November 16, 2018

Phil Rosenthal’s 3 Desires: ‘See Everything, Do Everything, Eat Everything’

Phil Rosenthal is best known as the creator, writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” starring Ray Romano. Rosenthal’s new show, “Somebody Feed Phil,” is now streaming on Netflix, and showcases six cities: Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Mexico City, Saigon and New Orleans, where he eats an assortment of food ranging from high-end restaurants to street vendors. The Tel Aviv episode will be shown on the big screen at Temple Israel of Hollywood at 6 p.m. March 11.

Jewish Journal: How has your Judaism informed your work?

Phil Rosenthal: I’ve inherited a Jewish sensibility and sense of humor from my parents and all those who came before me. All the Jewish comedians, character actors and writers I was exposed to also reminded me of my family in their sense of humor. And with regard to the Italian family we portrayed on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — Italians and Jews do share two traits: all problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone. But, then again, what culture doesn’t have that? We’d get letters from Sri Lanka saying, “That’s my mom!”

JJ: Why did you want to adapt “Everybody Loves Raymond” for Russian television, despite having little knowledge of Russian culture?

PR: They asked me, and I thought, “Here’s an adventure!” And when I asked the head of Sony if I could bring a camera crew to document the whole thing and he said yes, that’s what really sealed the deal. So we did the show and made a documentary of our experience called “Exporting Raymond.” It turned out way beyond my expectations of a cultural comedy — and it’s available on Netflix, if people want to see it.

“Italians and Jews share two traits: all problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone.”

JJ: In your two food shows, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” and “Somebody Feed Phil,” you travel to popular locations worldwide to sample the food. What prompted this?

PR: It stems from when we did an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” in Italy. Ray was not excited about going, so I thought that’s what this show should be about — his character not being excited about going, but once he’s there, he becomes very excited about everything, the food, the people, and so on. And when we filmed it, what happened to his character, I saw actually happen to the person! I thought, wouldn’t it be great to one day have a show where you could do this for other people, turn them on to the magic of traveling? It’s the greatest gift you can give yourself and your family.

JJ: You’ve been married for 28 years. What’s your secret for the longevity of the relationship?

PR: My wife is a saint. Oh, you want more? And sense of humor; I think that’s the most underrated human value. The other stuff of marriage can fade a little bit, but as long as you can laugh with your partner, that’s everything because that’s what remains at the end of the day. I think that’s how we pick our friends and that’s how we ultimately pick who we marry. The appreciation of each other’s sense of humor is everything and connects us in the deepest possible way.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

PR: Arts education charities. In fact, we have one run by my wife, Monica Rosenthal, called the Flourish Foundation (, whose mission is to support and provide opportunities for a complete education for middle school, high school and college-age students in the Los Angeles area, with a primary focus on the performing arts. We also support food banks, food charities and cancer charities.

JJ: What remains on your bucket list?

PR: The world’s pretty big. I have to see everything, do everything, eat everything. You’ll never be as young as you are right now, so while your legs still work, while you still have the breath in your lungs, go. At the end of our lives, we only regret the things we didn’t do.

Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

I’ll have what Phil Rosenthal’s having

When people ask you which person in history you would most like to share a meal with, the acceptable answers are Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare or your dead bubbe.

I used to be a Jefferson guy, too. But then I watched an episode of “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” on Netflix. Then I watched another. Then I watched them all.

And I decided the person I most wanted to have a meal with at that moment was Phil Rosenthal.

And so I did. 

We met at République on La Brea for breakfast.  Rosenthal has been interviewed quite a bit about his show, including in these pages.  It’s a story with a built-in hook: uber-successful television creator/producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond” hits the road to host a show about food. But I wanted to talk to him about something else, something I kept noticing as I watched him eat his way through Paris, Hong Kong, Florence, Koreatown.

I wanted Phil Rosenthal to talk about why he keeps crying.

I first noticed it in the Florence, Italy, episode. He wandered into a gelato shop. The owner, a woman who speaks no English, showed Phil — whom she had just met —  how she makes her ice cream. When it was ready, she spooned some vanilla gelato into his mouth. And as he spontaneously hugged her, a tear wet his eye.

What was that? Emeril doesn’t cry. Lord knows, Bourdain doesn’t cry. Yes, in those food contest shows the losers weep, but that’s different: They’re upset they won’t be on TV anymore.     

