Star power helps Joshua Malina step into spotlight as proud Jew
Actor Joshua Malina’s address to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Young Adult Division (YAD) this Saturday night, “How to Make it in Hollywood and Remain a Mensch,” is based on “two very shaky assertions,” the co-star of ABC-TV’s “Scandal” said.
“One: whether I’ve made it in Hollywood,” he quipped, “and two: whether I’ve remained a mensch.”
In addition to his portrayal of Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen on “Scandal,” Malina, 49, is often recognized for his roles on two critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin television shows, “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and he has garnered a reputation in the Jewish world for publicly supporting Israel and upholding the Jewish values with which he was raised.
He will be the featured speaker at the Main Event 2015, a cocktail party/fundraiser presented by the YAD on Jan. 31 from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Circuit Center & Ballroom.
“My background as a Jew is my prime identifier,” Malina said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “If I had to pick one word to describe myself, it would either be ‘Daddy’ or ‘Jew.’ Those are the two most important things to me.”
Malina was raised in a Conservative household but attended an Orthodox yeshiva for eight years. He married a woman who converted to Judaism and now attends a Reconstructionist synagogue.
“I’ve had an incredibly broad variety of exposure to different people experiencing and interpreting their Judaism in different ways,” he said. “And it’s been a very, very valuable thing to me. Rather than having any kind of difficulty deciding what flavor I am, it has all enhanced the way that I try to be a Jew and live a meaningful Jewish life and raise kids who care about being Jewish.”
He said he plans to speak in Pittsburgh about his Jewish upbringing, his route as an actor and how those two facets of his life have started to intersect in recent years.
He finds it curious that his opinion as a Jew is often now sought out just because he is an actor.
“It’s a weird thing, and in some ways I resisted it at first because I have been hesitant to think that my views are any more important or interesting than anyone else’s because I am an actor for a living,” he said. “I’ve never quite understood that.”
But, he said, he has come to the conclusion that there is an upside to people soliciting his views because of his public profile.
“If I can, I try to say what I have to say about Israel or bring things to a more positive light or — I hate to say — be a Jewish role model because I don’t think I have the kind of career where anybody is looking up to me as a role model,” he said. “But sometimes I feel in the Jewish world there is not a vacuum but a relative lack of people who are Jewish and open and positive about what their Judaism means to them.”
It is particularly important, he said, that Jews in Hollywood who have a positive take on Israel share those views.
“I think when it comes to Israel, the issues are very loaded, and the word itself, when you mention the country itself, it already starts everybody thinking different things and some of it is negative,” he noted. “This is why it’s important to engage and discuss things, and if you have a positive view, to air it, and to let people know there are other sides to what I sometimes feel tends to be a lopsided media take on Israel and surrounding issues.
“If there is going to be any hope for peace, or coming together, there has to be real substantive discussion of difficult issues,” he continued. “And I think a lot of actors — and in one sense, understandably — want to avoid anything that’s too controversial. They think, ‘Oh, people aren’t going to come to my movies if I say this or that.’”
Because he does not consider himself to be a high-profile actor, Malina said that in speaking out in favor of Israel, “the stakes are lower for me.”
He got his first wake up call about the reluctance of Hollywood Jews to show their support for the Jewish state at a pro-Israel rally in 2001 organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Malina was invited to the rally as one of its celebrity participants.
“I immediately accepted,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, I’m happy to go.’ And this was a completely apolitical get-together. It was just ‘let’s get together and create a little noise on behalf of the fact that Israel has the right to exist,’ which to me already is a little sad to think that you have to rally to say that Israel has a right to exist. But if you invite me, I’m happy to come.
“I went there and I was supposed to sit on the dais as a celebrity,” he continued. “And you know, now it’s 2015, and I’m no celebrity. Half of the people who approach me are fans of ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Scandal,’ and the other half think that we went to high school together. And that’s all fine with me. But 14 years ago, I certainly wasn’t a celebrity and that was brought into focus when I approached the celebrity sign-in desk, and they asked me who I was. So, I laughed, and I got to spell my name, twice. And then I finally got up on the dais, and there were no celebrities. There was the then-mayor of Los Angeles, and there was this great Jewish musician that I know, and then I was looking over my shoulder like where are the actual celebrities?”
It turns out none were there. Afterward, Malina spoke to the federation’s entertainment liaison, and asked, “What happened?”
“She said, ‘Oh, are you kidding me? The fact that it was Israel, nobody will come,’” Malina recounted. “She sounded so resigned. It sounded like she was 10 years into realizing that if it is specifically about Israel, don’t bother.
“That became the thing that really stuck in my mind. And this is disturbing. I understand if it was about some specific policy of the Israeli government and people disagreed, or whatever, that’s fine. But this was such an open, broad statement — that Israel has the right to exist. How could anybody, how could any Jewish celebrity have a problem sitting up there and waiving a little Jewish flag and singing Hatikvah? Is it that bad?”
Many of Malina’s friends “have an instinct to be pro-Israel, but they are intimidated by the tsunami of negative press that Israel gets,” he said.
“My response is, ‘Make up your own mind, but read a book, read a newspaper, get all sides to the story. Sometimes there is some substance to what the other side is saying. Let it be a conversation. And go to Israel, visit Israel and see what you think. Until you go to Israel, you’re really not going to have a sense of what the country is.’”
Malina said he is looking forward to addressing the YAD in Pittsburgh, as the young audience represents the Jewish future, and that future’s link to the past.
“They are the future of Jewish leaders, and Jewish philanthropists,” he said. “They are the type of people who will help define what being Jewish means and how Judaism is going to continue to be interpreted. It means a lot to me, that line of thousands of years. I feel in a very positive way that I’m part of a continuum. And when I light Shabbos candles with my kids, it’s something Jews did thousands of years ago, and it is something that people around the world are doing tonight. That’s always been very meaningful to me.”
Malina said that he has encountered very few instances where the practice of his faith has collided detrimentally with his career.
“In terms of scheduling, people have been very, very good,” he said. “I got the job on ‘The West Wing’ at a point in my career — of which there have been many — when I desperately needed a job. And to my horror, I got the initial schedule and I realized my first day of shooting was on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a day on which I don’t work. Never have. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. I might lose this job before I start it.’ So I called in, and I spoke to an associate producer on the show, and she herself was Jewish. And I remember telling her my situation, and I probably said it fairly meekly. Then there was this pause on the line, and her response was, ‘There’s a second day of Rosh Hashanah?’ Then she said, ‘Of course you don’t have to come in. No problem.’ ”
He did, however, fail to get a job on a pizza commercial early on in his career when he refused to eat a slice of pizza during Passover, he recalled. Instead of eating the pizza, he walked away.
“That’s the closest I will ever come to being a Sandy Koufax,” he said. “It’s a pretty small negative story. All things considered, being a Jewish actor, I can’t pretend it’s been a tough, tough road.”
In addition to Malina’s presentation, the evening will include an open bar, heavy hors d’oeuvres and desserts. At the event attendees will be able to make a contribution to the Federation’s annual campaign and take photos with Malina.
Sponsors of Main Event 2015 are Huntington Bank; Dinsmore, a full-service business law firm and the Loren R. Hirsch Memorial Endowment Fund.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.