six months of blackness; nothing came to me,” she said. “He really loved my dresses; he was proudest of all.”

Like the prophets of old, Tornai is inspired by music and must be in a joyous state of mind to deliver her visions.

“I have to be alive,” she said.

While her rise to popularity in Israel was almost instantaneous, Tornai faced resistance when trying to break into the American bridal market. A few years ago, she flew in from Israel to meet with buyers at Kleinfeld.

“I always heard the name Kleinfeld as the greatest name in bridal,” she said.

The meeting was a flat-out failure. “I cried all the way back to the hotel,” Tornai recalled.

“Her designs were kind of questionable,” recalled Mara Urshel, a co-owner of Kleinfeld. “There were lots of sheers. I couldn’t possibly think of a place where anyone would wear them except in the home.”

Urshel gave the disappointed designer a sliver of hope: She agreed to let Tornai send her a few more dresses. A model put one on and, to Urshel’s surprise, the customers went gaga.

“It was sexier and more sheer than anything we were selling,” Urshel said.

Tornai’s dresses are identified by numbers, not names. The one that brought her to America was designated “101.”

“In Kabbalah, that’s the strongest number,” Tornai said.

The lace corset dress “sold and sold and sold,” she said. “That dress opened the door.”

Now of the 85 designers whose gowns are featured at Kleinfeld, Tornai is the No. 1 designer, both in terms of net revenues and number of gowns sold.

Tornai and her husband of seven years, David Loewenstein, work alongside each other. He runs the business side of the operations, allowing Tornai to focus on all things creative. It was a psychic, who brought the two together.

“You’ll meet a man named David,” the psychic told her.

A day later, a friend of Loewenstein’s was unable to make his appointment and persuaded him to meet the psychic in his place. Loewenstein, who says he doesn’t believe in that baloney, refused. But the friend was unrelenting, and so Loewenstein agreed.

“I have to give you the phone number of a woman you must call,” the psychic told him.

“Is she nice and pretty?” he asked, assuming this was some sort of joke.

“She’s a princess,” the psychic replied. “She’s better than you could ever dream of.”

On a whim, he decided to make that call. Four months later, they were engaged.

“It was very quick,” Tornai said.

Her gown was an improvement over her first wedding gown (she married for the first time at 20 while living in Paris and divorced before moving to Israel in the early 1990s).

“That first gown was a catastrophe,” she said. “It was a puffy, French design with sleeves like the ears of Dumbo the elephant. I of all people didn’t deserve that.”

‘NCIS’ Mossad agent’s cover gets blown — she’s Chilean

Two days before her first appearance in the cast of the top-ranked TV show, “NCIS,” actress Cote de Pablo was given the script of a lengthy phone conversation — in Hebrew.

“I got a Hebrew teacher and didn’t rest or sleep for 48 hours,” recalled the tall, slim, dark-haired actress. “I wanted to do the language justice. I want to apologize to all Israelis if I didn’t succeed, but boy, did I try.”

De Pablo, born in Chile’s capital of Santiago, plays Mossad agent Ziva David, lending an exotic touch to the all-American ensemble of the CBS “JAG” spin-off series, now in its fourth season.

The job of the show’s six-person elite team from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service is to crack all crimes involving, in any way, a member of the Navy or Marine Corps.

Consistently rated among the top 15 prime-time shows on American television — and in half a dozen other countries — in a recent week NCIS reached the No. 1 spot. It stands out in the well-worn genre for compelling story lines, intense pace and frequent leavenings of humor.

At the beginning of a nearly two-hour interview at a Hollywood restaurant, the 29-year-old actress greeted a reporter in South American style, with kisses on both cheeks (it’s a rough job, but someone has to do it).

How had she managed the transition from a nice Chilean girl, educated in a private Catholic school, to the role of an Israeli agent, customarily wearing a pistol on her hip and a golden Star of David around her neck?

“Ziva David was a new character, introduced at the beginning of the third season last year, and our executive producer, Don Bellisario, conducted a worldwide search for the part,” De Pablo said.

“I was one of the last to audition, and I don’t think they had a clear idea of what they wanted. So I interpreted Ziva as a cool, competent woman, not the usual Hollywood sex symbol with big boobs, but [someone] who was comfortable in her own sexuality and used to working with men on an equal footing,” she explained. “It helped that by my looks, I could be taken for almost any nationality.”

In her very first episode, De Pablo established Ziva David’s background and crammed in enough action to fill a full season. The character’s father, the deputy director of Mossad, had sent her to the United States to rescue her half-brother, Ari Haswari, who had killed a veteran NCIS female agent.

Ari and Ziva have the same father, but his mother is Arab (all right, some creative plotting here), and she discovers that he has gone psycho and turned into a Hamas terrorist.

Ziva ends up killing Ari, thus saving the life of NCIS team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who quickly figures that he can use someone of Ziva’s talents.

Starting on this dramatic note, David/De Pablo has since proven her value as a straight-shooting agent and as an actress, though she considers that her character “is still under construction.”

David’s Jewish identity rarely comes up in the series, although in one episode, a redneck character, noting her Star of David pendant, observes, “We don’t deal with your kind here.”

A running ploy plays off David’s foreign origin, and De Pablo — who speaks like a native-born American — has to feign a slight accent for her role. She is also the occasional butt of good-natured kidding when she draws a blank at an American slang expression.

De Pablo does get quite a few letters from Jewish men, who wonder whether she is an actual Member of the Tribe. Other Jewish admirers pay her the ultimate accolade, “You rock.”

The actress spent the first 10 years of her life in Santiago, the eldest daughter of an upper-class, right-wing family and, given the social stratification of Chilean society, never met a Jewish child or, for that matter, any poor people.

That sheltered environment changed when her mother, a television personality in Chile, was offered a job at a Spanish-language network in Miami. In an unusual gesture for a macho Latino, her father agreed to give up his business and the entire family moved to Florida.