“I’m not trying to cry,” Rosenthal told me. “I’m ashamed a little, but it just happened spontaneously.”

In person, Rosenthal is very much the Phil of the show: quick-witted, enthusiastic, boyish. 

So then, what happened in Japan? I asked him.  At a small, family restaurant in Tokyo, Rosenthal sat for a multi-course, all-eel meal. It dragged. “So,” Phil asked, “what do you guys do for fun?”

Every week, the father said, we break open a bottle for “Champagne Night.” 

“Really?” Phil said. “We have Egg Cream Night.” He was joking, but his Japanese hosts grew as excited as him. “What is this ‘egg cream?!’ ”

Before long, Phil’s crew had gathered the ingredients, and Phil and a group of total strangers were toasting, laughing and bonding over real New York egg creams.

And that made Phil a little teary as well.  

“To me, it’s the quintessential scene of the series so far,” Phil said, “because it’s everything. No. 1, food bonds us together. It bonds us with everyone in the world. It’s the most human of traits to me, because it directly ties into companionship and empathy. You can’t kill people if you’re eating and laughing with them. My joke is, if those boys from ISIS would just sit down and have a piece of cake with me, everything would be OK.”

Too simple?  Consider the Los Angeles segment. Rosenthal is deeply tied to the food scene here, as an investor in many restaurants and as a benefactor of food justice groups and enterprises such as LocoL restaurant in South Central, Food Forward and Homeboy Industries. 

“I think we’re in the epicenter of great food in America right where I live,” he said.

If a standard food show visited Malibu Kitchen, it would be all about shoving some carb bomb into the host’s face as his eyes bulged out. But Rosenthal is entranced with the cranky owner. The guy turns out to have an amazing life story as a former road manager for Elvis and other top acts.    

“I feel like the world would be a better place if more people experienced a little bit of someone else’s experience,” Rosenthal told me. “The food and the humor is just the way into the connection with the people. It’s not about food, my show, it really isn’t. That’s the wallpaper. The jokes and the humor, if there is any, that’s hopefully to get you to the table. But what happens at the table?”

In Paris, a famous young pastry chef hosted Rosenthal for dinner. The generosity, the flavors, the wine — it all visibly moved Phil. I pointed out it seemed to make him tear up.

“That rice pudding really is one of the world’s great desserts!” Rosenthal said. “I don’t cry in every scene! What a lightweight here crying over every kind of food! I did not cry over the rice pudding! It may be a blink in the eye. No, I cried  … ”

I told Phil I understood. He was confessing to the converted. There are those of us who feel that way in prayer, and those who find it at the table — that magic that happens when you bring together food, friends and family to eat, drink and talk. It could happen over a celebration of a particular holiday — next month it will be Rosh Hashanah, in spring, Passover or Nowruz, or, if you’re otherwise inclined, Easter or Chinese New Year — but it’s also something else, something closer to a celebration of being human.

“That is my religion,” Phil said, nodding, “a bonding over food, over place, over community.”

To have what Phil’s having is to be open to the possibility that food can take us places even religion can’t.

“When I teared up at the gelato thing,” Phil explained, “as delicious as that thing was, it was when I gave her a kiss. Her response was to hug me back and kiss me on both cheeks. … That’s when I lost it. Because it was the connection with the person. It wasn’t just the food. It never is.”

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram  @foodaism .

50 years after JFK, family of Jack Ruby feels the pain

We were sharing a pastrami sandwich and pickles at a Los Angeles landmark: Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. I was 24; she was nearly 50 years older, with a piercing voice as loud as her flaming red wig.

Her name was Eva Rubenstein Grant, and she was a little-known nightclub manager the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, when her brother Jack Ruby left the apartment they shared in Dallas and blasted his way into infamy by fatally shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. It was history’s first live televised murder.

Eva worked and lived with her younger brother and spent the rest of her life defending him against various allegations. “I swear on my life, my brother was not three things,” Eva told me, her voice rising. “He was not a homosexual; he was not with the communists; and certainly not with the underworld!”

I listened with fascination to Eva on that day in 1977. (Years later, she was perfectly portrayed in a TV movie by Doris Roberts, the high-decibel mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”) “But Mrs. Grant,” I said, “Jack had ties to the ‘syndicate,’ as you call it, as far back as your childhood in Chicago.”

