Sondheim and Yiddish songs are ‘like prayer’ for Patinkin

Mandy Patinkin performs “Finishing the Hat” in Sunday in the Park with George
“I have acquired a taste for Patinkin verging on addiction,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post in 2001.

Maybe you know him as Inigo Montoya, the Spanish fencer in “The Princess Bride,” who shouts, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

Or perhaps you were introduced to him in “Yentl,” as the serious yeshiva boy whose confused feelings for Babs’ cross-dressing Torah student entwined him in romance.

Or maybe you simply know him as Mandy Patinkin, master showman.

The actor/singer/entertainer will perform for one night only on Feb. 2 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in a career retrospective showcasing his original interpretations of Broadway songs with longtime collaborator pianist Paul Ford.

In his eclectic career of nearly three decades, Patinkin, 55, has moved comfortably from musical theater to television and film work, as well as solo performances showcasing his versatile singing voice. But the theme that unifies most of his work is his near-religious devotion to the stage.

“It’s what I love to do more than anything in the world,” Patinkin said. “It’s like food for me — to perform these songs at a time when the world is so stressed — physically, economically and environmentally bleeding.”

If that sounds bleak, he offers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” lyrics as a kind of meditation: “When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane…”

Patinkin describes himself as a “mailman,” transmitting the messages of songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin, but says he avoids encumbering the material with his own feelings.

Listening to Patinkin wax poetic, it seems implausible that he could keep a cool distance from any performance.

“I am someone who feels a lot,” he said by telephone from his home in New York. “I can’t choke off who I am.”

His intensity may stem from growing up a Conservative Jew on the South Side of Chicago, where he first experienced the power of music when performing in the synagogue choir.

Raised in a traditional family, Patinkin attended Hebrew school, performed cantorial solos during High Holy Days and studied drama at the local JCC, where he discovered his calling.

“If you love someone, tell them,” Patinkin remembers his drama teacher saying about the musical “Carousel.”

“If that’s what this genre of material is about, I like it. And I want to visit it more often,” Patinkin remembers thinking. This message sent him straight to Julliard to study acting.

One of his first and arguably best-known roles was as a yeshiva student opposite Streisand in the movie, “Yentl.” Other actors might have feared being typecast by a Jewish-themed film with predominantly Jewish characters, but not Patinkin.

“All my roles are Jewish,” he said. “Whether I’m Inigo Montoya or a Spanish cabdriver or Georges Seurat — there’s a Jewish core to all of them, because it’s me, and I can’t avoid who I am.”

Indeed, many of Patinkin’s career decisions have been motivated by emotion.

He caused a stir last summer when he asked to be released from his role on the CBS television show “Criminal Minds,” reportedly over creative differences. Although Patinkin wouldn’t say, rumors have circulated that he disapproved of the show’s treatment of violence. Another time, he left the series “Chicago Hope” because it kept him away from his family.

Is he afraid his choices might hamper his success?

“No. I believe attending to my family has only helped me professionally, never hurt me,” Patinkin said. “You prioritize by listening to your heart.”

His heart has found its voice in modern show tunes. Sondheim is “the William Shakespeare of our time,” he said. Show tunes are songs that “hit a nerve which humanity wants to revisit constantly.” Musical scores have “a heartbeat.”

For him, music is like prayer.

“Lyric is what always drives me, and the words and what the stories are, but great music is extremely spiritual,” he says, delivering his words with the emphasis of a Shakespearean soliloquy. “Great music without any lyrics at all is some people’s complete connection to spirituality and religion. Great religions almost all have music in them. When you combine the two, it allows you to feel the thought.”

If he is effusive about the stage, he is absolutely unconstrained with his feelings about Judaism. But during one performance, his Jewish exuberance translated into a political statement, and it was not well received.

On Sept. 10, 2001 Patinkin sang a Hebrew prayer during a performance in New York and then placed an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag together on top of a stool. The sound of an explosion blared. He then sang the Sondheim lyric from “Into the Woods”: “Careful the things you do, children will listen.”

The next day, after the World Trade Center attacks, an Israeli performer angrily pointed out riotous celebration in Gaza, and said they were waving the same flag to celebrate the destruction of Sept. 11 that Patinkin had used the night before during a prayer for peace.

Patinkin hasn’t performed “Children Will Listen” the same way since.

“I’m not interested in making people upset or angry,” he said, defending his act. “If I don’t have your attention and your calm, than you won’t hear the positive thoughts these people wrote, the wishes for humanity, for people to be together and not hate each other. I can sacrifice certain things to gain greater attention to the cause.”

These days, instead of making political statements, he is pursuing peaceful Jewish causes such as the Arava Institute, an environmental studies center in Israel, and touring his formidable Yiddish repertoire.

“It’s a gift to have a heritage, a culture that you come from — it’s your gift! It’s your map of the world you came from. You can’t avoid it, and to deny it is stupid, it’s really stupid,” he declared.

For Patinkin, ignoring one’s heritage is ignoble and has consequences: “You’re depriving yourself of one of the greatest conscious and unconscious food sources that your history has to offer you.”

