November 12, 2018

Bar Mitzvah Open to All on Disney Teen Series

Screenshot from YouTube.

The kid-friendly Disney Channel series “Andi Mack” made history last October, when the character Cyrus Goodman revealed that he’s gay. In a recent episode this season, Cyrus marks another significant event: his bar mitzvah.

Reciting part of his own Torah portion that he’d relearned and wearing the tallit — a gift from his grandparents — that he wore at his real-life bar mitzvah, actor Joshua Rush, 16, celebrates Disney Channel’s first Jewish rite of passage.

“There are a lot of kids who have never been to a bar mitzvah and, to them, it’s shrouded in mystery,” Rush told the Journal. “Now they can watch it and understand our culture a little bit.”

To prepare for the scene, Rush worked with the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, where “Andi Mack” is filmed. Although it was his idea to use his own haftarah, which was about the commandment of Shabbat, “I definitely needed a refresher,” he said.

He did well enough to get the thumbs up from his Los Angeles synagogue’s rabbi, who sent him a congratulatory note after the episode’s premiere. But he didn’t completely pass muster with an Israeli cousin, who pointed out an incorrectly pronounced vowel in the reading.

“There are a lot of kids who have never been to a bar mitzvah and, to them, it’s shrouded in mystery. Now they can watch it and understand our culture a little bit.” – Joshua Rush

While an extravagant party with a carnival theme follows Cyrus’ ceremony, in real life, Rush had a modest bar mitzvah at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel, streamed live on the internet so friends at home could see it. While preparing for it, he “really felt connected to my Judaism in a lot of different ways,” he said. “It’s become a much more important part of my life
since then.”

Born in Houston, Rush was raised in a Reform Jewish family with roots in
Poland and Lithuania. His mother, a corporate video producer, and father, an artist and therapist, told him, “Being Jewish is part of our identity and it can be part of your identity if you want it to be,” he said.

Rush is currently learning conversational Hebrew and soon will make his fifth trip to Israel. His maternal grandfather was born there and he has relatives all over the country. “I love the Dead Sea and walking around the markets in Jerusalem’s Old City,” he said. “There’s so much history on every street, in every cobblestone.”

As a Jew, he’s proud to portray that part of Cyrus and feels “empowered” to represent the gay aspect of the character. “He’s got so much depth to him, and he’s not afraid to be who he is,” Rush said. “ ‘Andi Mack’ has such a great message about loving yourself, loving your
family and being loyal to your friends. I want to see Cyrus keep asking hard questions and figuring out who he is over the rest of this season and in Season Three.”

He pays no attention to the few people who’ve made negative comments about Cyrus because the response from young fans and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. One mother thanked him “for everything you’ve been doing with this character. If some of my friends had had that character [as a role model] when they were growing up, they would have been a lot better off,” she told him.

Rush began his career as a baby model at 10 months old and relocated to Los Angeles with his parents 10 years ago to pursue acting roles. He’s not sure what lies ahead for him, but he plans to attend college, likely to study political science. He stars in a self-produced current affairs series on Instagram called “News in a Rush.” His next one-minute episode will cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Might a career in politics be in his future? “[Show] business is fickle, so who knows?” he said. “I’ll take it as it comes and live every day for the moment.”

“Cyrus’ Bash Mitzvah!” is airing through March and April on Disney Channel and its digital platforms.

Jewish Actor Joshua Rush Plays Disney Channel’s First Gay, Jewish Teen

ANDI MACK - "Oy Toy" (Disney Channel/Fred Hayes)

The kid-friendly Disney Channel series “Andi Mack” made history last October, when the character Cyrus Goodman revealed that he’s gay. In the show’s latest episode, Cyrus marks another significant event: his bar mitzvah.

Reciting part of his own torah portion that he’d relearned and wearing the tallit—a gift from his grandparents—that he wore at his real-life bar mitzvah, actor Joshua Rush celebrates Disney Channel’s first Jewish rite of passage.

“There are a lot of kids who have never been to a bar mitzvah and to them it’s shrouded in mystery,” Rush told the Journal. “Now they can watch it and understand our culture a little bit.”

To prepare for the scene, Rush worked with the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, where “Andi Mack” is filmed. Although it was his idea to use his own haftorah, which was about the commandment of Shabbat, “I definitely needed a refresher,” he said.

He did well enough to get the thumbs up from his Los Angeles synagogue’s rabbi, who sent him a congratulatory note after the episode’s premiere. But he didn’t completely pass muster with an Israeli cousin who pointed out an incorrectly pronounced vowel in the reading.

“There are a lot of kids who have never been to a bar mitzvah and to them it’s shrouded in mystery. Now they can watch it and understand our culture a little bit.”

While an extravagant party with a carnival theme follows Cyrus’ ceremony, Rush had small bar mitzvah at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel, streamed live on the Internet so friends at home could see it. While preparing for it, he “really felt connected to my Judaism in a lot of different ways,” he said. “It’s become a much more important part of my life since then.”

Born in Houston, Tex., Rush was raised in a Reform Jewish family with roots in Poland and Lithuania. His mother, a corporate video producer, and father, and artist and therapist, told him, “Being Jewish is part of our identity and it can be part of your identity if you want it to be,” he said.

Rush is currently learning conversational Hebrew and will soon make his fifth trip to Israel. His maternal grandfather was born there and he has relatives all over the country. “I love the Dead Sea and walking around the markets in Jerusalem’s Old City,” he said. “There’s so much history on every street, in every cobblestone.”

