September 20, 2019

Rabbi Consultant and Jewish Actor Keep ‘Living Biblically’ Kosher

Ten years ago, Jewish writer A.J. Jacobs chronicled his personal spiritual journey in the book “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” It has been adapted for a CBS TV series called “Living Biblically,” with a Catholic protagonist who turns to a priest and a rabbi for guidance.

“They say ‘write what you know,’” series creator Patrick Walsh, who was raised Catholic, told the Journal. “Religion is already such an intimidating topic to get right and I didn’t feel comfortable writing from the point of view of a Jewish lead character. I didn’t want to get it wrong, frankly. That said, I didn’t want the show to feel one-sided, and this is what led to the creation of Rabbi Gil. When we got picked up to series, I hired several Jewish writers and a rabbi consultant to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.”

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of synagogue Valley Beth Shalom serves in that advisory capacity, and Jewish actor David Krumholtz plays Rabbi Gil.

Hoffman was asked to consult by a congregant on the writing staff, and he received the scripts via email. “If there was anything incorrect in the use of Jewish or Biblical values or narrative, or inconsistent with something a rabbi would say, I would submit my corrections,” he said.

One change involved a joke about a McDonald’s food item being kosher and another fixed a line misinterpreting a Torah verse to mean mothers should stay at home with their children. “I was deeply appreciative of the level of respect and consideration that the largely non-Jewish writing staff had when I would make a suggestion, and their responsiveness to corrections,” Hoffman said.

He only visited the set once, for the pilot taping, but he did have lunch with Rev. Gregory Goethals, president of Loyola High School, the show’s priest consultant. “It was fun to share the questions they were asking us about the script. We were very much playing the role of the real life God Squad,” Hoffman said, adding that he’d be “honored to continue” consulting on this series or others in the future.

“Rabbi Gil is a mess. Yet he’s able to provide grounded, sage advice.” — David Krumholtz

David Krumholtz’s resumé is filled with Jewish characters, notably math wiz Charlie Eppes in “Numb3rs,” Bernard the Elf in “The Santa Clause,” the titular old Jewish woman in “Gigi Does It,” and most recently, porn director Harvey Wasserman in “The Deuce,” his favorite to date. But he admits that he “bristled” at the idea of playing a rabbi.

Screen depictions of rabbis tend to poke fun or venerate. “I didn’t want him to be stereotypical, and I didn’t want to be typecast,” Krumholtz said. Patrick Walsh put his reservations to rest.

“Rabbi Gil is slightly self-obsessed, strange, deeply neurotic, slightly clueless, unhinged and disconnected from reality. He’s a mess. Yet he’s able to provide grounded, sage advice,” Krumholtz described. “I wanted to play a faulted character. He’s a contradiction, and I love that,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten stranger, and more irreverent in my comedy.”

A scene from “Living Biblically.” Photo courtesy of CBS.

Born in Queens, N.Y and raised by his mother after his parents’ divorce, Krumholtz is descended from Hungarian Holocaust survivors on her side. “My great-grandmother was one of 12 and she lost all her brothers and sisters. And then they escaped the Hungarian revolution in 1956,” he said.

His father’s family came to the United States from Poland before World War II.

“He wasn’t devout, but he grew up with the traditions” of Judaism,” Krumholtz said, remembering going to High Holy Days services with him. “He didn’t speak Hebrew and it bothered him, so when everyone was praying he’d make up words and hum along. My dad passed away the day after ‘Living Biblically’ got picked up. He was so happy to hear I was playing a rabbi.”

Krumholtz was particularly close to his paternal grandmother, whose death “was a traumatic thing for me. It didn’t seem fair. Later on in life you learn that nothing is fair,” he said. ”But 16-year-old me said, ‘I’m done with following any religion.’”

Today, Krumholtz, 39, considers himself a secular Jew. He’s married to actress Vanessa Britting, who is not Jewish, and they have a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. “I’m not religious but I’m a spiritual person,” he said. “I believe in God. I’m proud to be Jewish.”

The same year as his bar mitzvah, Krumholtz attended an open audition and was cast in “Conversations With My Father,” making his Broadway debut opposite Judd Hirsch, Tony Shalhoub and Jason Biggs.

“We didn’t have money, so getting that acting job wasn’t necessarily about acting. It was, ‘Now I have money and I may have a career so I can support my parents,’” Krumholtz said. Now acting is his passion: “I need to act. It brings me the purest form of happiness, along with the unbridled joy of seeing the world through my kids’ eyes.”

He’s also passionate about fantasy baseball and supporting causes including the annual Alzheimer’s benefit Hilarity For Charity. He donated his salary from “Wonder Wheel” to the Time’s Up movement.

He has been pleased and surprised by where his acting career has taken him.

“I used to try to plan things for my career, but it’s an impossible thing to do. I like the idea of being a feather in the wind for now,” he said, but he hopes  “Living Biblically” becomes a hit and “steady gig” for him. Having moved back east while his father was ill, he lives in New Jersey with his family and books an Airbnb while working here in L.A.

He recently reteamed with the Coen brothers, his “Hail, Caesar!” directors, on a Netflix western miniseries called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” He has no preference between comedy and drama, period and contemporary, or TV and film. “I’m open,” he said. “As long as I can keep surprising myself.”

“Living Biblically” premieres Feb. 26 at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.