At age 13, De Pablo started taking acting, singing and dancing lessons in Miami, and in her late teens, struck out on her own to study music and theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

While there, she took a psychology class and took her teacher’s advice as her personal motto: “Never say yes, if you want to say no.”

“Those words gave me the strength to be honest and to speak my mind, which, I think, is a very Israeli trait,” De Pablo mused.

She graduated in 2000, and the same year moved to New York, where she discovered a Jewish environment and the harsh realities of show business for an aspiring actress. The once-cocooned upper-class girl moved into a tiny apartment, made the endless auditioning rounds and worked as a waitress in an Indian restaurant in Manhattan and an Italian eatery in Brooklyn.

Gradually, she started getting small parts with the New York City Public Theater; in the TV soap opera, “All My Children”; and in a brief but memorable Volkswagen commercial as a hip-swinging charmer.

By 2005, she was ready for her Broadway debut as one of the female leads in “The Mambo Kings.”

Along the way, De Pablo had an extended relationship with a Jewish boyfriend, whose family had emigrated from Europe.

“I was really impressed by the women in the family,” she recalled. “They were such incredibly passionate, opinionated and independent women.”

She also immersed herself in the history of World War II, the Holocaust, the capture of Adolf Eichmann and “became fascinated by the Jews’ struggle for survival,” she said. “I identified with them.”

Now, De Pablo works frequent 14-hour days, five days a week, on the set of “NCIS” and has adopted the cast as her “family.” She has little time for hiking, her favorite recreation, or visiting unspoiled, nontouristy places, and is surprisingly frank about her lack of social life.

Play Reading’s the Thing for Director

Sitting in her living room and poring through an enormous photo album, Alexandra More acts like the proud parent of successful offspring.

“Will you just look at them?” she gushes, pointing at one photograph after another of famous actors participating in her play readings. “Such energy! Such enthusiasm!”

For the past five years, More’s “baby” has been the “Celebrity Staged Play Readings,” which she conducts every fall and spring at the Westside and Valley Cities JCCs. The series consistently attracts audiences ranging from 100 to 300 people, while its participating performers — Edward Asner, Doris Roberts, Theodore Bikel, Estelle Harris, to name a few — read like a who’s who list of Jewish American character actors. The plays have run the gamut from classic comedies, like “Crossing Delancy” and anything Neil Simon, to more serious fare, like David Gow’s “The Friedman Family Fortune,” which will receive its L.A. premiere this weekend as the last play of the series’ spring season.

“The quality of these productions is outstanding,” says Brian Greene, Westside JCC executive director. “It attracts great talent and large audiences, and all of us at the Westside Jewish Community Center are proud to be the home of this community treasure.”

More will read any play sent to her for consideration, but she never wavers from her initial instincts. “I can read six pages of a play and know if it’s good,” she says. “Also, the plays that I stage must entertain, yet avoid taking potshots and making caricatures of Jews. The plays can be very funny, but always there’s something in them that dignifies and honors the Jewish experience.”

Having staged more than 100 Jewish-themed plays by both established and emerging playwrights, More has “been an outstanding contributor to Jewish theater in Los Angeles,” says Herb Isaacs, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. “Not only does she do very good work, she also is a great supporter of everyone working in Jewish theater.”

As a director, More loves nothing more than “showing the playwright what he’s really written. With play readings, the actor doesn’t really have time to act,” she says. “It’s more about the playwright hearing the words.”

And as to the question of how she attracts celebrities to appear in her readings year after year, More enigmatically pleads the Fifth.

“Let’s just say I know how to network,” she says.

“Alexandra helps keep my acting soul alive,” says Asner, best known as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a regular at More’s readings. “It’s always a good play, a good cast, a good audience and good food.”

“People have this great loyalty to Alexandra; she has this passion that makes others want to be around her,” says Robyn Cohen, an up-and-coming film actress, who recently starred in the “Celestine Prophecy” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Cohen, who will star this fall in More’s staging of Daniel Goldfarb’s “Modern Orthodox,” observes that the reading series “is a magnet for exceptional actors. They see who Alexandra is working with, and they want to be part of that.”

More’s foray into directing began over a decade ago, when the West Coast Jewish Theatre started a Sunday morning “Bagel Theatre Series.” At first, More directed readings only of new plays and used relatively unknown actors. But then she met Asner at a party and asked if he would do a reading of a play called “The Gathering.”

Then, “I started to do plays all over, and we started to get larger audiences,” she recalls. “The word of mouth just spread.”

Only once did More, who’s also an actress and declines to reveal her age for professional reasons, cast herself. The play was called “Ella’s Secret,” and “it was about a Jewish woman who didn’t look Jewish,” she says. “I really related to that, because as an actress, I was never cast as a Jewish woman.”

Reared in New York City, More always loved theater and film and moved to Los Angeles “early on in life” to pursue an acting career. Before she started directing, she describes a “varied background,” which included acting in independent films, modeling and owning several restaurants.

A lifelong spiritual seeker, “I found that Judaism centered me,” she says of joining the Leo Baeck Temple in the early 1980s and rediscovering her Jewish roots. “But as a Jew, I feel on the fence, because while I love the beauty of religion, I also love being secular.”

In Jewish theater, More finds a synthesis of all her skills and beliefs.

“I love thinking about how many playwrights I’ve helped, how many people I’ve brought together and just the process of delving into the work itself,” she says. “I feel it can’t get much better than that.”

“The Friedman Family Fortune” starring Edward Asner will be performed May 20, 8 p.m. at the Valley Cities JCC and May 21, 2 p.m. at the Westside JCC. For directions and ticket prices, call (818) 786-6310 or (323) 938-2531, Ext. 2225.


Q & A With Bahar Soomekh

Persian Jewish actress Bahar Soomekh earned some serious attention last year when she played a young Iranian in “Crash,” the Academy Award winner for best picture. She’s now appearing in an even bigger role — playing alongside Tom Cruise in the thriller, “M:I:III.” On the eve of the film’s debut, Soomekh spoke about growing up Persian Jewish in Los Angeles and about her career.

