December 15, 2018

An Inspiring Rabbi

Stephen Tolkin was sitting at his desk, recounting how Rabbi Mark Borovitz became the inspiration for the leading male character on his spiritually themed CBS series, "Kate Brasher."

About six years ago, he met Borovitz, then about to enter rabbinical school, at the Shabbat dinner table in the L.A. home of his brother, writer-director Michael Tolkin ("The Player," "The Rapture"). He was immediately taken with the charismatic spiritual leader of Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, a residential treatment center for Jews in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. A few years later, he turned to Borovitz for counseling after a friend descended into substance abuse. "He was like a sage, a tzaddik," Tolkin recalled. "But his advice was very practical."

When the writer-director created "Kate Brasher," about a struggling single mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) who goes to work for a community advocacy center, he used Borovitz as the model for the center’s founder, Joe Almeida (Hector Elizondo). In the series, we learn that Almeida created the organization while rebuilding his life after his teenaged daughter was killed in gang crossfire. Borovitz, an ex-convict and recovering alcoholic, also vanquished his demons and co-founded a center to help others conquer overwhelming odds in their lives. "Both Joe and Mark founded a tabernacle," said Tolkin, 47, who now attends High Holy Days services at Beit T’Shuvah. "They made a temple of light in the darkness. And they both did it out of their own suffering."

Unlike Borovitz, the fictional Almeida refuses to believe in God, insisting that the senseless acts of violence he has witnessed are the products of "a random universe … balls at the billiard table, hitting and missing." He heatedly argues with the devout Brasher, whose eclectic spirituality leads her to draw upon sources as diverse as the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran.

Though the character of Kate, like the actress who portrays her, is non-Jewish, she shares Tolkin’s sentiment that the universe will provide — if you work at it. "Existence is a partnership between God and man," Tolkin said. "This is evidenced on Friday nights, when we bless wine, not grapes, and bread, not wheat — all products of the collaboration between God and man."

Tolkin grew up in a Reform Jewish household in a show-business family. His mother, Edith, was senior vice president of legal affairs at Paramount, while his father, Mel, was a television comedy writer for programs like "All in the Family" and Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows." Neil Simon and other Caesar scribes were guests in the Tolkin home. "I recall, as a young child, sitting in the writer’s room at ‘The Caesar Hour’ in New York, and people smoking and yelling and speaking Yiddish and carrying on," he says.

In 1961, the Tolkins followed the television industry migration west and relocated to Beverly Hills, a confusing time for 7-year-old Stephen. "My parents and all their friends moved to California at the same time, and I didn’t understand why all the same people were still around us, with all the same furniture in their homes," he said. Then there was the new caste system at school, where classmates reminded Tolkin and his older brother, Michael, that they lived on the unfashionable south side of Wilshire. "The kids from richer areas wouldn’t be your friends," Tolkin recalled. "Whenever I read books about the poor, I imagined them living in our house."

By the late 1970s, Tolkin was writing a script with Michael by night while using his Yale master’s degree to support himself as an architect by day. The script earned the brothers a TV story-editing job, though they parted ways professionally after a couple of years. "Our stuff wasn’t getting made, and it took a toll on our partnership," explained Tolkin, who by the 1990s was making inroads on the TV-movie circuit. Michael, meanwhile, was receiving wide acclaim as the author of a novel and a film called "The Player," a scathing Hollywood satire about a studio executive who murders a writer and gets away with it. Stephen and Michael appear in a small scene in the movie, playing screenwriting brothers who are schnorring a sale from the fictional executive — the kind of exec who says he’ll get back to a writer but never does.

In real life, Tolkin has little patience for whiny writers. "There are more bad writers than bad executives, just because there are more of them, and oh, God, the level of writing in this town is [awful]," he says. "I don’t like sitting in a room with complaining writers. I tell them, ‘Give it a rest, please.’ I think that we’re all just responsible for ourselves."

Tolkin, who found the Reform Judaism of his youth to be "despiritualized and empty," felt differently after his daughter, Theadora, entered religious school at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1990. "I began listening to the prayers," he said. "I attended a Torah class with the rabbi. I started to think about the application of Torah to everyday life." Tolkin found meaning in volunteering for a temple program that provided furniture for impoverished families.

Along the way, he began writing about characters immersed in spiritual issues. The fictional Kate is based on Tolkin’s mother-in-law, a spiritual but unaffiliated Jew who became pregnant at the age of 15, was deserted by her husband but managed to raise three children successfully on minimum wage. "My mother-in-law prays in a very direct way, the way Kate does," said Tolkin, adding that the series also features a Jewish character, attorney Abbie Schaeffer (Rhea Perlman). "She talks to God like He is right there in the room."

"Kate Brasher" airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.