November 16, 2018

Norman Lear at 96: ‘I’ve Loved Every Day I’ve Awakened’

(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Netflix)

After celebrating his 96th birthday with his family on July 27, TV producer Norman Lear was back at work the following day, joining the cast of “One Day at a Time” for Netflix’s presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Active as ever, the creator of such iconic shows as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude” is the “very involved” executive producer of the new version of “One Day,” according to star Rita Moreno. “He shows up every Monday for the table reading. He shows up for run-throughs, and he shows up and talks to the audience on shoot day,” she said.

Lear, who told the audience he had “the best weekend ever” celebrating his birthday over meals with his family, later elaborated, telling the Journal that five of his six children took him out for “a couple of meals together. I’m proud of them and their relationships with me and with one another. I think my wife and me have done a really good job.” Lear and his third wife, Lyn, have been together for 33 years.

The Jewish TV pioneer said that although he is not religious, “I love who I represent, and what I am is a Jew. Culturally, I’m as Jewish as it’s possible to be.”

As for staying vital and productive in his tenth decade, Lear said that “living in the moment” and “working in very close collaboration with nature” keeps him young. “I’ve loved every day I’ve awakened,” he said.

Retirement is not on Lear’s agenda. His newest project is “Guess Who Died,” a sitcom pilot for NBC set in a retirement community, starring Hector Elizondo and Holland Taylor.

Aging in Prime Time

Rita Moreno and Norman Lear. Photo by Michael Lynn Jones.

Is television reflective of society? And if not, what can be done about it?

These were just two of the questions posited at a recent discussion entitled “Women in Their Prime Time: Aging In (and Out of) Hollywood,” hosted by the Writers Guild of America West.

Entertainment legends Norman Lear and Rita Moreno were the star power for the event. Lear is probably best known for producing a slew of iconic television shows, including “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.” Moreno belongs to an elite group of only 12 performers who have won an Academy Award, a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy.

Lear and Moreno were joined by Alexa Junge, executive producer of “Grace and Frankie”;, Dr. Zoanne Clack, executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy”; Dr. Bruce Chernof, president of the SCAN Foundation for older adults; and Chia Chia Sun, a clinician and genetic cancer researcher.

Lear acknowledged that there has always been a paucity of older adults on television. He said typical responses he received when pitching shows featuring older characters were, ‘It’s funny, but it’s not our demographic.’

Said Lear, “I like to think that if something’s funny, it’s everybody’s demographic.” He proved that with characters in “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons.”

“I’d love to see someone my age playing just a person, not a grandmother.” — Rita Moreno

The 95-year-old Lear currently is producing “Guess Who Died,” a sitcom pilot starring 81-year-old Hector Elizondo, Christopher Lloyd, 79, and Holland Taylor, 75.

Another issue for older actors is the complexity of the roles they undertake, or the lack thereof.

“We need to tell a broader set of stories that reflect today,” Moreno, 86, said. “And those roles should go beyond the stereotypes. I’d love to see someone my age playing just a person, not a grandmother.”

Junge added, “Even though age is a time of nuance and complication, the roles [being offered to older performers] become simpler.” Chernof agreed, noting, “People are living longer, have much more to offer, and that should be celebrated.”

During the discussion, panelists referred to a 2017 USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism study that revealed between 2016 and 2017, there were 1,609 speaking characters on network television, and less than 10 percent of those characters were over the age of 60, stereotypical, ageist language was prevalent in many of the shows, and only 5 percent of the 126 shows had writers who were over the age of 60.

Nonetheless, Junge said she believed the future for older performers is looking up. “Cable TV and streaming shows are all looking for stories of older women,” she said. “Seek out upper-level people and make yourself available. People can’t get by with what they did before. There’s an accountability now; it’s a time of change.”

Mark Miller is a humorist, stand-up comic and has written for various sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

The Magic of Empathy

Screenshot from YouTube

It’s common knowledge that  “unscripted” “reality TV” is far from real. Ironically, modern scripted television is often critically acclaimed because of how real the shows feel — more real than any reality TV.

Indulging in entertainment through television and film can be a temporary escape from the struggles of our daily lives. Entertainment at its best, however, can provide commentary or insight into our struggles and the struggles of others. Fiction has the power to illuminate the darkness of our world, to see our concerns validated on a screen, to comfort us.

I was initially dismissive toward a show on Netflix, a remake of “One Day at a Time,” because I assumed it was just another sitcom with an overtly ethnic family scoring laughs by playing off stereotypical foibles and quirks in their culture.

But I was wrong.

Norman Lear’s remake is one of the realest shows you can watch these days. Lear is legendary for his uncanny talent at weaving social and political issues into sitcoms. The “One Day at a Time” reboot is about a Cuban-American family — an immigrant grandmother played by Rita Moreno, an American-born daughter, her two teenage children, and a trust-fund man-child who manages their Los Angeles apartment building. The show is hilarious, but that’s not what makes it remarkable.