The Jewish Journal: Can you share with us a little about your background?

Bahar Soomekh: I was born in Tehran. My father is a poet. We moved from Iran in 1979, but before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles and learned English by watching TV. I went to the Sinai Akiba Academy and later to Beverly Hills High School.

JJ: What sort of training have you had as an actor?

BS: I played the violin for 13 years, but acting was always what I yearned to do. I went to UC Santa Barbara. There were no Persians or Jews there, and I was just able to lose myself and enjoy the college life. I studied environmental studies and did theater for fun — never thinking I could pursue it as a career. I later came back to Los Angeles, got a corporate job and I was just miserable. I did sales during the day and took acting classes at night. I did that for a couple of years to get myself trained and get a better understanding of the world beyond theater. The scariest thing I ever did was quit my job to pursue acting full time. That was two and half years ago. I quit my job, started pursing acting seriously and not even three months later, I booked “Crash.”

JJ: How did you manage that?

BS: I fought very hard to get the part. My agent at the time wasn’t very good. I read the script and I was dying, my heart was aching to be a part of it. I loved my character, Dorri, so much and really related to her. I kept calling my agent, and he wouldn’t even try. I heard through the grapevine that they were going to offer another woman the part. So in desperation, I called the one Hollywood person I knew, another Jewish Persian girl at William Morris named Ashley Daneshrad. She called them and said don’t give the part to this other woman until you give Bahar Soomekh a chance. I went in there and gave them my heart and soul. I went into my car and cried for about 40 minutes. And then two days later, I got the call that I booked it.

JJ: What was it like working opposite a major Hollywood actor like Tom Cruise?

BS: It’s so surreal. Tom Cruise was my childhood crush. I was obsessed with him since “Top Gun.” I can recite every single line of that film, and here I am I getting to meet him and work with him.

JJ: What was your family’s reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?

BS: My parents were not encouraging in the beginning. Who wants to see their daughter out of work all the time? Every parent wants their child be a doctor or lawyer. At first they were definitely hesitant, but now they’re so proud and excited.

JJ: How important is Judaism in your life now, and how are you involved in the community?

BS: I think Judaism has enriched my life and developed who I am. I hope to instill in my family a belief in tikkun olam. One of my dreams is to bring attention to environmental and children’s issues.

“M:I:III” is in theaters now.

Article courtesy The Forward.


Our Date With Drew’s Date

There are plenty of guys with crushes on Drew Barrymore, the actress who began as a child ingénue at age 6 in “E.T.” and who captivates as an adult in sexier roles like her turn as one of “Charlie’s Angels.”

There are also plenty of guys who are trying to make it in Hollywood, living hand-to-mouth, scrambling just to pay rent, taking any job in the industry just to get by until stardom hits.

But there are few guys indeed who can combine their passion for Drew and their showbiz struggle into one neat package. Actually, there’s only one guy like that — Brian Herzlinger, an aspiring filmmaker who documented his attempts to get a date with America’s sweetheart in “My Date with Drew.”

The film’s trailer explains the mission impossible: “30 days. $1,100. For an ordinary guy to get a date with Drew Barrymore.”

Herzlinger is no ordinary Hollywood everyman. He’s a Jewish 29-year-old from New Jersey, who did many of the usual Jewish things: attended JCC summer camps, went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah. Eventually, he ended up in Los Angeles and signing up for JDate (he’s no longer an active member). While dark and ethnically handsome, he’s of average height, not in the best of shape, as he likes to point out, and quite hairy (he ponders a chest wax during the film).

So how does this “ordinary” Jewish guy — a combination of the endearing Steve Guttenberg and the can’t-hold-in-a smirk Jerry Seinfeld, with a dollop of Woody Allen self deprecation — go about getting a date with the ultimate Hollywood shiksa goddess?

After winning $1,100 in a game show, he and friends buy a video camera at Circuit City, planning to return it for a refund within 30 days. (Is that ethical, rabbi?) They try to get to the actress using the six degrees of separation. (In the Jewish world, it’s supposed to be only four degrees — so too bad he wasn’t going for Barbra.)

It’s not easy for Herzlinger, who had been in Hollywood for five years after film school, working various entertainment biz jobs, such as a PA on some TV shows, and making his own short films. Using his friends in low places, Herzlinger and his three co-filmmakers (“The Drew Crew”) manage to interview, among others, Drew’s facialist; her ex-boyfriend, child celebrity Corey Feldman; a psychic who, for $75, predicts the endeavor will be a success but not within the time frame; and Herzlinger’s parents in New Jersey.

By the way, his mother thinks Drew is too “slutty” for her son. And hers wasn’t the only earful Herzlinger got: “During this process, I’ve never had so many Jewish grandmothers come up to me and say, ‘Tateleh, you should go out and meet my granddaughter…'”

The film took four months to shoot and edit — they had to whittle down 85 hours of footage — and another two years to sell after doing the film-fest circuit.

“I was worried that people out here would be so jaded that they wouldn’t get the ‘lifelong quest’ aspect,” Herzlinger said. “But the response across the board has been that people say they’ve been inspired to follow their own dreams.”

Now the four friends who did “My Date with Drew” are going to work on a reality TV show with a similar premise — following people who try to fulfill lifelong dreams in 30 days.

So does Herzlingerever get his date with the beautiful Barrymore?

He doesn’t want to give away the ending (and neither do I).

“I had the highest highs and the lowest lows,” he said. “This was the biggest roller coaster of my life.” For more information, visit www.mydatewithdrew.com.


Spectator – How Sweet She Is

At the beginning of her risqué comic monologue, “Sugar Happens,” Rachel Bailit struts onstage wearing a tight black corset, a skimpy skirt, garters, thigh-highs and an attitude.