“Look,” she replied in exasperation. “We would see these people in the neighborhood, and we’d ask, ‘How’s your mother? How’s your sister?’ But that doesn’t mean Jack was connected with them! I grew up with a bunch of boys who turned out to be no good. Who knew!?”

It was a quintessentially Jewish response, albeit delivered in Eva’s hybrid Chicago-Dallas accent. And the Rubensteins were a staunchly Jewish family, a fact that may have played a role in Ruby’s killing of President John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin.

Ruby was born Jacob Rubenstein in 1911 to Polish-Jewish immigrants Joseph and Fannie. They were a volatile couple; Joseph was a mean and abusive drunk, while Fannie suffered from mental illness and was committed to an Illinois state hospital at one point.  

Their eight children had their fair share of tzuris, both before and after the parents separated. Jack and three siblings were made wards of Chicago’s Jewish Home Finding Society and placed in foster homes for various periods of time during the 1920s.  

Despite the dysfunctional world of the Rubensteins, the parents kept a kosher home, holidays were observed, the boys received some Hebrew school training and went with their father to synagogue.

Jack idolized Jewish boxing champion Barney Ross, who later described him as a “well-behaved” youth. But others recall his hair-trigger temper and street brawls, especially when taunted by the non-Jews in his mixed Jewish-Italian neighborhood.

Ruby biographer Seth Kantor writes, “In his mid-20s, he was part of a Jewish pool-hall crowd that attacked the …  pro-Hitler German-American Bundist meetings. In his mid-30s, as an Air Force private, he beat up a sergeant who had called him a Jew bastard.”

At the end of World War II, Eva moved to Dallas and began managing nightclubs and restaurants. Jack got an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1946, then joined Eva in Texas in 1947, the year he and brothers Earl and Sam all legally changed their last name to Ruby.

As a young man in Chicago, Ruby reportedly ran errands for Al Capone’s cousin and henchman Frank Nitti. A former Dallas sheriff once testified that Chicago Mafia figures told him Ruby was sent to Texas to run nightclubs that were fronts for illegal gambling operations. According to evidence uncovered by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s, Ruby was later linked to mobsters Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante, who the panel considered prime suspects in a possible mob conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

Whatever he was doing behind the scenes, Ruby became known as a nightclub owner, and at some point he began attending services at Congregation Shearith Israel. Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who was the synagogue’s spiritual leader from 1954 to 1964, says, “He didn’t come regularly, but he came to say Kaddish for his father. He came to minyan one day with a cast on his arm. I said, ‘Jack, what happened?’ He said, ‘In my club, somebody was very raucous, and I was the bouncer.’ ”

Silverman (whose father, Morris, edited the Conservative movement’s siddur, and whose son Jonathan is an actor known for “Weekend at Bernie’s”) is now 89 and still leading High Holy Days services every year in the San Diego County community of Vista. His memories of Ruby remain precise. Sometimes he was peaceful and calm, but he was unpredictable,” Silverman told me recently. “He could be very volatile and belligerent at times.”

“He came to my home once with a bunch of puppies and said, ‘Take one.’ I didn’t really want a dog, but one of my kids did, so we ended up with a puppy.  Then we went to Israel one summer, and I had no place to put the dog. I went to Jack’s nightclub, and the dog stayed there for a month. So Jack Ruby was my dog sitter,” the rabbi recalled, laughing.

But there was no laughter in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. “The day of the assassination, we had our regular Friday night service, which became a memorial service for the president. Jack was there. People were either irate or in tears, and Jack was neither. He came over and said, ‘Good Shabbos, Rabbi.  Thank you for visiting my sister Eva in the hospital last week.’ I thought that was rather peculiar.”

Two days later, Silverman spoke to his Sunday morning confirmation class, expressing relief to the students that Lee Harvey Oswald was not Jewish, or else “there might have been a pogrom Friday night here in Dallas.” He then switched on the radio and heard that a “Jack Rubenstein” had killed the alleged assassin.

“I was shocked,” Silverman said. “I visited him the next day in jail, and I said, ‘Why, Jack, why?’  He said, ‘I did it for the American people.’ ”

I interrupted Silverman, pointing out that other reports had Ruby saying he did it “to show that Jews had guts.” The elderly rabbi sighed. “Yes, he mentioned that. But I don’t like to mention it. I think he said, ‘I did it for the Jewish people.’ But I’ve tried to wipe that statement from my mind.”