And then, without any drama at all, he said: “Being Jewish has been one of the great gifts of my life.”

Celebrating Jewnity the Jewlicious way

“It’s become cool to be Jewish,” says comedian Eric Schwartz, a.k.a. Smooth E., before he quotes one of his own songs, “Jewish is trendy, Jewish is fun, it took 2,000
years, but it finally caught on!”

Schwartz is on stage dressed in a flat cap, brown tweed jacket, jeans and a big bow tie during ” vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ border = ‘0’ align = left width = 250 alt=””>
Jewlicious attendees represent the spectrum of Jewish faith. Young women from more liberal streams walked around in shoulder-baring tank tops, while many men covered their heads with kippot.

Here people are comfortable “wearing their Jewish identity on the outside,” said Rachel Bookstein, director of the Long Beach Hillel and program coordinator for the Jewlicious festivals.

The annual gathering seeks to create a forum for celebrating Jewish identity, values and traditions. Along with celebrating in the traditional sense — loads of good food, wine, raucous music and dancing — participants also delighted in late-night talks about kabbalah, kosher wine tasting and for one girl, meeting a great guy she wants to set her sister up with.

Most of the crowd was under 22, evenly divided between men and women. And the number of people attending the 60-hour weekend has grown tremendously since the first gathering in 2005 drew roughly 100 people.

There were attendees who came to meet new people, and there were those who came to reunite with old friends from Camp Ramah, NFTY and Birthright Israel.
Most of the students were from nearby California colleges, like Jordan Antonoff, 21, from Cal State Long Beach.

Antonoff played his guitar as part of an impromptu parking lot jam session on Saturday afternoon, and during Sunday night’s Israeli Shuk Dinner, the Starbucks barista made use of his drink-serving skills by volunteering to hand out soda bottles. At some point during the weekend, just about everyone contributed to the kibbutz-like atmosphere.

Layah Barry, 24, came not knowing a single person.

The Long Beach student remembered walking past the campus Hillel booth when someone handed her a bright pink, green and blue flier that read: “Jewlicious 3.0 at the Beach, ‘Good for the Jews!'”

Barry had just moved to the area and was looking to make Jewish friends, something she never had growing up.

“I knew right away I would go,” said Barry, whose hand was covered in intricate henna designs from a popular festival booth.

Barry arrived alone Friday afternoon and wandered into the “Jewlicious Cafe,” a lounge stocked with self-serve coffee, tea and other drinks available around the clock.

“I sat in the empty cafe and a big group of girls from Sonoma walked in. They sat down next to me,” said Barry, who added that to her surprise the girls asked her name and struck up a conversation.

In addition to the local contingents, college students and presenters came from such places as Seattle, New York, Las Vegas, Toronto, Israel and Uganda.

” target = “_blank”>Rabbi Yonah “Rabbi Yo” Bookstein, 37, and his wife, Rachel, 34, director of the Long Beach Hillel.

Master of Puppets

He worked aliens on “Men in Black,” operated penguins in “Batman Returns”and helped bring the brontosaurus to life in the first “Flintstones” movie, but ace puppeteer Len Levitt says his most rewarding work was the children’s show “Alef … Bet … Blast-Off!”

Levitt — who brings his puppets to Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14 — created the show on Jewish Television Network (JTN). For decades, he has toured the nation, entertaining Jewish children.

Perhaps the fact his career started at age 12, while attending Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, had something to do with it.

“They brought in a nice Presbyterian woman who made marionettes for children,” said Levitt, 44, who operated his King Ahasuerus puppet for the shul’s Purim spiel.

With buddies John Seed and Sean Cassidy (no relation to the ’70s teenage heartthrob), Levitt created Puppet Conspiracy, a group that performed at churches and synagogues. They had a staunch supporter in Cassidy’s father, the late actor Ted Cassidy (Lurch on “The Addams Family”).

“In eighth grade, we made a film,” Levitt recalled. “Ted helped edit the script, and coached us on filmmaking.”

After receiving his master’s degree in puppetry in the mid-1980s, Levitt went to production company Alchemy II, home of talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin, at the height of that toy’s popularity. He built characters, wrote scripts for Ruxpin programs and even acted.

At the time, there were no shows about Jewish holidays, Levitt said, so he created “Chanukah at Bubbe’s” and “Passover at Bubbe’s.” The videos impressed JTN’s Jay Sanderson, who greenlighted “Alef … Bet … Blast Off!” (1994 -1998).

Outside Jewish foam-and-felt circles, Levitt made movies, was hired for various “Star Trek” series and landed the Holy Grail of puppet gigs, working for the late Jim Henson on what turned out to be Henson’s last project, “Muppetvision 3-D,” a Disney attraction.

“He had a very clear idea of getting what he wanted,” Levitt said. “Jim was a pleasure on the set.”

But, Levitt’s heart will always be in Jewish children’s entertainment, he said. “When I do a show in Minneapolis or Fort Lauderdale, it stills brings tears to my eyes, seeing a roomful of Jewish kids who are interested and having a great time.”

Len Levitt visits the Jewish Community Library on Oct. 14. For information, call (323) 761-8648. For more info, visit .