“I know what you’re thinking: Big boobs … big lips. Bimbo. Starlet. Slut,” she says. “But don’t judge me; you don’t really know me. I’m just a nice Jewish girl from Needham, Mass.”

While laundering her costume at her rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment recently, the cheery actress says she intends her introduction to confront the bimbo stereotype and to declare, “I’m a lot more than that.”

Bailit, for example, grew up in a WASPy New England town but attended Reform synagogue and camps. She achieved a lucrative journalism career before switching to acting in 1995; trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute; studied at the University of Judaism; taught at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and wears a Star of David, even to auditions. She had a good experience playing a naive screenwriter in Henry Jaglom’s “Festival in Cannes.”

“But my body confuses people,” she says. “In Hollywood, I’m considered sexy from the neck down, but with a character face. So they [often] have me play trashy or over the top.”

Bailit portrayed a Whoville resident in a tiny nurse outfit in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”; “Nose Job Girl” in a vinyl dress and dog collar in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” and a hooker wearing “really whory makeup” on “NYPD Blue.” “In many films, I’m wearing a bikini for no reason,” she says.

Then, while pitching a sitcom about herself as a non-clichéd Jewish woman, a producer suggested she try standup comedy and asked writer Sherry Coben (“Kate & Allie”) to help.

“So I went to Rachel’s Web site and immediately dismissed her as another starlet bimbo,” Coben told The Journal. “But then I met her and I thought, ‘She really is this nice Jewish girl.’ I was intrigued by the image she projects vs. who she is and also because I was so quick to label her as something she wasn’t.”

After conducting interviews, Coben decided a one-woman show, rather than standup, would best dramatize the actress’ roller-coaster life story. In the play, Bailit’s musings range from finding JDate guys “a little too nice” to working product testing jobs in which “I exercise 45 minutes, then drink Gatorade … and repeat. For six hours.”

Coben also wanted to capture Bailit’s unflagging optimism.

“I really believe that all these [negative] things are leading to something better; that sugar happens, not ‘s— happens,'” says the actress, who declines to give her age.

Workshop performances of “Sugar” run through June 21 at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For information, call (323) 650-7777.


Spectator – ‘The Nanny’ Robs the Cradle

May/December romances are in. Just ask Hollywood. But we’re not talking Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. There’s absolutely nothing new about older actors dating younger actresses (can you say Bogie and Bacall?) Nope, it’s the older woman/younger man scenario that’s making headlines, specifically the relationship between Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

Perhaps hoping to ride the coattails of this trend, actress Fran Drescher’s new sitcom “Living With Fran” debuted in April on the WB’s Friday night line-up. It features Drescher as a 40-something divorcee with two kids who is dating a younger man.

“He’s a big, blonde goy, and he works with his hands. He’s a contractor, a carpenter,” the star of “The Nanny” fame recently told The Journal.

Working titles for the show, according to the Web site imdb.com included “Robbing the Cradle” and “Shacking Up,” seeming to prove the creators’ interest in playing up the older woman/younger man aspect of the show.

Although it may be trendy, however, the storyline actually also imitates Drescher’s own life. After divorcing the husband who had been her high school sweetheart, the 47-year-old actress became involved with a man 16 years her junior.

Unlike Fran Fine, Drescher’s character on “The Nanny,” the actress said this character — Fran Reeves — hits closer to home. “She got married very young … but by the time she hit 40, it was like she started living her life backward, which is what I’ve been doing,” Drescher said, “enjoying a youth that she never allowed herself to have in the first place.” However, like Fran Fine, Drescher’s new character will still seem familiar to viewers.

“It’s me, and it’s my voice and it’s my brand of comedy,” she said.

The voice — pure Brooklyn nasal — cannot go unmentioned. And when Drescher says “it’s me,” a big part of that is distinctly Jewish. She said for that reason, choosing to play another Jewish character seemed the only option for her.

“The television sitcom is a very fast medium,” she said, “and I think that one of the keys to success in sitcoms is to play a character that you understand very well … to give it the rich specificity that I think is required to create a character that the public can really embrace week in and week out.”

As for the “goy” boyfriend, Drescher, who is also an executive producer, makes no apologies. Her character is Jewish, as are her kids, and Jewish references will be frequently made.

However, “Lucy and Ricky got so much humor out of the fact that he was Cuban and she was Irish. It’s funny!” she said.

“Living With Fran” airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m on KTLA.

Feldshuh Enjoys View From ‘Balcony’


“There are three female historical figures that I have wanted to play: Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher. And the last two haven’t been offered to me.”

Thus speaks Tovah Feldshuh, currently performing her award-winning, one-woman show “Golda’s Balcony” — about Golda Meir — to sell-out audiences on Broadway. She will be bringing the show to Los Angeles for 24 performances only, and is delighted to be coming here, saying, “Los Angeles is the second artistic home for any performer.”

Feldshuh is speaking from her home in New York. Passionate, erudite and eloquent, as our interview progresses, it becomes clear that many of the character traits that Feldshuh embodies are in sync with those of the late Israeli prime minister.

“I’ve played many Jewish mothers,” Feldshuh says, “but I’d never played the mother of a State. [Golda] was the women’s movement without the women’s movement.” Feldshuh attributes part of the phenomenal success of the show to the fact that, “people in America love Golda Meir. She was not conflicted, she didn’t shed our blood.”

She elaborates, explaining how she was cornered by an Israeli about performing the show.

The woman screamed at her: “Didn’t you tell them she murdered 2,500 boys?”

In response, Feldshuh simply said, “No,” explaining to the woman, “I’m just an actor playing the prime minister, but I empathize with your agony.”

You’d expect no less of an answer from Feldshuh, a woman who has played a plethora of “real life” figures in her career, including Katherine Hepburn, Sarah Bernhardt and Tallulah Bankhead. So when asked about undertaking the huge responsibility of portraying a historical figure, Feldshuh simply says, “The real figures are easier. They’re a finite entity you can study. And it’s a question of what journey you want to take. Your life force and the way you meet challenges are through transformation.”