There are nearly as many arguments in a “One Day at a Time” episode as there are in a typical tractate of Talmud.

In addition to the episodic story arc, almost every episode in Season Two deals with a social issue. In the season premiere, some teenage bullies tease the 14-year-old boy with racial slurs, including a chant of “build the wall.” That episode deals poignantly with racism and xenophobia. Later in the season, the show tackles the importance of voting and the struggles of immigration, as well as PTSD and gun ownership.

Humor keeps it light, but the substantive material is heavy and deep. The deepest are two consecutive episodes in the middle of the season. The first is about homophobia and the struggle of families torn apart by the challenges of discovering one’s son or daughter is gay. The very next episode deals with mental health and the struggles of anxiety and depression.

“One Day at a Time” integrates social issues into its humor and drama beautifully — but the magic is that it does so without preaching or grandstanding. Divisive issues are written about with wit and empathy. Characters disagree and argue — a lot. But they know how to talk with one another and, more importantly, they know how to listen.

There are nearly as many arguments in a “One Day at a Time” episode as there are in a typical tractate of Talmud. Like the Talmud, the arguments can be heated and they are not always resolved with an agreement, but through the process of arguing with love, without hate or fear, nearly every argument ends with a closer relationship between the characters. The secret ingredient, of course, is empathy. Some of the best moments in the show are a variation of “I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I am here for you, and will always love you.”

It is too easy to divide America into groups of conformity and nonconformity, Black and white, religion, gender, politics, age or region. If we are honest, we acknowledge that we are divided, just like the characters in “One Day at a Time.” We disagree. We argue. We fight. But we are a family — and family is family — even when we are at each other’s throats. With family, it is empathetic disagreement.

America, at its best and highest and deepest, is family. This is not literally true, but it is the noble promise of our great country. When one of us falls, one of us should be there, just like family.

“One Day at a Time” is honest. It is honest about the ills and flaws of America today. It is honest about immigration, about LGBT issues, about multiculturalism, about aging, about privilege, about marriage. Its unabashed honesty makes “One Day at a Time” more real than reality TV.

But in its honesty, it also shows us a way forward — disagreement with empathy. In its entertaining way, it embodies a ray of hope in our dark winter of discontent. If we listen carefully, maybe can emulate the show, one day at a time.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Prominent L.A. Jews announce support for Iran deal

Nearly 100 prominent Los Angeles Jews, many with close ties to the Hollywood entertainment industry, have affirmed their strong support for the Iran nuclear deal.

In a full-page ad in the Aug. 14 edition of the weekly Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, 98 signatories, identifying themselves as “American Jewish supporters of Israel,” declared, “We are united in saying that the negotiated deal on balance is good, that any available alternatives are worse, and that Congress killing the deal would be a tragic mistake.”

Among the lead signatories are renowned TV producer-writer Norman Lear, movie producers Mike Medavoy and Lawrence Bender, famed architect Frank Gehry and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

Other signatories include “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, “Game of Thrones” executive producer Carolyn Strauss, television director Daniel Attias, and agents Peter Benedek and Rick Rosen.

Also included are numerous rabbis, academicians and civic activists, many associated with the Israel peace movement and liberal causes.

Indicative of the interest and split opinions on the topic, the same issue of the Jewish Journal features six lengthy opinion articles on the subject, plus a cover story surveying the attitudes of the local Iranian-Jewish community.

Two of the Op-Eds continue a long-running debate on the deal between Rob Eshman, The Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief (for), and David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal (against).

The agreement reached last month between Iran and six world powers led by the United States provides economic sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

Marty Kaplan: What matters to me & why

I began making a list of what matters to me. Intellectual curiosity. Climate change. The First Amendment. My family. Giving back. One friend said to me, I know what I’d say: Money. Another friend told me: Those talks can be surprisingly honest.

That got me thinking. What’s the most honest answer I could give?

Right then, I knew. I had to come out. I had to say a three-letter word, beginning with G.

God.

For an academic, saying something good about God can be one of the last great taboos. So let’s break it. I’m talking about my relationship with God and no-God. You know that campaign, “We keep kosher at home,” my mother explained, whispering, so the other Jewish people at Ming’s eating trefe wouldn’t hear.

“But Rabbi Engel says—”

“Don’t tell Rabbi Engel.”

“But why—”

“That’s how we do it in our family.”

Yes, she admitted, later that night, sitting on my bed, after I had done with crying, yes, the Torah does contain 613 commandments, but only certain kinds of Jews obey them all. Fanatics. Our kind, the people of Schuyler Avenue, have made a little accommodation to modern life. We don’t live in the old country any more.

Thus was I introduced to the notion that the Torah was more like a buffet of options than an all-or-nothing proposition. My mother saw no slippery slope between her selective enforcement and moral anarchy. As long as people like us kept certain key commandments inviolable — Thou shalt not marry a shiksa, a Gentile girl, for example — our Jewish identity was intact.

I felt betrayed. It seemed to me that if one rule could be broken, all of them could. And so, perhaps inevitably, I rebelled. As my vision widened, as teachers and books and television and other kids ventilated my thinking, as puberty arrived, I began to question everything.

