November 20, 2012

In the beginning, there was comedy.

“Have you heard the one about two Jewish ladies sitting around in a restaurant, and the waiter comes up and says, ‘Is there anything all right?’” the multi-hyphenate filmmaker Rob Reiner asks the moment we sit down in a glass-enclosed cove adjacent to his private office on Sunset Boulevard. 

Actually, I tell him, I’ve heard the other one, about the two gentiles who meet on the street — one says, ‘How are you?’ The other says, ‘Fine.’ ”

He laughs, in recognition.

Jokes about the Jewish penchant for kvetching are a Reiner favorite. In fact, I first heard the latter joke from Reiner Senior, aka Carl, earlier this year. The like-father-like-son comes as a relief, since I had read that Reiner Junior told Bill Maher he has no religious affiliation. “An un-Jewish Reiner?” I thought. That’s like Madonna without a cone-bra.

When I mention this to Reiner, he responds with a curious mix of what I can only describe as spiritual secularism. 

“I believe we all have a search that we go thorough,” he says. Though he illustrates this in a peculiar way: “I believe Jesus was a man. He was not a God. He was a man, a Jewish man. And if you believe that Jesus was a Jewish man, and that, for whatever reasons — he didn’t know who his father was, he was feeling empty — he went looking to find something, and he went into the wilderness and he came back and he preached ‘love thy neighbor,’ ‘do unto others,’ and the fact that he arrived at those deep philosophical beliefs was because he went through a process of doing the work.”

Reiner equates this with how math teachers require students to “show their work.” And though one could counter that religion, too, encourages responsibility, Reiner camps himself in with a growing number of secularists who see religion as proscriptive and extreme. “Organized religion, generally speaking, has a way of taking away that search, that thought process,” he says. 

Boy, would he have a field day with Talmud.

For the director of Hollywood classics such as “When Harry Met Sally …,” “The Princess Bride,” “A Few Good Men” and “This Is Spinal Tap,” Jewishness courses through the blood and the brain, but not necessarily via the Bible. 

Reiner grew up in an Italian-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, where he said he never experienced any kind of anti-Semitism. “Growing up, the show business atmosphere shielded me from a lot of that,” he says. But despite his untroubled childhood, the history of Jewish persecution looms large. His worldview, for example, is largely organized around ideas of self-preservation and survival. And he understands his role as a storyteller as a response to Jewish history.

“Humor is a way of letting your emotions out, of unburdening yourself from the angst that goes on inside of you as a result of having been persecuted,” he says. “And Jewish people have been so burdened for such a long time that it gives birth to great innovation, a desire to succeed, to survive. And because Jews were [exiled from their] homeland, they had to survive by intelligence and wits.”

Despite his distancing from Judaism, almost every value he claims to hold comes — admittedly, even proudly — directly from the Jews. But he finds himself more closely aligned with the ideas that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, (to say nothing of Adolf Hitler) popularized in his work, in that he sees Jews as a race. “There are traditions and customs that have nothing to do with religion, but have to do with you as a person,” Reiner says. For example: “Jewish people have always stressed education; there is a high level of intellectualism among Jews — look at Freud, Einstein, Salk. When you talk about such a small group of people in the world and to have such a massive impact on society — whether it’s in economics or the arts, medicine, science — it’s extraordinary!”

His unmitigated awe at Jewish exceptionalism prompts me to tell him he sounds like my mother. He is undeterred. “I think it has to do with fighting back, this desire to succeed; because we’ve been persecuted.” 

The cool thing about Reiner is that he’s taken his feelings about Jewish exceptionalism, of chosen-ness, and channeled them into Jewish responsibility. A renowned and respected political activist, he supports causes ranging from early childhood education to the environment to gay rights. Through the nonprofit Parents’ Action for Children, which he co-founded with his wife, Michele, he championed the 1998 ballot measure California Children and Families Initiative, which proposed levying a tax on tobacco to pay for developmental programs for preschool children. Reiner got so many Hollywood heavyweights to support the measure — including Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen — that it prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to quip that the campaign had “more silver screen glitter than Glinda the Good Witch’s magic wand.” The proposition passed.

Another success came in 2003, when he led an effort to save California’s Ahmanson Ranch and Ballona Wetlands from commercial development. The swath of land just west of the San Fernando Valley was a famed movie location, including for the film “Gone With the Wind.” Reiner also lobbied heavily, albeit unsuccessfully, to defeat Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in California. His activism prompted the group California Watch, a subsidiary of the nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting, to name him one of the top 100 political donors in California. According to its Web site, Reiner ranked 17th among California’s big givers (just below T. Boone Pickens Jr., the energy and oil magnate from Texas); he gave nearly $3.5 million to political campaigns between 2001 and 2011, at least half of which went exclusively to ballot measures.

“It’s just ingrained,” he says of his activism. “It’s not like I feel I have to do it; it feels like it’s just part of me. I was raised to have a larger sphere of concern for others. It’s in the DNA of being Jewish to feel put upon and to feel burdened, and it’s in our DNA to want to unburden others.”

I ask him if he believes in God.

 “I don’t believe in the religious view of God,” he says. “My personal belief is that all living things are interconnected in some way and that when we die, there is energy, and we all become part of some cosmic consciousness. A cosmic soup!”

Oddly enough, that could also describe his political philosophy, which is more or less about preserving the integrity of all creation. Reiner believes every person should have access to health care and education (“It’s a right, not a privilege”), and that the environment deserves the same stewardship and protection. A staunch Democrat, he explains his party loyalty simply: “The Democrats have always espoused: ‘Everybody gets help.’ ”

Although Hollywood is notably generous with causes, Reiner tends to steep himself in the things he cares about, both financially and physically. “Doing good requires more than just being a celebrity,” he says. “For me it[’s] actually taking on another job.” He counts his father and writer/producer Norman Lear as his role models, both Hollywood icons.

Only at the end of our conversation do I realize I barely asked him anything about the movies. And I read somewhere that he was quoted as saying that no matter what he does in life, he’ll never top being Meathead, the son-in-law in “All in the Family.” Does it annoy him that he could engage in so much other important work, but all anyone wants to talk about are his movies? 

“I love making movies,” he says. “I love entertaining people. You get a lot of pleasure in helping people, but you also get a lot of pleasure in knowing you’ve given somebody pleasure.”

Weeks after we talk, his assistant e-mails to tell me Reiner left town to begin work — as an actor — on Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which he will play a Long Island stockbroker who chooses prison time over cooperating with a securities fraud case. Oh, and his character also happens to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. But like Reiner said about the neighborhood where he grew up: “Jews and Italians are almost interchangeable.”

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