And that, she says, is her own personal tikkun.

Ultimately though, she says, “My job is to evoke the essence [of my characters] through my research, my willingness to become accurate and do whatever it takes.”

To play Golda, that “whatever it takes” included two trips to Milwaukee (“to nail that accent”), a 12-day research trip to Israel and logging in endless hours at the Museum of Television and Broadcasting in New York, where she pored over archival footage and recordings of the late, great Israeli premier.

“At this age, I just take great roles,” she says philosophically. “My biggest breakthroughs have been in the Jewish arena,” she adds, citing her performance on Broadway in “Yentl” in her 20s, and Judy Stein — the mother of the title character — in the 2001 sleeper hit “Kissing Jessica Stein” for which she won a Golden Satellite Award. Her resume alone lists a slew of awards that hark back to her “Yentl” days and beyond, including three Best Actress Tony Award nominations, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Lucille Lortel Awards. And then, of course, there was her Emmy Award nomination for her searing role as Helena, the Czech freedom fighter in the riveting miniseries, “Holocaust.”

And she loves playing Golda.

“This play is such a clear example of what it is to be loyal, to be connected to authentic roots,” she explains. “And it’s the greatest role of my career so far, not just because of [Golda’s] contribution as a wife and mother, but also as a commander in chief. As a prime minister!”

Critics have concurred that “Golda’s Balcony” is indeed the role of Feldshuh’s career. They concede that it’s her riveting performance that has carried this play to unforeseeable heights — taking it from obscurity off-Broadway and landing a sell-out Broadway run and now a West Coast premiere. Feldshuh is also set to take the show to London’s West End toward the end of this year.

However, the play itself has been heavily criticized; for William Gibson’s script, deemed flawed from the outset in attempting to have Meir recall her actions towards the end of her life. In doing so, the piece really becomes Gibson’s way of taking dramatic license in deciding what he believes Meir thought and felt of many events, including that most crucial period in Israel’s history — the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which she agonized over whether to use nuclear weapons. It’s also been criticized for its direction (by Scott Schwartz), described at times as “simplistic, crude and overly-theatrical” as well as for historical inaccuracies, which many Jews who have seen the show argue went beyond Gibson’s right to artistic license.

Yet whether Meir would have had pangs of consciousness toward the end of her life (she died in 1978), and revealed everything from affairs, to regrets over her actions as Gibson’s script implies, there is no mistaking that America’s war on Iraq has played no small part in seeing “Golda’s Balcony” tap into a major collective nerve.

Feldshuh says: “Our president took us to war in Iraq. And ‘Golda’s Balcony’ also deals with an impossible war — a mother lioness screaming for peace in the belly of war. We will not soon get over this war, ” she intones solemnly. And then she reveals that she has a copy of every obituary of every American soldier who has been killed in the war in Iraq.

“I have them posted stage left in the theater,” she says, where she can see them before she goes onstage each night.

Feldshuh says this resonates with all audiences, and in a world gone mad and a world at war, “This play,” she concludes, “is a steadfast, upright shofar — that mystical clarion call of ‘Hear O Israel, here we are.'”

“Golda’s Balcony” plays Feb. 1-25 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd No. 226, Brentwood. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com or call (213) 365-3500. For group sales, call (310) 479-3636.


African Shoah Lives in ‘Hotel Rwanda’


When British actress Sophie Okonedo portrayed the wife of a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 people during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, she worked with 10,000 extras — including Rwandan refugees living in Johannesburg. Some agreed to be in “Hotel Rwanda’s” harrowing scene showing Rwandan women naked, caged and cowering, waiting to be raped.

“Some of those women had been through that. You don’t quite think about your film in the same way,” said Okonedo, born in England to a Nigerian father and Jewish mother.

The two-hour, PG-13 film, which opened Wednesday in Los Angeles, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who, in April 1994, sheltered 1,268 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus marked for death by Hutu extremists. The extremists were responsible for the machete murders of almost 1 million Rwandans, a slaughter that world leaders ignored.

A British-Italian-South African co-production, “Hotel Rwanda” earned a People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, plus three Golden Globe nominations. It was screened earlier this fall at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Financing for the film’s $20 million production budget came partly from Israel’s Bank Leumi, and one-third of the funds came from government financing in South Africa, where most of the film was shot.

As Rwanda’s genocide progressed, the United Nations and the Clinton administration downplayed the genocide, dismissing news reports of mass slaughter and delaying the dispatch of troops to stop it. Unlike the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide was broadcast worldwide, and “Hotel Rwanda” has re-ignited decade-old feelings of shame among European and U.S. film patrons over how their nations refused to intervene.

“We have seen this film before. It could have easily been Poland in 1940 with Jews,” said Rachel Jagoda, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust director who saw an advance screening of the film. “The faces, the ethnicities, the landscape change, but the story is the same.”

“The biggest difference, of course, is the rate at which the genocide occurred,” Jagoda said. “It took 12 years to murder 6 million Jews in Europe. It took 100 days to murder almost 1 million people in Rwanda.”

Okonedo agreed, saying, “It wouldn’t have taken very much to stop the genocide. These people were slaughtered with machetes.”

Character actor Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu whose compassion turns the elegant, Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines into a rare Tutsi haven. His performance earned him a Golden Globe best actor nomination, alongside nominations for best dramatic picture and original song.

“Hotel Rwanda” executive producer Hal Sadoff, whose great-grandparents fled Ukrainian anti-Semitism, worked on the film’s financing with fellow executive producer Martin Katz, a Jewish Canadian.

“It’s a topic that has not really been publicized in the U.S.; people are ready today to look at it,” said Sadoff, who also handled financing for “House of Sand and Fog.” “There are a lot of Holocaust scripts around. But this script — it was so well written and so commercial and although it was set within this horrible tragedy — it was really about human relationships.”