I confronted Rabbi Engel. If man descended from algae, how could Genesis be true? He patiently explained that some things — the idea of a “day,” for example — need not be understood literally. But Rabbi, I pressed, if one part of the Torah can be explained away as a metaphor, why can’t any other portion be waived as well?

It was like fighting with my parents about keeping kosher, only now it was the rabbi himself playing loosey-goosey with absolutes, and this time I felt not betrayal, but vindication.

I became the Voltaire of Schuyler Avenue, skewering everything on my skepticism. If God is good, I asked anyone who would listen, why did he let the six million die? If I can pick and choose among the commandments — if I’m free to eat shellfish — why isn’t another man free to murder? The answers confirmed my suspicion that religion was a con job, an iconoclasm also spurred by my devotion to Mad Magazine, the South Park of its time.

In high school, in AP physics and chemistry I learned the real rules that governed the universe: not scripture, but science. In AP biology I learned that life randomly emerged from an organic soup stewing for a billion years — no Creator required, thank you very much. In AP history I learned how much blood has been stupidly spilled in the name of an imaginary Deity.

By the time I arrived at Harvard, though I continued to eat matzoh on Passover and fast on Yom Kippur, these were acts of solidarity with my cultural and genetic heritage, not worship of my people’s God.

Harvard, from which I would graduate summa cum laude in molecular biology, completed my secularization. This is not a criticism. If Harvard had made me a more spiritual person, it would have failed in its promise to socialize me to the values of the educated elite.

Those values were, and are, secular. They enshrine reason, analysis, objectivity. The advance of civilization lies in the questioning of received wisdom, the surfacing of hidden assumptions, the exposure of implicit biases.

This view is not the product of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine traditional values; it is the inevitable consequence of an Enlightenment that began with Galileo, Descartes, and Newton… and a modernity launched by Darwin, Marx, and Freud… and a post-modernity postproduced by Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida.

The prized act of mind in the Academy is the laying bare of hidden agendas. Nothing in culture is neutral. Nothing is what it seems. The educated person knows that love is really about libido, that power is really about class, that religion is really about fantasy, that altruism is really about self-interest.

At bottom, all values are relative to their communities. At bottom, everything is political. At bottom, everything is contingent, driven by the mores of time and place, reducible to its origins in evolution and history.

In every field, this view was being pursued to its postmodern conclusion; all the leading theorists were busy committing epistemological suicide. Look at the ideas that bit the dust: in aesthetics, the notion that there are objective standards of good and bad; in literary criticism, that there are right and wrong ways to interpret a text; in law, that justice is beyond politics; in psychiatry, that there are fixed distinctions between normalcy and madness; in anthropology, between savage and civilized; in art, between high and low.

The project of thinking, I came to understand, was to dismantle its own foundations.

Even science itself was under siege. The great achievement of the philosophy of science, I learned, was to reveal that science is saturated with politics. When scientists find evidence that conflicts with a paradigm, and they have to choose between discarding the evidence or discarding the paradigm, they make that choice not by applying objective rules, but by deciding who among their peers they trust.

By my last year in college, I was no longer a scientist. I was searching for answers elsewhere. In Dostoevsky, in Nietzsche, in artists who had looked deeply into the human condition, what they found, what I found, was the Abyss. We are alone. Life is absurd. We shiver in the pointless void, haplessly contesting the meaninglessness of our fate. Our yearning for purpose is doomed. It is our burden to live in a time when our minds have deprived us of our capacity for soothing self-delusion. In other words, everything sucks. In other words, nihilism.

A nihilist who doesn’t kill himself is lacking in followthrough, but not in analysis. Though I had thought myself out onto an intellectual ledge, I didn’t jump. I kept going — as many people keep going — by making an armistice with the ways of the world. Call it nihilism lite. It sounds like this:

If everything does come down to politics, it’s still better to know that, so that we can fight for our side’s values, than to pretend otherwise, and be the victim of their side’s values posing as transcendent norms. Even if love can be reduced to evolutionary biology and neurotransmitters, it can still feel like it makes the world go round. Even if values aren’t God-given, moral conduct is still possible. We abide by Kant’s categorical imperative: The rules we should follow are the ones we’d want to be universal laws.

This works. It’s practical. It helps countless people get out of bed in the morning.

But it is an armistice, not a peace. Existential desperation is never far away. It is difficult to face mortality without God. It is hard to tell children that the universe is indifferent to them. Even for the most fortunate, it is painful to confront the night thought, Is this all there is?

No wonder religious fundamentalism is booming. Fundamentalists know who they are and where they fit. They have no difficulty recognizing evil. They are confident that theirs is the one true way. We have Kant; they have God. They live by the literal word of the Bible; we live by its poetry. They are commanded; we are merely moved.