Another one of  those close to Ruby who has tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the past is his nephew “Craig” Ruby. (He asked that I not give his real first name). His early memories are pleasant. “Uncle Jack would come to the house two or three times a year for Jewish holidays. He’d have a shot of whiskey with my dad, and most of the time, he’d give us each a silver dollar.” More impressive to Craig was Ruby’s flashy wheels. “He got a new car every other year, and he always had a nice two-door sports coupe.”Craig enjoyed going with his father to visit Ruby at his nightclub in the afternoon, before the doors would open. 

Like millions of Americans, Craig watched the stunning murder of Oswald live on television, and soon afterward, he and his mother heard the name of the gunman. “Did you ever hear the expression ‘the color drained from her face’? I literally saw my mother’s face go from flesh to green,” he recalled. At age 12, that was a little freaky to watch.”

The FBI arrived that evening to interview Ruby’s brother and sister-in-law, and later stationed agents outside the house after a bomb threat was called in.  

Half a century after the fact, Craig is still bitter over the dramatic effect his childless uncle’s act had on the extended family. “My dad sold off his business in order to pay for Uncle Jack’s lawyers, leaving us nearly destitute.” Given his last name, Craig was an easy target for bullies during his junior high school years in Dallas, although he remembers one gym coach who’d known Jack telling the students to leave Craig alone.

Worst of all, though, was facing Uncle Jack himself. “One Sunday, my dad insisted we go to see Jack in jail. Outside, a police car’s siren started up, and my uncle was standing there with this incredibly intense, wild-eyed look on his face, and he yelled, ‘You hear that? You hear that? They’re torturing Jews in the basement!’ That particular experience was traumatic enough to where talking about it right now, 50 years later, is turning my gut into a knot.” 

Rabbi Silverman, who later testified before the Warren Commission, also vividly remembers his jailhouse visits. “In prison, he deteriorated psychologically. One time I walked in, and he said, ‘Come on, Rabbi, duck underneath the table.  They’re pouring oil on the Jews and setting it on fire.’ He was quite psychotic.”

As a broadcast journalist, my initial connection to Jack Ruby’s eccentric family was through his sister Eva, who I convinced to appear on ABC’s “Good Night America” program in 1976. (The previous year, the show had made headlines by airing the Abraham Zapruder  film of the JFK assassination on TV for the first time).  

I visited Eva several times at her Beverly Boulevard apartment in Los Angeles, where she once gave me the last piece of stationery from Jack’s Carousel Club.  She introduced me to her brothers Earl, who owned a dry cleaning store in Detroit, and Sam, who lived in the L.A. suburb of Sylmar. Sam showed me the one picture he had of their immigrant parents, as well as the rusting car Jack drove to the Dallas police station the morning he shot Oswald. In 1991, Earl allowed me to rendezvous with him in Dallas on the day he retrieved Jack’s gun, which he won after a decades-long legal battle. I later exclusively showed the weapon on television for the first time since 1963, shortly before it was auctioned off for $220,000.

 The brothers also downplayed Jack’s ties to the mob. Sam leaned in close and lowered his voice, confiding, “These guys would come into Jack’s club, and you had to be nice to them, ya know.” Ironically, however, when Earl chose a place for us to meet in Dallas the day he was given Jack’s gun, he picked an Italian restaurant better known for its links to the Mafia than for its lasagna.

Some conspiracy theorists believe Ruby was ordered to silence Oswald by his organized-crime contacts. Others, who think the murder was an impulsive act, point to Ruby’s fury over an anti-Kennedy advertisement in a Dallas newspaper the morning of the president’s visit. It was paid for by a right-wing Jewish activist named Bernard Weissman, which Ruby thought put Jews in a bad light.

We will never know for sure. What Craig Ruby knows for certain is that he did not mourn his uncle’s death from cancer in 1967. His family had moved to Chicago by then. “I remember getting off the school bus on a cold January day, and saw a headline on the newsstand — ‘Jack Ruby Dead In Jail.’  I literally felt a weight lift from my shoulders. And I thought, ’Thank God it’s finally over.’ I was 15.”

As for having a connection to one of the darkest moments in American history, Ruby’s view has not changed in 50 years. “I wish to God it hadn’t happened to us.”

Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News who’s been reporting on the Kennedy assassination since 1976.

The ‘light’-er side of Temple Israel of Hollywood

Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) lived up to its name on April 28 when it threw a free biblically themed matinee musical, “Let There Be Light,” on Lag B’Omer featuring numerous celebrities.

The Sunday afternoon performance at the Hollywood Boulevard synagogue included such well-known names as Alan Rosenberg of “L.A. Law,” Keith Powell of “30 Rock,” and Monica Rosenthal, who played the character of Amy MacDougall-Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” After her brief appearance, Rosenthal joined the approximately 350 people in attendance to watch the remainder of the show, which was held in TIOH’s main sanctuary.

The show was an encore of the synagogue’s gala the night before, which sold out and drew more than 800 people to a performance of the musical.

“When we were able to meet the financial goals of the gala, we decided that it would be wonderful to do the matinee so that friends and family of the cast and crew could come to see the show, so we opened it to the community-at-large,” explained Jonathan Maseng, the show’s producer and son of TIOH’s chazzan and musical director, Danny Maseng.

The musical, written 25 years ago by Danny Maseng, tracked a handful of major biblical stories from Creation to the Jews’ arrival in Israel. The version seen at the gala and matinee had never been previously performed for the public.

Eva Bloomfield, who attended on Sunday, was impressed by the professionalism of the musical.

“Everyone was extraordinarily talented,” she said. “That was a synagogue experience unlike any I’ve ever had.”

Plenty of work went into making it that way, said Jonathan Maseng, who is also a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal.

“It’s a monumental effort to transform a synagogue sanctuary into a theater with full lighting, projections, fog effects and high-level sound,” he wrote in an e-mail.

One Hollywood star who was half-missing was temple member and “Star Trek” legend Leonard Nimoy. Slated to appear in the role of God, he missed the performances to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C. He didn’t miss any lines in the play, though — his distinctive (recorded) voice still boomed throughout the sanctuary.

The fact that Sunday’s performance fell on Lag B’Omer was fitting, according to Jonathan Maseng. 

“I don’t think there’s any better way to honor a holiday like Lag B’Omer than by spreading light into the world,” he wrote. “Especially when that light is based on
the Torah.” 

Big Sunday Weekend goes beyond community service

Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was leading a game of Bingo in the annex dining room at Canter’s Deli on the morning of May 5 — not a bad way to spend Big Sunday Weekend, the annual festival of community service that featured more than 150 projects this year.

In this case, the players consisted of about 60 mostly middle-aged and elderly ladies, along with a few older men. Some were residents of the Downtown Women’s Shelter, a permanent housing solution for the low-income and homeless of downtown’s Skid Row; others were members of the Hollywood retirement community Bethany Towers. Volunteers of all ages, some of them from local synagogues, were among the players as well.

As Rosenthal called out letters and digits, the players focused intently on the Bingo cards placed in front of each of them, marking numbers. Plates of Danish pastries and cups of coffee sat in front of them at the ready. At stake were jumbo chocolate bars, Burt’s Bees beauty products and, of course, “Everybody Loves Raymond” DVDs.

Before long, a woman in a pink T-shirt, a resident of the women’s shelter, yelled out those magical words: “Bingo!” 

The real magic, though, was the community-building happening at Canter’s, the bridging of the gap between folks who would not normally spend time together, as opposed to traditional community service projects that emphasize who are the haves and who are the have-nots. 

“Everybody wants to help, that’s what social connectedness is,” said David Levinson, founder of Big Sunday Weekend, which ran May 3-5 this year. Levinson also is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Big Sunday, which puts on Big Sunday Weekend as well as smaller-scale opportunities for giving back all year-round.

This year marked the 15th iteration of Big Sunday Weekend, with thousands of volunteers fanning out across the city, state and country. This was the first year that the initiative expanded outside of California, with events taking place in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Denver, Oklahoma and Georgia.

What was conceived in the ’90s as a mitzvah day involving only one synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, now has grown into something of enormous proportions that includes community-wide efforts to paint schools, plant gardens, clean beaches and hiking trails, distribute clothes and books, beautify mental health facilities and animal rescue sites, feed the homeless and more. All events are non-religious and apolitical.