Known to independent film audiences for her role in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things,” Okonedo’s prominent “Hotel Rwanda” part as Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, is key. Her simple desire to save her family gives filmgoers a way to comprehend the seemingly superhuman compassion of her otherwise ordinary husband.

“The biggest leap for me was to become a Rwandan housewife, because it was completely opposite my upbringing,” Okonedo told The Journal in a telephone interview.

The real Paul Rusesabagina fled Rwanda with his wife, three children and two nieces and resettled in Belgium, where he runs a trucking company and served as the film’s consultant.

Okonedo, who researched her role at the Berlin Holocaust Museum, said meeting the couple was “quite overwhelming at first, and it was quite frightening. He’s almost a kind of an accidental hero. These people were still living and getting on with their lives. It’s always extraordinary when you see survivors.”

Despite the horrific subject matter, the film’s singular focus is on Rusesabagina, an ordinary hotel manager, trying to protect his family and 1,200-plus people. Because of this emphasis, Okonedo finished the film with some hope.

“These people, Paul and Tatiana, they just kept going through all this mayhem, and they didn’t fall apart,” she said. “So many of the films at the moment are about superpeople, superlawyers, superdetectives and spies. I’m just quite interested in the ordinary Joe, and the ordinary often has extraordinary tales to tell.”


No Stranger to Strange

From call girl to Trump girl, actress Lisa Edelstein has played myriad parts on stage and off. Now she’s landed a plum role, starring on the Fox TV series “House,” an “E.R.”-meets-“CSI” drama. The Boston native heads the fictional teaching hospital that houses strangely ill patients.

“You’re trying to find out what’s wrong with this living person before he dies,” she said.

For Edelstein, strange is nothing new. In the 1980s, she worked for the Donald, finding models for Trump business ventures. Recently, the actress saw Trump at a party. “He had no idea who I was,” Edelstein told The Journal.

Since the early ’90s, Edelstein has enjoyed a succession of film and TV supporting roles, including two episodes on “Seinfeld,” playing George Constanza’s fed-up girlfriend. “It’s amazing how many people recognize me from that,” said the actress, who also played an upscale call girl on, “The West Wing,” and a male-to-female transsexual character on “Ally McBeal.”

Edelstein grew up in a Conservative home in northern New Jersey and later Brooklyn. She went to New York University and became a Manhattan art scene fixture. She dropped out of college to create “Positive Me,” an off-Broadway play early in the AIDS crisis. She was the subject of a 1986 New York Times Magazine story, “Lisa in Wonderland.”

“I had already been famous in New York for just being out and about,” Edelstein said. Her Warholian, famous-for-being-famous stature resulted in co-hosting a 1990 morning show that was MTV’s stab at imitating Regis and Kathy Lee. “It was terrible,” she said.

The MTV stint prompted the move to Los Angeles, where she lives a vegetarian life. Here, Edelstein’s dark, curly hair often gets her (“too often,” she said) mistaken for actress Melina Kanakaredes, who coincidentally stars in “CSI: N.Y.,” the CBS hit that the new drama, “House,” resembles.

“That’s why on this show I wear my hair straight,” she said.

‘Bonkers’ Finds Humor in Hell

"I personally detest theater as therapy," Julianne Grossman said. "I don’t want to see someone ‘catharsis-izing’ all over me in an attempt to heal themselves."

Her mordantly funny monologue, "From Bonkers to Botox," chronicles her suicidal depression of 2002. But it is not, she repeats, not cathartic to recount how she swallowed rat poison, yanked her blowdryer into the tub and nearly leapt from the highest hotel in Burbank.

Since this self-described "nice Jewish girl from the Valley" was already healed when she wrote the play, reliving her angst onstage is painful.

And even if the theater lately has been overrun with anguished-but-funny monologues, Grossman,35, isn’t trying to ride the trend.

"I just want to help people suffering through depression see that they, too, can heal," she said.

The statistics she added are grim: About 300,000 Americans try to kill themselves yearly; one in 10 succeed while others are left blind from drinking things like Drano.

Grossman’s "great depression" began two years ago: she was a Drama-Logue-winning actress, a successful voiceover artist and a longtime member of Shomeri Torah’s choir. But she’d also battled what she calls "the depressies," minor funks that escalated after LASIK surgery left her in chronic pain and she suffered other problems in early 2002. When medications — particularly the sleeping pill Ambien — rendered her practically catatonic, Grossman prowled the supermarket for poison ("The pest control aisle was filled with options," she says in the play).

"Bonkers" also describes how she screamed in the ambulance, "I can’t go to St. Joseph’s; I’m a Jew."

Of why the piece is comic, Grossman’s co-producer, Diana Stein, said, "Hilarious things really did happen. In the hospital, Julianne’s dad really did say, ‘Didn’t you read the Ambien label? It specifically says, ‘Do not take with rat poison.’"

Grossman offers another reason: "One way this subject can become palatable is through humor," she said.

Plays through July 25 at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theatre. $18-20. For tickets: call (818) 753-7788.

Curtain to Rise on Women’s Conflicts

In a rehearsal room at the Odyssey Theatre, Colette Freedman propped her electric-blue high tops on a chair and good naturedly laughed at herself. "I’m truly flawed," the 30-ish actress-playwright said. "I am totally a hypocrite."

Well, not totally. While her "Deconstructing the Torah," an evening of one-acts, skewers part of herself, it mostly dissects conflicts faced by Freedman and other modern Jewish women.

In "Serial Killer Barbie," a spurned seventh-grader plots to kill the popular blondes at school. In "First to the Egg," a nerdy sperm woos an ovum who prefers strapping Aryans. In "Shoshanah’s Shabbat," a woman placates her mother by inventing a fictitious beau, Schlomi Finkelstein, when she’s really dating a non-Jew.