But fundamentalism is not a rational choice. It is not willed by the intellect; it is a mysterious visitor. I have often daydreamed about that visitor. If the God of the Lubavichers or the Satmars were to appear to me and demand obedience, I suspect I would gladly give it. But I am no more capable of partaking in Hasidic ecstasy than I am of heeding the biblical injunction against mixing linen and wool. It is not an option for me. Once the mind thinks some thoughts, it cannot unthink them.

This is the sadness at the heart of secular lives. No one wants to live in a pointless, chaotic cosmos, but that is the one that science has given us. We may yearn for the divine, but hipster neo-Dadaism is the best we can do. Everything’s ironic. Everything’s a joke. But inside, it can feel awful. The things you want a God for — an afterlife, a comfort, a commander — seem unavailable.

That’s where I thought I would spend my life: a cultural Jew, a closet nihilist, searching despite myself for something transcendent to fill the hole where God was.

I found that something in my dentist’s chair.

When he told me I ground my teeth, I denied it. I didn’t think of myself as unduly stressed; I had long ago decided that life is a roller coaster. Stress comes with the territory, and you deal with it, even thrive on it. That I was grinding my teeth suggested I was kidding myself. A part of me, beyond my conscious control, was having a hard time, and taking it out on my molars. Wearing a night guard would be like admitting defeat — letting my unconscious torpedo my equanimity.

“You’d be surprised how many of my patients use them,” my dentist said. “A lot of people hold tension in their jaw. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I imagined myself reaching to my night table for my night guard. It made me think of the false teeth my Russian grandmother kept in a jelly glass by her bedside.

“Are there any alternatives?” I asked him. He pessimistically suggested meditation.

What appealed to me about meditation was its apparent religious neutrality. You don’ t have to believe in anything; all you have to do is do it. I had worried that reaping its benefits would require some faith I could only fake, but I was happy to learn that 90 percent of meditation was about showing up.

The spirituality of it ambushed me. I saw no visions, heard no voices, felt no caressing hand. But unwittingly I was engaging in a practice that has been at the heart of mysticism for millenniums. I’d read that people of all faiths had learned to meditate without violating their personal beliefs. At the time, I took this to mean that there was nothing inherently religious about meditation, which suited me just fine.

I was wrong. The reason that meditation doesn’t conflict with religious beliefs, whatever they are, is that it shares a highest common denominator with all of them.

To separate 20 minutes from the day with silence and intention is to pray, even if there’s no one to pray to. To step from the river of thought, to escape from monkey mind even for a moment, is to surrender to a transcendent realm. To be awakened to consciousness empty of content; to be thunderstruck by the mystery that there is something, rather than nothing; to be mindful, to be present; to be here, now: this is the road less traveled, the path of the pilgrim, the quest.

When I am asked whether I believe in God, I say that belief is the wrong word to use. I experience God. God may be the wrong word to use, too.

What I experience — no, not always, and sometimes not at all — is known to every mystic tradition. It has been called Spirit, Being, the All. It is what the Kabbalah calls Ayin, Nothingness, No-Thingness. It’s ineffable. It’s why Jewish mystics call God ha-zeh — the This. You can point to it, but you can’t describe it. You can sing it, but you can’t say it. It is better conveyed by silence than by language, by dance than by liturgy. And it is the experience at the heart of all contemplative practices, whether you’re looking for it or not.

The All is a long way from Newark, and silence is a long way from Harvard. As am I.

I used to think scientific materialism was the apex of human evolution. I used to think nihilism was the tragic price of progress. I used to think the soul was just a metaphor, a primitive name for dopamine. Now I think thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

What matters to me and why?

What’s mattered most to me in my life is… wrestling with that very question: What matters?

And why? Why does wrestling with that question matter to me so much?

I can’t help it. I have to. That’s the thing about experiencing the ineffable. That’s the thing about the This.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Letters to the editor: Obama’s Jewish soul, hacking the hackers and more

Chanukah With President Obama
 
David Suissa owes my grandson an apology. 
 
In his Dec. 18 story titled “Obama: I’m Jewish ‘In My Soul,’ ” Suissa recounted his experience attending the White House Chanukah party the night before. I am that “imposing and tall white-haired gentleman” whom Suissa describes speaking to President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, Suissa got the rest of the story all wrong.
 
Contrary to Suissa’s snide and inaccurate remark that he thought I had had “a few single malts,” I treated the honor of celebrating Chanukah with the president and the first lady as a distinct and sobering privilege.
 
Suissa then misquotes me by claiming that I said to the president, “When I told my Christian friend I was coming to a Chanukah party at the White House, he told me, “I didn’t know the president was Jewish!’ ”
 
In fact, in that one precious moment I had with the president, I actually said the following:  When I told my family we had been invited to celebrate Chanukah at the White House, my 8-year old grandson said, “I didn’t know Obama was Jewish.” The president smiled broadly, and as he moved on, he put his hand on his chest and said quietly, “in my soul.”
 
In truth, my moment was all about sharing a wonderful story about my grandson Charlie with the president. It had nothing to do with Suissa’s Christian vs. Jewish trope.
 
