February 18, 2020

Rhea Kohan: No one spits in her kids’ Kasha

Sunday afternoon at the Kohan home is one of those classic portraits of familial bliss: Children are screaming, singing and scurrying about, clamoring for attention, eager to play, while the adults assembled in the kitchen are trying to have a coherent conversation. Clearly, a tall order.

“Chris backed up an off ramp!” Jenji Kohan exclaims as she bursts into the kitchen 20 minutes late for the interview, in jeans and a T-shirt, her two sons in tow. “There was an accident in front of us, and we would have literally been on another hour, and so he backed up the off ramp.” Charlie, 11, is ecstatic at his father’s heroics: “My brother and sister were like, ‘Yeah, go Dad!’ ” This being the Kohan household, an ordeal on the freeway is nothing if it begets a good story.

Jenji and Co.’s arrival brings a swirl of energy into the room —Charlie wants to perform his latest magic trick (he’s telepathic), and Oscar, a playful, teasing 5-year-old, is hungry. “Have some cheese and crackers,” his grandmother, Rhea, directs with classic motherly insistence. “Would you like some cereal? Some raisins?”

Jenji and David, Rhea’s two writer offspring (son Jono is a music entrepreneur and day trader) have gathered today at The Journal’s behest to talk about their mother in honor of Mother’s Day. A novelist by profession, among her notable accomplishments is the fact that she managed to raise three well-adjusted, unpretentious children in Beverly Hills.

“Sorry, is this disrupting?” Jenji asks. 

Well, yes, but the chaos of different characters all descending upon the family kitchen is where this family’s story begins. And even though the Kohan children — twins Jono and David, 47, and Jenji, 41, are all grown up with sizable homes of their own, their parents’ home is still family ground zero. It is here, amid a blend of California modern and deco interiors, that their talents were incubated and nurtured — the original writers’ room.

In fact, the drama that unfolded within these walls launched four enviable Hollywood careers: Buz Kohan, the family patriarch, is a television writer for variety shows and specials with 13 Emmys to his credit; Rhea is an author of three novels and a screenplay; David is the creator of the eight-season hit sitcom “Will & Grace”; and Jenji is the brain behind Showtime’s wickedly subversive comedy “Weeds.” A mere 10 minutes in their midst and it becomes obvious why so much of David and Jenji’s success flows from family spectacle, literally and creatively: Both modeled their career choice on their parents’ vocation, and both have found endless inspiration filtering their own refracted experience of family and turning it into entertainment.

Watch any episode of “Will & Grace” and you’ll see that the relationship between a gay man and a Jewish woman who are roommates is really a kind of created family; on “Weeds,” the nuclear family breeds dysfunction and darkness but also unmatched loyalty and love.

So it makes sense that when asked to reflect on their personal and professional bonds with their mother, such an event would take place in their childhood home — a house not only thick with their history, but with their telling of it. Yet it is also a place grounded in normalcy and ordinariness — celebrity visits were frequent, but decidedly absent were any orgiastic, drug-induced parties. Thanks to Mom, Hollywood success was celebrated but not subsuming.

Looking back, Rhea sits at the table confident and queenlike. She is all color: Titian tresses, sapphire eyes, creamy white skin. She wears a rosy blouse, an emerald leopard-print scarf and bright blue sandals — not one for understatement. Her novels “Save Me a Seat” and “Hand-Me-Downs” are, first, about a woman who struggles with pursuing a career and raising her children, and, second, a story of how a family matriarch born in the “wrong” generation tries to realize her own potential through the celebrity of her offspring. A third novel, “Low Heart in the Hole,” is currently sitting on a publisher’s desk.

“Why isn’t Jono here?” Jenji asks her mother with a slight edge in her voice. “You have another child.” Jono, the 6-foot-tall eldest son, is the only nonwriter in the family, and his siblings’ perceptible distress at his absence is the only topic that even hints at a sore subject the entire afternoon. Luckily for the Kohans, any sensitivity, deep or shallow can be remedied with a joke.