While Freedman did feel like killing the cliquey blondes at her Baltimore high school, she didn’t lie to her Conservative parents about her Quaker boyfriend at Haverford College. But she could tell they disapproved.

"They thought he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough," she said wryly. "That was a euphemism for, ‘He’s not Jewish.’"

Meeting her smart, funny Jewish fiance — "My first nerd," she said — on Matchmaker.com three years ago not only pleased the folks, it also inspired Freedman, then an actress and script reader, to write her first one-act, "First to the Egg."

With trepidation, she submitted it to Circus Theatricals under a pseudonym, Naomi Lefkowitz, but came clean when the piece was accepted for a 2002 production. More playlets followed, all featuring Jewish women who are "flawed but not caricatures," she said.

In the Odyssey rehearsal room recently, several 20-something actresses told the author they related to her characters. Jade Sealey, who plays a cliquey 13-year-old, recalled feeling "left out and kind of a weirdo" as one of two Jews at her Santa Fe, N.M., junior high. Another actress, Jamie Mann, who plays Shoshanah, said her parents deem her rock musician boyfriend "unsuitable," because he did not attend elite schools.

Zack Ruben, who grew up in Israel, said she hasn’t married her non-Jewish beau, in part, because of her distressed mother. "These one-acts capture the kinds of identity issues and pressures we face as young Jewish women," she said.

Freedman believes the characters work because they’re versions of herself. "I’ve put my foibles and my frustrations on paper," she said.

The play runs March 9-April 13 at the Odyssey Theatre. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.

A Rough-and-Tumble Return

Actress Jessica Lundy was mostly working TV guest starring roles when she landed the part of Roberta in John Patrick Shanley’s "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" last month. The searing play spotlights two survivors who meet, clash, have sex, reveal secrets and begin to heal one another. Lundy’s character, an incest victim, cajoles and physically tussles with Danny (Matthew Klein).

"Initially, I thought, ‘My God, I don’t know if I can do this; I’m really scared," said the Jewish actress, who played Gloria on the hit sitcom "Hope & Gloria." "I’m not known for theater and the role is much darker than anything I’ve ever done."

Klein, however, thinks Lundy "brings a wonderful, unpredictable quality to the role. She can switch in an instant from one emotional extreme to another."

If the fictional Roberta is a scrappy survivor, so is Lundy. With her Catholic mother and Jewish father, she grew up in a "preppy, WASPy" Avon, Conn., where Jews weren’t allowed to play golf at the country club. Nevertheless, she said, she "always strongly identified with being Jewish…. Jewish survival despite centuries of persecution is inspirational because there’s been no surrender or sense of defeat."

Lundy had an easier journey as a young actress. By 21, she was playing Jackie Mason’s daughter in "Caddyshack II"; in 1991, she landed her first sitcom, "Over My Dead Body."

When the film and TV jobs began dwindling several years ago — partly because of the dearth of roles for women over 30 — she began looking for theater work.

Her career angst helped her to identify with the desperate character of Roberta: "I’ve had moments of despair when I’ve felt ‘This is the end of the road for me,’" she said.

Rehearsing the play has proved intense.

"Every day I’d come home exhausted and dirty because we were crawling on the floor and sweating and battered from the raw, ugly emotions," she said, hoarse from shouting her lines. "Sometimes I find myself thinking like the character offstage: Everything feels more sensitive and irritating and I can’t hold back my anger, frustration or disgust quite as well…. But while this kind of role can strip you bare, it’s also thrilling. When I said I wanted to be an actress as a child, this is what I meant."

The play runs Oct. 7-28 at Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 229-5295.

Black (and Jewish) Is Beautiful

Rain Pryor solemnly chants the "Kol Nidre" as the spotlight reveals her silhouette — wearing a hilariously oversized Afro wig.

"What’s the big deal if I’m black and a Jew?" she says.

She answers the question in her irreverent solo show, "Fried Chicken & Latkas," which describes her tortuous journey toward self-acceptance. Pryor — the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor — virtuostically transforms into characters such as her great-grandmother, a brothel madam who taught her to tame her "in-between hair" and to cook fried chicken. Adopting a Brooklyn accent she becomes Bunny, her Jewish maternal grandmother, who taught her to speak Yiddish, light Shabbat candles, make brisket and, of course, latkes.

The singer-actress also morphs into the first-grade teacher who said she couldn’t play the lead in the school play because "there are no black Raggedy Anns."

"I cried for days after that," Pryor, 34, said in her Canon Theatre dressing room.

She’s had to deal with the same frustrations as an adult actress, which is one reason she’s developed "Fried Chicken." At a time when autobiographical monologues can launch actors to stardom (think John Leguizamo and "Sexaholic"), she’s hoping to showcase her unique talents and prove she’s capable of more than the TV roles for which she’s best known.

Her strategy seems to be working. Pryor — who played a junkie lesbian on Showtime’s "Rude Awakening" — moves "Chicken" to the Comedy Store next month.

"I’m hoping the show will help people see me for who I am," she said.

Her background is singular. Her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a go-go dancer and her father was a wild new comic when they met at Los Angeles’ Stardust club in 1965. Thereafter, the enthused Bonus donned a blonde Afro wig and turned her apartment into an "African Heritage Museum," according to her daughter. In the play, Bunny describes her shock upon entering the apartment and seeing "a black velvet Jesus nailed to the cross; I think I even saw his eyes glowing."

Pryor believes neither side of the family was initially thrilled when the couple married in 1968: "At the time, it was hard to explain an interracial marriage, let alone a biracial child," she said.

It didn’t help that, after separating from her husband in the late 1960s, Bonus moved her daughter to Beverly Hills for the superior school system.

"It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet crosses were burned on our lawn," Pryor said. "At school, children said, ‘You’re a n—-.’ But on my father’s side of the family, ‘n—-‘ was a term of endearment, so while I didn’t like the word, I was also called it when I visited my dad’s house."