Suissa could easily have confirmed the facts with me since I was standing right there. I hope he is not always this reckless in reporting the facts. 
 
But nothing can detract from this marvelous experience and how the innocence of my grandson Charlie brought out a deeply moving insight into the heart of our president.
 
Stephen Rohde, Los Angeles
 
Suissa responds: I thank Mr. Rohde for his confirmation that the president did indeed say he was Jewish “in his soul.” That was the main point of my story. I apologize for mishearing other details — maybe it was me who had the single malts.
 
To read David Suissa’s article about his visit to the White House is to confront his credulity and desperation by the paragraph. He could hardly have been more ecstatic if Obama had announced, “You know, some of my best friends are Jewish.”
 
Paul Schnee, West Hollywood

Remembering Rabbi Schulweis

I was reading this week’s issue of the Jewish Journal when the news bulletin announced Harold Schulweis’ death. It was a poignant juxtaposition of events that his poem appeared in the Journal just as he had passed away (“Sticks and Stones,” Dec. 19). He led a beautiful, meaningful life and inspired us all.
 
Barbara H. Bergen, Los Angeles

Champion

Norman Lear is to be commended for taking such a strong stand against discrimination (“Norman Lear’s Bright Future,” Dec. 19). There can be no doubt that it is good to be against all sorts of irrational discrimination and prejudice. He is to be praised as a champion of mutual acceptance.
 
Allen Hertz via jewishjournal.com

Fight for Your Right

Though Rob Eshman’s first suggestion is a little moot, the second is sheer genius (“How to Hack the Hackers,” Dec. 19). The regime wants to release information we’d rather keep private? Game on. Let’s see massive media coverage around the world on exactly what North Korea is all about.
 
Susan Golan via jewishjournal.com

Never Too Late

I was a patient of Dr. Henry Oster for years and so was my dad (“Survivor: Henry Oster,” Dec. 19). I was with him through several ophthalmological “crises,” during which I was able to fully utilize his services to maintain a normal level of vision. I never got to thank him for his excellent services to me and my dad. But due to Jane Ulman’s timely article, now at least I can write my delayed thank you to Dr. Oster. May he be around for many years to come!
 
David Stepsay via email

The Man Behind the Man Behind Our Cartoonist

One item omitted from Steve Greenberg’s cartoon tribute to the memory of his father was Steve’s dad’s significant contribution to political and social commentary by raising a son like Steve Greenberg (“Greenberg’s View,” Dec. 19). We feel privileged that Greenberg shared his sorrow and recognition of his father with us.
 
Stu and Marlene Bernstein, Santa Monica

correction
 
In the cover photo caption for Jewish Journal City Guide 2015, the name of the author of “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture” was misspelled. Her name is Saba Soomekh. 

Norman Lear on race in America, Judaism, World War II and his bright future

When I met Norman Lear at his spacious Beverly Hills office for an interview, he immediately told me, “The timing is good.” He didn’t say why — just that it has something to do with what he plans to do next.

That’s right, next. At 92, an age when most of us would be content to make plans for lunch, much less for the coming year, Lear looks more forward than back. In his just-published page-turner of an autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” he tells the story of a long life full of “nexts”: World War II Army Air Force gunner, comedy writer for Martin and Lewis, arguably the most influential sitcom writer and producer in TV history, media entrepreneur, political activist, paterfamilias.  

Oh, and history maker.

From the moment of its premiere in 1971, Lear’s sitcom “All in the Family” revolutionized television and changed America. It dealt with racism, anti-Semitism, sex and just about every topic that until then was off limits for mass entertainment. The show went to No. 1, and Lear went on to create “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Good Times” and more. At one point, five of the top 10 television programs in America had been created by Lear.

“I grew up watching your shows,” I told him.

“So did I,” he replied with a smile.


Norman Lear (center) created, developed and produced the hit show “All in the Family,” which ran from 1971 to 1979. The politically charged sitcom starred (from left) Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers and Mike Evans. Photo: CBS/Landov

His success and fortune made, Lear went on to build and sell multimillion-dollar media companies, then jumped into activism. He bought an original edition of the Declaration of Independence and organized a campaign of democracy awareness and voter registration around it, creating People for the American Way, and influencing the electoral process itself.

Lear writes of all these firsts in a book that is filled with humor and anecdote. His press appearances and interviews have focused on Lear the writer, the producer, the activist. But what surprised me in reading the book was the lifelong influence of another aspect of his identity: Lear the American Jew.

It’s there from the first chapter. All of Lear’s talent and drive emerged from a childhood in Hartford, Conn., and then Brooklyn, that at times reads like a Yiddish Charles Dickens story. Lear’s father was a hustler whose arrest left the family destitute and forced Lear to live at the mercy of less-than-welcoming relatives. His mother, a world-class narcissist, never seemed to see past her own needs.  

Along the way, his maternal grandparents, for whom being Jewish and being American were central to their lives, nurtured and shaped Lear. Judaism was less a religion than an identity. In the book (and in our interview) he recounts being 9 years old and hearing the anti-Semitic preacher Father Charles Coughlin on a homemade radio.