The weekend — it takes place over the course of three days and has the support of the Los Angeles’ mayor’s office — has grown to include all religions, ethnicities and ages. Moreover, a large number of volunteers are made up of corporations that send contingents of employees to pitch in at certain projects. Some even hold their own projects. TriNet, a national corporation that provides human resource consulting services to small to midsize businesses, sent more than 200 of its employees to volunteer.

Some events consisted of traditional community service projects: On Sunday, more than 150 volunteers gathered at The Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County to make 1,000 sandwiches for Long Beach’s homeless community. Similarly, 500 volunteers turned out to the Islamic Institute of Orange County to conduct bake sales, clothing drives and food drives.

“I want to give back to the community in Los Angeles,” said Big Sunday volunteer Joel Miller, a 55-year-old founder of a literary talent agency from Mid-City. “I think it’s important for those of us in a position to help others to be a part of these opportunities.”

Other projects — such as the “Everybody Eats, Everybody Wins” events at Canter’s, Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown and Guelaguetza Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard — demonstrate a model of “community-building,” important to Levinson. Ditto for the Big Sunday “Adventures,” which brought communities together for activities such as horseback riding, a boat ride and trips to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At each of these projects, volunteers took up half of the spots and the other half were reserved for homeless people, low-income seniors, battered women and others.

People coming together from different socioeconomic backgrounds to nosh, hang out and play games is, perhaps, Levinson’s idea of the perfect Big Sunday.

“These are my favorite events,” he said, watching the Bingo game at Canter’s. “Just bringing people out and showing them a good time.”

You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom

The following excerpt is the prologue to “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom,” (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.

My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public — a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, “See, I can be funny, it’s not my fault the shows are terrible.”

And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past — years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. “Better than Broadway!” I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn’t know the family, and worse, didn’t know me — but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard’s bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn’t funny at all, but that didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn’t change the urgency of my warning.
“Karen,” I started. “There is still time to run.”

I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: “Philip, we got the pears.”

“Oh, that’s good, Ma. You like them?”

“Yes, they’re very nice, but please . . . it’s an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There’re so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don’t ever send us any more food again, okay?”

I said, “Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month.”

She said, “What? More pears?”

I said, “No, Ma, a different fruit every month.”

“EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Most people like it. You eat it … You share it with your friends.”
“Which friends?!”

“I don’t know … Lee and Stan.”

“Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!”

“Oh my God, Ma…”

“Why did you do this to me?”

“What is happening?”

“I can’t talk anymore, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

I went on to describe my father’s misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. (“You think we’re invalids? We can’t get our own fruit?”) The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they’d received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.

My warning didn’t take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.

I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That’s right, Oprah, and I’ll swear it’s all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We’ll also, if you’re interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We’ll see how it came to be, how “writing what you know” is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone’s life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We’ll use, for example, my life — where I’m from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers’ Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn’t work anymore. And all of it is here — in the hope that you’ll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You’ll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.

I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all “too much.”

You still there, Ma?

On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

For more information, call (800) 764-2665 or visit


Emmy ‘Loves’ TV Tribemembers

When Brad Garrett accepted his best supporting actor Emmy on Sunday, Sept. 22, the irony was thick as a Sicilian pizza — or a deli sandwich. The 6-foot-8-inch Jewish actor plays Ray Romano’s sullen cop brother, Robert, on the CBS hit "Everybody Loves Raymond," featuring the sitcom world’s favorite Italian American family. But Garrett (born Gerstenfeld), a rabbi’s son, drew huge laughs when he joked, "I just hope that this award breaks down the door for Jewish people who are trying to get into showbusiness."

Doris Roberts, meanwhile, claimed her second best supporting actress Emmy in a row for playing Garrett’s overbearing TV mom. (One of her other gigs is performing staged readings at the Westside Jewish Community Center.)

So with the very Jewish Roberts as matriarch of the fictional Barone family and Garrett as her live-at-home son, are the characters Crypto-Jews instead of Italian? The answer is, they’re kind of both. While the show was built around comedian Romano, series creator Phil Rosenthal also based the characters on his Jewish relatives.

Also, B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro, won the Emmy for best documentary for "Promises," a film featuring conversations with Israeli and Palestinian children. The film, which appeared on PBS, portrays the Middle East conflict through the thoughts and views of seven Israeli and Palestinian children.