While Pryor saw her father only sporadically when she was a child ("He was busy being a genius," she said), she was riveted by his revolutionary, expletive-filled act. "I’d share it in show and tell," she said. "The teacher would say, ‘What did you learn this weekend,’ and I’d say, ‘I learned to say m———-!’ and I’d get in so much trouble." Equally confusing was her stint at a Reform Hebrew school where classmates told her there were no such thing as black Jews.

"Because it was so hard for me to be accepted into Judaism, I pushed it away," she said.

Pryor took solace in her acting and dancing lessons.

"Performing allowed me to escape into someone else’s world," she said.

By age 18, she was playing tomboy T.J. in ABC’s "Head of the Class"; within a few years, her identity crisis had caused her to descend into alcoholism and a series of abusive relationships.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that she got sober, read a slew of self-help books, engaged a therapist and took a counseling job at Beit T’Shuvah, the program for recovering Jewish addicts.

"I have to credit [the program’s] Rabbi Mark Borovitz for allowing me to feel Jewish for the first time, and really opening up that world," she said. "I started to study the Tanach and to learn the songs of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach. For a time, I thought I would become a cantor."

Instead, she began writing a series of autobiographical songs and sketches that became "Fried Chicken & Latkas."

While she was initially nervous about her family’s response, relatives on both sides said they loved the show. She’s performed parts of it for her father, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1991 and is now completely paralyzed.

Grandma Bunny called the show "beautiful. I’ve seen Rain perform before, but this was like she came out of her shell and she was Rain, her own self."

Although Pryor culturally identifies as black and Jewish, Judaism is her religion. She has been married for a year to a Catholic man who hopes to convert and to raise their children Jewish. In the meantime, "Fried Chicken" has helped her integrate her diverse identities.

As she says at the end of the show: "I’ve come to love my family and my heritage."

"Fried Chicken" plays at the Canon Theatre Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 17. For tickets, call (310) 859-2830.

The Joys of Rena

Rena Sofer always seems to land ethnic roles. As the newest regular on NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” Sofer plays Vicki Costa, a hairdresser from Brooklyn, whose name is Greek, but whose ethnicity is undefined. It’s reminiscent of her Emmy-award winning role of Lois Cerullo Ashton, the brassy Italian Brooklynite she played for five years on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

She’s also known for playing journalist Rachel Rose, the stereotypically ideal Jewish woman who goes out with a Reform rabbi (Ben Stiller), in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.”

In real life, Sofer doesn’t date a rabbi — she was raised by one, albeit of the Orthodox persuasion. Perhaps it’s her religious background — intermittently attending Lubavitch and Conservative day schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that gives her the edge of authenticity.

For example, when she went to audition for the part of the Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be in the 1992 film, “A Stranger Among Us,” she knew she stood a good chance of getting it. “All these blonde Nordic-looking women are going over their lines,” she said, and they were making eye contact and flirting for their “first time” meeting with the groom. But Sofer knew better. She wouldn’t look him in the eye or touch him. “It’s negiyah,” she said, referring to the Jewish prohibition of men and women touching. Sofer landed the part.

Words like negiyah easily roll off Sofer’s tongue, probably because she was raised in a religious home. Sofer was 2 when her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and brother from California to Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. There, Sofer attended a Lubavitch school.

Sofer said that since an early age she has questioned her religious upbringing. Lubavitch “turned me off to a lot of it, but I love the ritual of Judaism and I love the spirituality of Judaism,” she said.

Although it may seem unorthodox for the daughter of a rabbi, she began modeling at age 15, when she was discovered in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her father was always encouraging and paid all the expenses. “As religious as he is, he’s always been supportive of my life and my choices,” she said. Her father believed modeling would help her since, “when I was younger, he saw me as a child that didn’t have a lot of confidence.”

She quickly decided that modeling was not for her, and went into acting. She got her first steady gig as a teenager in the role of Rocky McKenzie on the ABC soap “Loving,” working her way up to parts in TV shows like “Melrose Place,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a recurring role on “Ed,” as well as in Steven Soderbergh 2000 film, “Traffic.”

The role of Judaism in her life has carried over into at least three parts. In addition to “Keeping the Faith” and “A Stranger Among Us,” Sofer played a Jewish character in an episode of the sitcom “Caroline in the City” titled “Caroline and the Nice Jewish Boy.” She’s also had an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” with Bill Maher, discussing God and the meaning of life. Sofer sees her casting in these kinds of roles as quite logical. “I’ve been studying to play a Jew my whole life. I can walk in there with an authenticity.”

Sofer’s Judaism may not fit into her father’s mold, but it’s clearly a big part of her life. She refused to wear a cross for her role on “General Hospital,” and a wedding scene that called for her to kneel before a large crucifix had her in tears. And despite her first marriage to a non-Jew (her co-star and husband on “General Hospital,” Wally Kurth), one thing that was always understood was that their daughter would be raised Jewish. Sofer does say that the fact that Kurth wasn’t Jewish “made a difference in my life.” She compares it to her current relationship with fiancé director/producer Sanford Bookstaver (“Fastlane”). “When I go to temple with my fiancé, I don’t have to explain what’s going on.”

Today, Sofer lives in Los Angeles with fiancé, her father and her daughter from her marriage to Kurth.

These days, Sofer’s planning her wedding. “Dad, God willing, will perform the ceremony.”

Of her role on “Just Shoot Me,” she said she’s thankful for the security. “The gift to me is to be able to come in for 22 episodes, as opposed to doing a pilot where you don’t know.”

Her other recent work was in this month’s television remake of Stephen King’s horror classic, “Carrie,” where she played the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Desjarden. Sofer, whose first name means “joy” or “song” in Hebrew, was particularly pleased to get to play this part because of her love of King’s books. Her own idea of joy is a road trip with the “Bag of Bones” book on tape, read by King, playing on the car stereo. “Listening to him scare the crap out of you — it’s fabulous!”

“Just Shoot Me” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.