“That kid poking around on his crystal set, spooked by a Jew hater, still lives in me,” he writes, adding later, “I could be, and often was, at the center of things and still feel like an outsider.”

America offered him protection as a minority, and opportunity. Lear returned that with patriotic fervor and a life’s work that pushes America to live up to its Constitutional promises.

Now Lear wants to go even deeper. Married for the third time, a father of six children spanning several decades, Lear seems to have taken a spiritual turn with his life. That’s why, he told me, the timing of the interview is fortuitous. Lear’s “next” is to mount a nondenominational spiritual service and broadcast it digitally on Sunday mornings to theaters across the country. The man who once brought millions of Americans together to laugh now wants to bring them together to celebrate, to pray, to give thanks.

Lear, of course, already has set this in motion. He has been in contact with Fathom Events, the company that projects live events such as opera and theater into movie theaters nationwide. 

“I do Jon Stewart on Monday, Dr. Oz on Tuesday,” he said, impatiently. “Then I got a meeting coming up with Fathom, right after the holidays.”

Our interview was wedged between morning meetings and an afternoon tea with former first lady Nancy Reagan. In the Lear universe, political rivals often end up as friends.

Lear, dressed in blue jeans, a tucked-in shirt and his signature hat, sat in a ground-floor office adorned with photos of his family and his past TV successes. A flat-screen TV by the reception desk showed images of protests following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, and that’s where our conversation began.

 

Rob Eshman: Last night, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict the officers in the case of Eric Garner, and today there are protests nationwide. Thirty years after you started this national conversation on race, does it seem to you that we haven’t made much progress?

Norman Lear: We haven’t made any progress, because we, as Americans, don’t look at the mirror and see ourselves. I don’t want to put this only on the American people. Leadership doesn’t help us in every direction, whether we’re talking politics or business or media. The establishment doesn’t help us look in the mirror and see ourselves honestly. Our society, our families, our individuals have a tendency to racism.

RE: A couple of nights ago, Jon Stewart said that maybe we’re just race-aholics in this country and we’ll never really be cured.

NL: What we don’t do is talk about it. What we don’t do is open our eyes and our hearts to a conversation about it.

RE: Not until I read your autobiography did I see, spelled out, the strength of your Jewish identity. And I really got the strong sense that you are continuing that tradition of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Goodman and the Jewish civil rights marchers who died; that you were continuing that tradition of the Black-Jewish struggle for justice, but through comedy.

NL: Well, I think it’s clear. When I was 9 years old, I discovered Father [Charles] Coughlin.  That was a big deal in my life. I learned there were people who had it in for me because I was Jewish. And I was in shock.

That was really a major moment. I don’t know at what point it was, it couldn’t have been all that long after, that I realized what these Black kids — there weren’t that many in those schools I went to — had it far worse than I because I was Jewish. So I was empathetic at an early age.

Then I used to go to New York to see the theater. And my folks let me go when I was young — I have a long history of remembering the train pulling into 125th Street, and the tenements were already filled. You could put hands out of the train to touch the windows. And there were largely Black families living in those tenements.

And I felt something.

I felt the family orientation. I don’t know how to express it. And that was an important thing in my growth along those lines.

RE: It came from that sense that these people were discriminating against, or hated, you because you were Jewish, and then you empathized with these other people who were being discriminated against as well.

NL: Yeah. Their struggle made mine not seem to be a struggle.

RE: I had no idea how much that consciousness of being Jewish, of being discriminated against, really affected you.

NL: Oh, deeply, deeply.


Norman Lear in Rome during World War II. Photo from “Even This I Get to Experience”

RE: That was one of the things that pushed you to want to be part of World War II, to actually want to fight.

NL: I wanted to kill.

RE: You wanted to kill?

NL: I wanted to kill. As a radio operator, I was closest to the bomb bay doors. So when we dropped our bombs, I was the one who got up and looked into the bomb bay, and I was the one who let the pilots know when all the bombs had landed. So I would look down and see our bombs floating first, and then I [would] see a wider picture, the bombs from all the other planes. I see these hundreds of bombs. And I’d think we could miss a tank factory, or whatever we were bombing. I remember thinking, “What if we hit a farmhouse?” And my reaction to that was, “F— ’em!” — in those words. And then at some point I wondered — and I don’t know whether it was in the years when I was flying these missions or years after, I don’t know when — I wondered, would I have signed a piece of paper that said, “OK, I don’t give a sh– if it hits a farmhouse”?

RE: Would you have?

NL: I want to believe with all my heart that I would never have signed it, but I also have never been tested.  

RE: This was before you knew about the concentration camps.

NL: We didn’t know about concentration camps, per se, but we knew terrible things were happening to people, and Jews were trying to escape.   

RE: Instead of cowering, you really came out swinging in your life.

NL: I never lacked conviction.

RE: Even your college essay was about how important the Constitution was to you as a minority.

