December 10, 2019

When Santa got mail from Rachel Rosenstein

Actress-author Amanda Peet and writer Andrea Troyer are longtime close friends and the wives of, respectively, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of the HBO megahit “Game of Thrones.”

Their husbands met and bonded as Jews in the not-so-Jewish milieu of Trinity College in Dublin in 1995. About six years later, Benioff attended UC Irvine’s graduate writing program with Troyer, and he introduced her to her future husband.

Peet, who met Benioff on a blind date, married him in 2006, and Troyer wed Weiss a month later; the couples served in one another’s Jewish wedding parties. Since then, Peet and Troyer have become like sisters, getting together often and creating family celebrations of Chanukah and other Jewish holidays together with their young children, often without their husbands when they are away on “Game of Thrones” shoots in Iceland or Morocco as much as six months a year.

“Andrea is like my husband, and David is like my lover who comes in every now and then,” said Peet (HBO’s “Togetherness,” “The Whole Nine Yards”) as she threw an arm around her friend in Troyer’s living room in Los Angeles recently.

When they’ve traveled to visit their husbands on location during summers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, they’ve marveled at the lack of Jews around. “It’s, like, impossible to find a challah,” said Peet, who is droll and wry. Troyer, who is warm and effervescent, added that when her second son was born in Belfast, she and Weiss had to fly in a mohel from England to perform the bris.

It was during a summer in Belfast, three summers ago, that Peet and Troyer came up with the idea for their new children’s book, “Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein,” which revolves around a young Jewish girl and her December dilemma.

The friends were doing some early Chanukah shopping when their conversation turned to how they would celebrate (or not) the Yuletide holiday with their children.

Peet grew up with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father in Manhattan, where she attended a Quaker school for 12 years. “We did a little bit of both holidays,” she said of Chanukah and Christmas — including enjoying latkes as well as a Christmas tree. But when she married Benioff, the couple agreed to raise their children Jewish, without any Yuletide accouterment, because, “You can’t sit on two horses with one behind,” Peet said.

Troyer, for her part, grew up Catholic in Minnesota, but also made the decision with her husband to raise their children Jewish, with only a low-key Christmas gathering in honor of her own family’s tradition. “But we try to emphasize Chanukah more,” said Troyer, whose youngest son attends preschool at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “I really try to make Chanukah just amazing because I feel guilty, since technically we’re supposed to be raising our kids Jewish. In the past, I’ve even been overcompensating with too many Chanukah presents.”

While shopping for Chanukah gifts in Belfast three summers ago, Peet’s oldest child, Frankie, now 8, “was already asking me, ‘Why don’t we have a tree? Is Santa coming?’ Or just pointing at the Christmas decorations that are everywhere and starting to ask why we don’t have any,” Peet said. “And I just kind of suddenly didn’t know what to say.”

Peet and Troyer began looking around for a children’s book that might address the issue. When they couldn’t find anything specific, they decided to write one of their own.

“First we tried to do a comparison book between the holidays, and we were going to try to talk about how great Chanukah is,” Troyer said.

“So we were reading about the Maccabees and trying to make it sound really badass, but that didn’t work,” Peet added. Many Jews, she said, have a kind of “inferiority complex” about the Yuletide holiday and even a dose of Christmas envy. “It’s hard to be around when every mall is just decorated to the nines, and there’s very little about Chanukah,” Troyer said. “So we just wanted to acknowledge that in our book.”

In “Dear Santa,” which is illustrated by Christine Davenier, the character of Rachel Rosenstein is a small girl who belongs to the only family on her block that does not celebrate Christmas. “Being Jewish was fun most of the time,” she says. “You get to hunt for the afikomen on Passover … and get a present a day for all eight days of Hanukkah.”  But Rachel also loves Christmas, including “the gi-normous … tree in the town square, and the store windows crowded with Santas, elves, candy canes, glittery tinsel.” And so she secretly writes a letter to Santa, hoping he doesn’t mind that she is Jewish, and leaves out treats for him on Christmas Eve — only to be devastated when she discovers no Christmas presents the following morning. Yet, by the book’s end, Rachel comes to develop a better understanding of her own Jewish identity as well as of the gift of friends and family.

The book is the first published project that Peet and Troyer have worked on together, although each has embarked upon her own endeavors in the past. Troyer discovered her love for writing while studying English at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, earned a master’s degree at UC Irvine, and went on to write scripts and fiction.

Peet tried her hand at writing while studying American history at Columbia University, but turned to acting, in earnest, while studying drama with theater great Uta Hagen in college.

Peet went on to appear in films such as “Please Give” and “Syriana,” opposite George Clooney, as well as Woody Allen’s 2004 comedy “Melinda and Melinda.” “But it was kind of horrible because I had worshiped Woody for so long,” she said. “When you’re a psychotic fan and then you actually get to go near them, it’s not good. [Woody] couldn’t have been lovelier, but I was just this flummoxed dummy the whole time.”

By the time Peet turned 40, in 2012, she found she was being offered mostly uninteresting roles as girlfriends or wives. “It was nothing I could sink my teeth into, so I wrote a play,” she recalled, referring to “The Commons of Pensacola,” about a Ruth Madoff-like character whose daughter comes to visit, and “all hell breaks loose,” Peet said. The play starred Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center in New York in 2013.  

The series Peet would really like to appear on is “Game of Thrones,” but Benioff and Weiss remain poker faced whenever she suggests the idea. “Every now and then, I take my clothes off and do an English accent, and they just look really horrified,” she quipped.  

Both women are avid fans of the show, even though, Peet joked, she has yelled at her husband that she would divorce him when the series recently appeared to kill off one of her favorite characters, Jon Show. Neither Benioff nor Weiss will tell their wives whether Snow is still alive. “We continue to think that they are idiots,” Peet said.

As for “Dear Santa,” Peet and Troyer are donating a portion of their proceeds to Seeds of Peace, a group that brings together Jewish and Palestinian children for leadership training, as well as bonding, at a camp in Maine.

“When we were writing the book, it was the height of the Gaza war, and the headlines were so horrific and heartbreaking,” Peet said. “We felt like, ‘What can we do about the situation?’ And since the book is a sort of Jewish book, we felt it was relevant to participate as Jews in this discussion.”

Peet and Troyer will present a reading and book signing of “Dear Santa” at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at 2 p.m. Dec. 13.