As a Jew, he’s proud to portray that part of Cyrus, and feels “empowered” to represent the gay aspect of the character. “He’s got so much depth to him, and he’s not afraid to be who he is,” Rush said. “‘Andi Mack’ has such a great message about loving yourself, loving your family and being loyal to your friends. I want to see Cyrus keep asking hard questions and figuring out who he is over the rest of this season and in season three.”

He pays no attention to the few people who’ve made negative comments about Cyrus because the response from young fans and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. One mother thanked him “for everything you’ve been doing with this character. If some of my friends had had that character [as a role model] when they were growing up, they would have been a lot better off,” she told him.

Rush, now 16, began his career as a baby model at 10 months old, and relocated to L.A. with his parents 10 years ago to pursue acting roles. He’s not sure what lies ahead for him, but he plans to attend college, likely to study political science. He stars in a self-produced current affairs series on Instagram called “News in a Rush.” “His next minute-long episode will cover the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Might a career in politics be in his future?  “[Show] business is fickle, so who knows,” he said. “I’ll take it as it comes and live every day for the moment.”

“Cyrus’ Bash Mitzvah!” is airing through March and April on Disney Channel and its digital platforms.

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

YeLAdim yaks with Disney’s Adam Bonnett

How cool would it be to pick what everyone else gets to watch on television?

Well that’s what Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel and Jetix senior vice president of original programming, gets to do — every day.

He helped bring shows like “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven” and the “Suite Life of Zack and Cody” to television sets around the world. And he knows his stuff: Before working at Disney, Bonnett was director of current programming for Nickelodeon, and he helped created “Kids Choice Awards.”

YeLAdim was invited to Disney Channel headquarters in Burbank to talk with Adam about his job, the Jewish themes on the network and what goes into creating hit television shows.

YeLAdim: So what does the senior vice president of original programming do?
Adam Bonnett: It means I develop the series — animated and live action — that air on [Disney Channel and Jetix]. And I take pitches for new ideas. When I’m exited about something, I get the network excited about it and develop that script into something we want to shoot as a pilot. We shoot it and test it and show it to kids and get feedback on it.

Y: What’s the best part of your job?
AB: Seeing the excitement of a kid and how passionate they are. If I developed “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “According to Jim,” adults watch, but they don’t have the passion that kids have. They don’t look at these characters like they are friends.

Y: What’s the hardest part of your job?
AB: There’s not a lot of margin for error. We don’t come out with pilots the way networks do. The other challenge is staying ahead of the curve. Kids are changing. They are very sophisticated. There is a demand for pop culture and wanting to grow up, but still loving being a kid…. That’s why you have “Hannah” and “High School Musical.” We’re in production year-round.

Y: What were your favorite shows growing up?
AB: “Laverne and Shirley” — I identified with them being outsiders, because I felt that way as a kid. A lot of the Garry Marshall stuff, the broad physical humor in “Three’s Company.” That’s what I grew up with, and that’s the kind of humor I like to put into the series that I develop. I also grew up watching “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” so you take a show like “Suite life” that takes place in a hotel.

Y: With its revolving door of guest stars.
AB: I see a lot of “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” in a show like that. You look at a show like “Hannah Montana,” and I remember thinking how inspirational it was to see a character like Ritchie Cunningham break the rules and be a little naughty because of The Fonz. I see a lot of that in our show –but it is Disney Channel friendly. I watched a lot of shows that were empowering to girls, like “Charlie’s Angels,” and I see a lot of that in shows like “Kim Possible” and “Hannah Montana.”

Y: Cory on “That’s So Raven” had a bar mitzvah — or what he called a “bro mitzvah” — last year, “Even/Stevens” had a Chanukah episode. How do you decide where to insert Jewish themes?
AB: We try to portray all different types of kids on our shows, whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim, which we did on the “Proud Family.” The honest answer is that writers and execs like to draw on personal experiences. And a lot of producers are Jewish. With Cory, the exec producers are Jewish; writing for an African American character, but they draw from their own experience. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but [likely] when he was a kid, he wanted a bar mitzvah mainly to make some money like every boy — they don’t get what the bar mitzvah is about till it’s over. Ron Stoppable [“Kim Possible”] had a bar mitzvah — we did one with Gordo on “Lizzie Maguire.” It was interesting with “Evens/Stevens,” we did a Chanukah episode, but it was a blended family. It comes from the writer’s personal experience — regardless of the character’s religion.

Y: And it’s great that London Tipton on “Suite Life” keeps bringing up all the presents she received for Chanukah.
AB: Again, Jewish writers. The wonderful thing about London’s family is that we never met them, and we kind of never know where this is all coming from. There’s another character on “Suite Life,” Barbara Brownstein, who is Cody’s girlfriend, but she’s Asian and her parents are Caucasian — which shows that Barbara is likely the adopted child of a Jewish family. The irony is that London uses Yiddish expressions, but goes to a Catholic school with Maddie Fitzpatrick [“High School Musical’s” Ashley Tilsdale]. It’s not about having a Jewish agenda — just showing all different types of kids.

Y: Are you surprised that girls have found a kinship with Maddie and London on “The Suite Life,” or was that always planned?
AB: It was always the plan. We wanted to create a dynamic where the girls were frenemies — friends and rivals — because we had never done that before. We didn’t see it with Raven and Chelsea [“That’s So Raven”] or with Lizzie and Miranda [“Lizzie Maguire”].

Y: What’s your first Disney memory?
AB: Probably “Mary Poppins.” I remember seeing animation and live action blended together. Then you look at something like “Lizzie” and you see the melding of live action and animation.

Y: What’s coming up this season on The Disney Channel?