NL: It was for the American Legion Oratorical Contest. And maybe, because I was a member of a minority and I depended just a little more on those guarantees, maybe I honored it more, I cared more about it. Maybe it meant more to me than it meant to the average goy.

RE: Where did that Jewish identity come from?

NL: I loved my grandparents deeply, and I lived with them when my father was away. And I sat around on Friday evenings and played gin rummy.

So I sat on Friday evenings — in a sense, to show you how religious they were. We were playing cards, gin rummy, but they were very religious otherwise. My grandfather went to shul all the time but not in that political Jewish conservative way.


Lear’s maternal grandparents, Lizzie and Shia Seicol. Photo from “Even This I Get to Experience”

RE: Not politically conservative, but deeply patriotic.

NL: My grandfather loved parades. And I remember sitting on the corner with him and holding his hand and seeing a tear come down [from] his eye when this American flag went by and the marching band was playing.

RE: You have to think that this image of this Jewish man, deeply attached to America — a strong outsider identity combined with his love of this country — that just stayed with you and in some way defines you.

NL: I wanted to serve in battle; I wanted to be 50 years old and Jewish and be able to say, “I was in battle. I served in the war; in that war.” And that was as a result of the need to prove myself as a full American and as a minority. 

RE: But you didn’t come across a lot of personal anti-Semitism in your life?

NL: No. I ran into it in the service a couple of times. I was stationed in Florida and we were on a long breakfast line and somebody made an anti-Semitic crack ahead of me. I was angry at myself because I didn’t hit the guy, but that’s not what I did. And at the same time, I couldn’t wait to enlist; I couldn’t wait to serve; I couldn’t wait to be in battle.

RE: And how do you think that your Jewish identity impacted your work, your professional life, your writing, your shows?

NL: Well, on the sensitivity to all of the things we’re talking about, being Jewish was a part of that, like being American was a part of it, by understanding the rights and guarantees of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. That was in me at an early age.

I often think I basically always was looking for a father, so I was conscious of the documents that assured your security. And then, on top of that, there were the Founding Fathers. So “father” was a big word in my life.

RE: But did your father have an impact on your Jewish identity at all or was that …?

NL: I don’t think so. Much more my grandparents, my mother’s parents.

RE: You gave a quote in the book inspired by Daniel Pearl’s last words, “I am Jewish,” and your quote was, “I identify with everything in life as a Jew.” You described yourself as a “total Jew” in that book.

NL: Well, I had to have been talking culturally, because I’ve never been religious.

But I am a total Jew. I don’t like prayer, per se. I like gratitude. So I don’t care where the prayers are coming from, and I don’t disapprove. Just keep them out of my face, and keep them out of the public square. Enjoy your relationship with the Almighty, God, the deity or whatever you care to call it, as a private act, because there are no two of us whose contact with the Almighty is the same.  

One of my “nexts,” and probably the leading next, would be to find a way to do a nondenominational religious service honoring everybody’s God. But not traditional, not out of the sacred Scriptures, not out of this church or that church, but honoring our common humanity. A river of reverence runs for thousands of miles. The temperature and climate change, and as a result, the foliage changes, but the waters are the same that nourish all of us. That’s our common humanity. I’d like to do Sunday morning services with the most kick-ass music and preaching.

RE: What do you hope would come out of it?

NL: A conversation about how we can’t have this anymore. We’ve been killing ourselves, and each other, in the name of God more than anything else. That’s got to stop at some point. That’s what I hope, to start that conversation.

RE: So you’d want this spiritual service to bring people together in conversation around the same things we talked about in the beginning?

NL: Yeah. Bring them all into the conversation. We’re all groping, except those a–holes who “know.”

RE: In your book, you call yourself an “Unaffiliated Groper.” 

NL: I love that! That’s what I am.

RE: Is that because as you’ve gotten older, spirituality has become more important to you?

NL: Groping is a big word for me, because that’s what this conversation is. Groping to say it better. Behind that is groping to understand it better. There’s nothing more important in my life. And I see that everything I do, and think, and speak — that’s at the center of all of it, groping for just a little more understanding. And I’ve learned that there’s more. It doesn’t end because one is of any age.

RE: More what?

NL: More information, more insight, more understanding of how hard it is to be a human being. And how great it is.
       

This interview was edited for publication.

If Norman Lear at 92 is what 92 is, I’ll have what he’s having

It is not widely known that Norman Lear and I have the same mother.

Norman once called his mother in Bridgeport, Conn., and said, “Mother, I just got this call. The Television Academy is forming a Hall of Fame. And the first inductees are going to be General Sarnoff and Edward R. Murrow and William Paley and Milton Berle and Paddy Chayefsky and Lucille Ball — and me.”

There was about a two-second beat, and she said, “Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?”

My brother and I once sent our parents a silver bowl from Tiffany’s, engraved, “For our Mom and Dad on their Silver Wedding Anniversary. With Love from David and Martin.” We didn’t hear anything, so I called.

“Mom, did a package come for you and Dad?”

“Yes, son, it did.”