“Did it not occur to you?” Jenji presses, while they pose for photographs. “Do you not like him?”

Rhea, who earlier had quipped that her daughter’s confrontational nature scares the you-know-what out of her (“she’s psychologically scary”), is, by this point, fed up.

“He’s my FAVORITE!” Rhea snaps. “You know, there was a ‘Mama’ cartoon I used to put on the refrigerator, which said, ‘Here comes my favorite — and then the other two.’ ”

The threesome resolves to complete the family circle by printing a digital photo of Jono, which Rhea holds in her lap. But the prospect of getting a decent photo is fast becoming a Sisyphean task as the writers chafe under the camera’s glare, looking sort of like aliens who have just landed on the wrong planet. It’s fittingly comic: Jenji and David stand awkwardly opposite each other, fidgeting and leaning, unsure whether to smile or run script, as Rhea sits daintily beneath them, beaming.

Every few minutes, one of Jenji’s kids cuts in with a dire question or to jump on top of her, but mostly, Buz keeps them entertained in the bedroom.

“She’s amazing when she’s not actually your mother,” Jenji says with a sly smile and an eye roll. “All my friends love her.”

David, who plays quiet and patient to his sister’s bellicosity, laughs.

“If you ask her for advice, there is nobody wiser,” he says of Rhea. “But if she foists her advice upon you, that’s the ‘Jewish mother’ thing.”

“It’s the complete lack of boundaries,” Jenji says.

“Complete lack of boundaries?!” Rhea asks incredulously. But she is more amused than annoyed, chuckles lightly and shrugs it off.

Her own upbringing was more rigid: Rhea grew up in a traditional Jewish home in New York. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a school principal, who moonlighted as head of the local yeshiva. They kept kosher, went to shul, and their greatest aspiration for their daughter was for her to marry well (she didn’t, according to them, though her now-48-year union with Buz has since proved them wrong). Rhea rebelled by studying chemistry and taking an apartment in Manhattan after a broken engagement.

“When I got married, my husband was unemployed, so my parents were very unhappy,” she recalls. “When he first came to my parents’ house, my mother wouldn’t let him in the living room. But he never bored me, and he was so talented.”

David, Rhea and Jenji Kohan

That experience didn’t stop Rhea from inflicting the same expectations upon her daughter.

“I was told to go to Caltech and sit on a bench and meet someone,” Jenji says wryly. “We weren’t supposed to do what we’re doing. David was supposed to go to medical school, and I was offered a condo if I went to law school.”

“Writing was a fallback position,” David says. “If we can’t get real jobs, we know we can always do this. That’s what our parents did.”

Rhea had intended to work in the sciences and ended up a novelist. “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht — know what that means? Man makes plans, God laughs.” She likes to joke that her novel “Hand-Me-Downs” is about her foremost maternal wish, which was for her children to grow up and make her look good.  “I wanted my children to grow up and have jobs where they would never have to come and ask me for money.”

By that measure, Rhea can rest easy. But she also deserves credit for keeping them in check, imparting to her children that success is no excuse for self-absorption — it’s how you put food on the table. And it was Buz who spent long hours on television sets to support the family, while Rhea stayed at home, how her children preferred it.

“When I got the galleys back from one of my books, Jenji picked it up and dropped it on the floor and said, ‘Big deal! Do you ever go into bookstores? There are thousands of them there!’ ” Rhea says that whenever she left the house for work, Jenji would conveniently get sick and call her from the nurse’s office. So much for working moms.

“They say there are book Jews and money Jews,” Jenji says. “We were raised book Jews; it was about intellectual and educational and personal achievement. It wasn’t about accumulation.”

“It was always like, things stayed for a long time,” David recalls. “Houses stayed, cars stayed, wardrobe stayed — nothing really changed.”

That’s not to say the family didn’t have its mishegoss — Jenji, for instance, was something of a rabble-rouser.

“I was not an easy kid; I got in trouble a lot,” she says. But rather than condition her otherwise, Rhea embraced her daughter’s quirks, even encouraged them.

