November 21, 2018

James Franco’s bar mitzvah spectacular

Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer has helped plenty of students prepare for bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, and, in some ways, the one he officiated on Oct. 3 was no different. It involved months of serious study, a special bar mitzvah speech and even a mitzvah project.

“It was like any other bar mitzvah — except not,” the Portland-based rabbi said in a phone interview with the Journal.

The “not” is because the bar mitzvah boy in question was 37-year-old actor James Franco (“127 Hours,” “The Interview,” “Pineapple Express,” “Freaks & Geeks”). The actor’s belated coming-of-age ceremony was a prelude to what may have been one of the biggest mitzvah projects in history, serving as a massive fundraiser for Hilarity for Charity, a movement led by comedian, actor and frequent Franco collaborator Seth Rogen to inspire change and raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease among the millennial generation.

A sold-out Oct. 17 variety show-style event at the Hollywood Palladium, which has a capacity of 4,000 people, was a hot ticket and included a performance by Miley Cyrus. In a phone interview with the Journal after the event, “Conan” writer Rob Kutner, who wrote material for the event, said Franco referenced the week’s Torah portion (Noach) in his speech, saying that as he’s only now become a man, he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he did before. (Franco is known for some eccentric behavior, especially in social media.)

Another segment featured Rogen requiring Franco to have a “circumcision.” It was performed by actor Jeff Goldblum (going by the moniker “Rabbi Jeff Goldblum”), and — in a bit Kutner came up with — actor Zac Efron played Franco’s about-to-be-severed foreskin, uttering its last words, which included, “While you have the mohel, why don't you have him cut away some of your eyelids so you can finally see?” referring to the star’s famously squinty smirk.

Malina Saval, an editor for Variety who was covering the event, called it “spirited, sweet and meaningful in places that one would not necessarily expect.”

“The crowd rocked out and danced the horah to Haim's guitar-heavy rendition of 'Havah Nagilah,' Seth Rogen, dressed as Tevye, sparked a sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up starring in their Hebrew school production of the play [“Fiddler on the Roof”] and over $2 million was raised for Hilarity for Charity, which provides care and support for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Talk about tikkun olam!” she told the Journal via email.

While the event was a spectacle of a fundraiser, it also proved to be a chance for Franco — whose mother is Jewish — to connect to a tradition that he never really felt a part of before, according to Mayer (aka Rabbi Brian). Two weeks before the media-filled fundraiser, the actor stood with the rabbi in front of a Torah and chanted in Hebrew and English before a small crowd of people from Franco’s production company.

James Franco and Rabbi Brian (courtesy of Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer)

How did this particular rabbi get there? At the intersection of Hollywood and Jewish geography, it’s all about who you know. In this case, it was Suzi Dietz, one of the Hilarity for Charity event producers. Nearly two decades before, while still a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Mayer, now 45, had presided over Dietz’s son’s bar mitzvah.

The two talked to “figure out what would be meaningful and make sense,” Mayer said, noting that the original plan was to have the religious ceremony and the fundraiser the same night. But he suggested a way to “do it with a little bit more kavod [honor]” would be to have the ceremony first — which took place at Dietz’s house — so that it could be taped and edited into a version that they could share at the Palladium. The idea was to make the experience itself “much more intimate — a real bar mitzvah — as opposed to a goofy thing on the stage,” he said.

Franco is known for his voracious appetite for learning, having studied in programs at schools including Columbia University, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College, Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University.

“The image that he has of being a mensch, that he’s a serious student, I can vouch for that,” the rabbi said. 

About nine months passed between the first conversations and the bar mitzvah. The rabbi and actor started by exchanging detailed emails, in which the rabbi outlined choices and asked for responses. Then they moved to phone calls.

“Then, like every other bar mitzvah boy, he sent me a speech, which was really adorable,” Mayer said.

“It’s a whole other world with a celebrity — but it was also like every other bar mitzvah. If he did more or less Hebrew reading than some 13-year-old is not important to me,” the rabbi said. “That his heart was in the right place was paramount.”

Franco did recite the Shema — in Hebrew — while holding a Torah, a moment that the presiding rabbi proudly described as emotional and beautiful.

“It was kind of like a renewal of vows,” he said. “He always knew he was Jewish and now he's officially proclaiming it and officially standing at Sinai.”

In his speech commemorating the occasion, Franco said: “Here I am, finally, 25 years after I turned 13. But what I realize is that I didn’t need to go to any mountaintop or across the sea to find my place that I have been connected all along. Judaism has been a part of me my whole life. And like the scarecrow in Oz, all I’m doing now is getting a little reminder that I have been here all along.”

While celebrity bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies aren’t his bread and butter, Mayer, who held a pulpit at Temple Judea in Tarzana for two years as a student rabbi and then another three after ordination, does specialize in outside-the-box Jewish observance and connection. According to his website, he “left organized religion” in 2000, and since 2005 has run an organization called Religion-Outside-The-Box (rotb.org), whose mission statement is “Nourishing the spiritual hunger.” There are more than 3,000 subscribers to his Wisdom Biscuit newsletter, which contains material that he described as “filling, digestible and yummy.”

It makes for serving a different kind of congregation, he said, citing as examples a woman who lives on a yacht, a priest from Malta and a same-sex couple from Australia who flew to Palm Springs so they could legally marry. “Whoever wishes spiritual nutrition, I'm going to feed them. I don't care about age or affiliation. If there's a need, I'm glad to be there.”

In Franco’s case, Mayer, who attended the Palladium party as well, said he’s learned from the experience of working with this most prominent student.

“No matter the circumstances, meaningful ceremonies can be done. I’m really proud to have been able to take what probably started as a pipe dream way of doing a fundraiser and help that thing of meaning to come out,” he said. “The world is weird and awesome and I'm glad to be part of it.“