“I hope you like it. Jill helped us pick it out.”

Jill was my college roommate’s girlfriend, who lived in New York. I didn’t know from Tiffany silver bowls, except that this was the best present my brother and I could think of to make them feel special. I had asked Jill, who did know from such things, to go to Tiffany’s and tell me the classiest bowl we could afford.

“Do you like it, Mom?”

There was about a two-second beat, and she said, “Listen, I’m sure Jill’s parents would know how to appreciate it.”

When I heard Norman tell that story about his mother, I was thrilled to find out I’m not the only kid who grew up thinking that sado-narcissism is normal motherly love. My father, unlike Norman’s, did not go to jail. But when Norman tells how a 9-year old feels when his father is sent to prison for three years for fraud, those feelings are mine.

Over the past few weeks, for many hours a day, aloud, Norman has been telling painful, hilarious stories about our (OK, his) mother and father, and about many others in his life, from Frank Sinatra and Mary Hartman to Jerry Falwell and Maya Angelou. He’s just finished recording the audio version of his autobiography, which is coming out in October. Its title is “martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Ambushed by optimism

Twice in the past few weeks, my train of thought has been hijacked by hope.

I am not by nature pessimistic.  But for a while now my mood about America’s prospects has been grim.  Big money has swamped our politics.  Power has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.  Extremism has been mainstreamed.  Fact-based reality has increasingly little bearing on public discourse.  Institutions like education, the media and self-governance have grown sclerotic, pernicious and dysfunctional.  Faced with looming catastrophes like climate change, we’re – oh, hell, there I go again, talking myself out onto a ledge.

But two recent events unexpectedly heartened me, and that they happened in the runup to the Fourth of July has not been lost on me.

The first took place at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  It was a 90th birthday celebration for ” target=”_hplink”>Young Elected Officials network of ” target=”_hplink”>Seth Maxwell saw a photo of a misery-afflicted child taken by a friend in Uganda.  We’ve all seen pictures like that; we’ve all been heartsick and overwhelmed by them.  But it wasn’t futility that gripped Seth; it was determination, against all odds, to prevent that suffering.

For months he learned everything he could about the root cause of that child’s misery: water.  He found out that a billion people lack access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.  Eighty percent of the world’s diseases result from drinking contaminated water; every day, 4,400 children die from those diseases.  The long trek to collect water exhausts the girls who do it, keeps them from school and locks them and their families in poverty.  The tools of community development – health, education, agriculture, micro-finance – all depend on solving the problem of water.

“As a 19-year-old college student living in one of the most expensive cities in the world with absolutely no money,” Seth recalled, “all I could think was, ‘What can one person really do?’  I didn’t really know, but I couldn’t live with this new knowledge inside of me and not act.”  So he rounded up 7 college friends, they pooled all their money – 70 bucks! – to buy water bottles and they took to Hollywood Boulevard to persuade anyone who’d listen that water was life.  Seventy dollars became $1,700 in donations.  They used it to rehabilitate a well in Africa.  Their passion led schools and churches to ask them to come speak, and in a month they’d raised $12,000. 

So ” target=”_hplink”>Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Giants of the Small Screen

Andy and Opie. Archie and Meathead. The Professor and Mary Ann. Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia. We can all thank Sheldon Leonard, Norman Lear, Sherwood Schwartz and Susan Harris, respectively, for bringing these people into our living rooms and the pop culture landscape.

To some, they were the menches next door, but to the TV Land cable network they are “Moguls,” the ones with the “golden touch,” says Merv Griffin, host of the six-part series, which debuts Wednesday, April 21.

The show, narrated by actor Adam Arkin, devotes one hour each Wednesday to the last five boob-tube decades — two for the 1970s, due to the size of everyone’s hair.

The series is packed with enough interesting tidbits to please any TVologist. For instance, Leonard brought “The Danny Thomas Show” to Mayberry to introduce the character of Andy Griffith, thus eliminating the need to spend money on a separate pilot — an idea Lear would capitalize on two decades later with his “All in the Family” franchise (go ahead, count the spinoffs).

The first episode of “Moguls,” “The 50s,” splits time between TV pioneers Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz and Leonard/Danny Thomas — and answers the question of why the two companies never merged (hint: creative differences).

The final episode, “The 90s,” takes us to the cutting-edge worlds of Darren Star (“Sex and the City”), Dick Wolf (“Law and Order”) and Jerry Bruckheimer (the “CSI” franchise).

Like their movie counterparts, the moguls were not overt in their Judaism. However, there were several Yiddishkayt touches along the way, from Buddy Sorrell’s 1966 adult bar mitzvah on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to Charlotte York’s conversion to Judaism on “Sex and the City” in 2003.

Ironically, the moguls took stories from their own lives (many of “The Brady Bunch” plots were from Schwartz’s own family) and created the ultimate non-Jewish, all-American families. Thanks to syndication, the creative vision of these men and women will live on long after their closing credits have rolled.

Part one of “TV Land Moguls,” “The 50s,” airs April 21, 9
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