Doris Roberts’ can be seen in a staged play reading of "Door to Door" on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Valley Cities JCC, and Sunday Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. at Westside JCC. For tickets, call (818) 786-6310 (Valley Cities) or (323) 938-2531, ext. 2225 (Westside).

Raymond Barone, Crypto-Jew?

When you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," you take it for granted that the Barones are Italian, right?

But don’t these people remind you a lot of people in your family? Your Jewish family?

While "Raymond" is a traditional family sitcom — not sexy or taboo-breaking like HBO’s "Sex in the City" — it has managed to draw a growing audience, and hold it for six years. "Raymond" is a top-10 show, the bulwark of CBS’ Monday night schedule at 9 p.m., and its repeats were the top-rated (this is its first year in syndication).

It’s the show’s family sensibility that makes it so popular.

Is it an Italian sensibility? Or is Raymond a crypto-Jew?

Back in the old days, in the Hollywood created by the founding fathers, Goldwyn, Mayer and the Warner Bros., there were no Jewish characters on screen, only idealized white Christians.

"…American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made," writes Neal Gabler in his book, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989). "Ultimately, by creating their idealized America on screen, the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction."

As Hollywood grew and flourished, television and films began to be populated by what seemed to be Jewish characters: They spoke like Jews, joked like Jews, ate like Jews … but were they Jews? They were hidden Jews. Crypto-Jews. Characters with Jewish sensibilities all dressed up as Protestants. They were named Petrie and Bratter and Reed and played by actors like Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and, more recently, Meg Ryan. Illustrating Neil Simon’s oft-quoted edict for commercial success: "Write Yiddish. Cast British."

"Seinfeld" was a veritable hive of crypto-Jews. Jerry himself was, of course, openly Jewish, but what of the supporting cast? Anyone who wanted to could recognize that George, Elaine and Kramer were Jews. They were based on real people, all of whom were, in fact, Jewish, but on the show they were not. Network rule: only one Jew per show.

Are the Barones Maranos? Is Marie lighting candles in the basement on Friday night without knowing why? Don’t look for that scene on your television anytime soon.

So, is the show really about Jews but with gentile characters to appeal to an American public? Well, no: It might as easily be said that the show is Italian and was then infused with a Jewish sensibility to make it acceptable to an American public which now is used to comedies emanating from a hamish sense of humor. But that’s not really it either.

So what is it? Jewish or Italian? Ray Romano and his family are what the show was built around from the beginning and they are, of course, Italian. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the show, is Jewish, and he brought his own family to the characters.

The characters on the show are named Barone — obviously an Italian name, but in Italy, it is, in fact, a Jewish name.

Is this choice a deliberate one that brilliantly addresses the question: are they Italian or are they Jewish? It might be, except they’re named after the Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Rosenthal used to pass it all the time, and he’s very into food. So they’re the Barones.

Is there a difference between Italian sensibility and Jewish sensibility or does it all turn into a New York state of mind out in the midlands? Let’s figure this out pseudo-scientifically, with charts and everything.

What’s Jewish and What’s Italian on Raymond: Listed on the chart at the top of Page 28 are blatant and insensitive clichés, essential to the creation of television comedy and now shamelessly used to make facile jokes in this article.

What we can see from this chart is that sometimes "Raymond" is Jewish, sometimes it’s Italian, but mostly some degree of both. And therein lies its significance as the representative of a new American sensibility.

What it comes down to is that stereotypes are useful for comedy but don’t mean much in terms of individuals. Jewish, Italian, Greek, Danish or Arabic, what mother wouldn’t want her son to prefer her cooking to his wife’s? What father doesn’t resent his son’s surpassing him? What brothers don’t compete for their parents attention and what wife doesn’t get exasperated with her husband’s lack of appreciation for all she does around the house?

Everyone sees their own family in Frank and Marie and Ray and Debra and Robert. This universality that emerges from the specific is what has made Raymond one of the most popular comedies of the last six years

"Everybody Loves Raymond" does not have an Italian sensibility or a Jewish sensibility. It has is an American sensibility, where cultures don’t so much melt together but rather overlap each other, and the lines blur. It’s not about insistence on a bland sameness, but rather about recognition of common humanity. That is what makes American culture so very … well, American.

Bringing us finally to the American breakfast, which, as we all know, is no longer coffee and a doughnut, but cappuccino and a bagel.