“Omigod, I got suspended once from school for telling a headmaster I wouldn’t take his ‘bureaucratic bull——,’ and she took me to Hollywood Boulevard the next day and bought me a James Dean poster, because I was her rebel without a cause.”

Now David and Jenji are both parents themselves, and although there are neurotic behaviors they’d like to avoid, most of the time they can’t help but model their mother’s style.

“There are so many times when you catch yourself in a moment where you know that you are absolutely duplicating your parents in every way, on every level,” David says. “A chromosomal tic is happening.”

“I find more quotes that I use, more than her lecture style,” Jenji says. “Like, ‘Don’t let anyone spit in your kasha.’ ”

“If it feeds you, go out with it,” Rhea adds.

“No. That I will not repeat. I want my daughter to have a little self-esteem.”

Rhea Kohan is anything but stereotypical, though her children say she has some deeply refined neuroses: Overbearing? Check. Neurotic anxiety? Check.

“She’s always nervous that something bad will happen. Always,” Jenji says. “And that was imposed upon us, and it’s been a real struggle to not impose that fear onto my kids.”

“It’s like that Philip Larkin poem,” David says, “ ‘They f—- you up, your mom and dad, they don’t mean to, but they do.’ ”

More than fame or flashiness, storytelling is the Kohans’ cherished currency. It is their way of encapsulating life but also of living it. Issues are handled with humor; discipline comes with a bon mot. Being clever is more important than being a bigshot. And writing isn’t some haphazard genetic imperative or self-aggrandizing gift, it’s a primal urge.

Not that it should be too primal. Rhea does have one major boundary she hopes her children will respect (even if they don’t), and that is: Don’t air your religious angst.

“I’m very conscious of not doing anything that puts down Jewish people,” Rhea says firmly. When David once presented her with a “Will & Grace” script that mocked Orthodox Jews, she disapproved, and the scene was rewritten. After Jenji was discouraged from enrolling in rabbinical school because of her marriage to a non-Jew, she created a character who pursued the rabbinate to avoid war deployment. Rhea disapproved; this time, the scene was not rewritten. “I don’t like anyone to be critical of Jews or Israel. I’m very pro-everything-Jewish. To me, Israel can do no wrong.”

Rhea being so traditional, you might think that her daughter’s intermarriage troubles her, which it did, at first, but that’s over. “It’s the only marriage in the family that worked out,” Rhea admits. “Both my sons married Jewish girls, and both have been divorced.”

As if on cue, Jenji’s youngest son walks into the room: “Oscar, are you Jewish?” Rhea prods.

“Ken!” he shouts with a big, giddy smile.

In their Jewishness, the Kohans are something of an anomaly in Hollywood. Because they’re seriously, openly and comfortably Jewish. Jenji’s family belongs to two shuls, a chavurah group, and her kids attend Jewish day school and summer camp; David is a member at Sinai Temple and IKAR, and shares his mother’s pro-Israel political zeal. And every Friday, as they’ve done since childhood, the family has Shabbat dinner together.

“I think most of the the Jews out here [in Hollywood], they’re f———[cowards],” David says. “They want to stay away from [Jewish identity], they feel like it’s gonna alienate them. And I was always pushing for more — what’s particular can be universal. Like, why on earth would Seinfeld never declare what he was?”

He looks at his mother and says, “You instilled in me that being Jewish is not something to be ashamed of — it’s something to be absolutely proud of.”

Rhea smiles and nods, then offers one last story: “When I was 10 years old, I began to wonder if, indeed, Judaism was the right way. And I remember doing a lot of reading about it and decided that yes, it is the right way…”

“There is no right way,” Jenji cuts in (as much as she says she hates political correctness, she is the one to tip the scales in favor of fairness).

“Well, to me, being Jewish was the most logical,” Rhea continues. And, without a hint of reservation, she adds: “I just felt that on an intellectual level the Jews were way superior to every other religion. And I feel that way to this day. And I would say to my children, if you ever get lost, you look for a house with a mezuzah on the door, and that’s the door you knock on.”