You know his face, but you may not know his name. Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in over 200 television shows and movies. And over the course of his life, Tobolowsky has also nurtured his Judaism. In his new memoir, “My Adventures With God,” the actor tells the affecting stories that shaped him as an artist, a man and a Jew.
What inspired you to write “My Adventures With God?”
After my first book, “The Dangerous Animals Club,” was released, my editor at Simon & Schuster said people responded to the humor in my stories as well as the spiritual aspects of them. He wanted me to write another book of true stories held together by a spiritual element. I thought about it and came up with the concept that our lives seemed to fit the template of the Torah.
How do our lives align with the Five Books of Moses?
Everybody has a Genesis story—stories people usually tell on a first date about who they are, where they came from and even some of the horrors they’ve been through. In Exodus we all go into slavery, but instead of building pyramids we lose ourselves in first loves, first jobs and are desperately trying to find opportunities. Some of us sadly lose ourselves in alcohol and drugs, and some just stay in graduate school forever.
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Then, like the children of Israel, we have this Leviticus moment where we stop and realize who we are. At this point in life most people have a midcourse correction. In my life that’s when I got married to my wife, Ann, became a father and returned to Judaism. All of this happened in a short period of time, and what blows me away is [the coincidence] that Leviticus is the shortest book of the Torah. It’s also the most potent book for me because of the holiness code—it packs a wallop.
The Book of Numbers is shaped by mortality, grief and sorrow, and so are we as we age and lose our loved ones. If we are lucky, we get to Deuteronomy and look back to see what this journey of life has been all about.
Does Judaism get complicated for you?
My Judaism can get complicated around observance. One of the great goals Ann and I have is to celebrate a Shabbat with no work, no electronics. I was in a movie in 2004 called “Little Black Book” where we had to work on Yom Kippur, and it wrecked me. The producer wouldn’t change the schedule for a Jewish holiday. Five of us in the movie were Jewish. While we were all distressed, we knew this was the life we signed up for.
The Talmud, however, had an answer for our dilemma. It says to learn to pray on the road. I followed that advice by saying Kol Nidre in the morning with my fellow Jewish actors. I fasted all day and at the end of the shoot we gathered together for the closing prayers. We weren’t like Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, but we found a way to have some observance.
How did reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months for your mother affect you?
I initially dreaded saying the Kaddish because the loss of my mother was so fresh and my Jewish learning was so shallow. I was afraid of not saying the prayer properly in front of an audience. The Talmud makes a point that there is a difference between spoken prayer and silent prayer. Spoken prayer carries the power of becoming action. Whereas silent prayer, while lovely, remains in the realm of contemplation. Standing up to say the Kaddish, out loud, was completely unpredictable for me. I didn’t know what would happen to me when I said those words. It turns out that Kaddish healed my heart and it gave me joy to say it. I also found the pleasure of being part of the community so rewarding that I continued to be part of the daily minyan. And I met Abe at that time, who was saying the Kaddish for his wife while I was saying it for my mother.
You had a very special relationship with Abe, a Holocaust survivor. How does that relationship continue to inspire and affect you?
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of one of Abe’s jokes or him feeding me a slice of his horrible apple cake. Our friendship was first predicated on location—we were at the same place at the same time. Then it became a friendship predicated on an activity—we were both in mourning. Then it was a friendship based on socializing. We ate breakfast, played cards and drank way too much whiskey together. In the end, we were bound by something far more powerful, in that Abe gave me his story. Once Abe died I became the guardian of that story.
After all the edits were done for “My Adventures With God,” I looked over the script of the audio book and saw the number Abe received at Auschwitz was transcribed incorrectly. I was so angry that I called up my editor and said the book couldn’t be published that way. That number was like Abe’s name. I refused to have the book published if the number wasn’t right. Apparently focused rage worked and everything was corrected.
What was the most memorable story Abe told you?
The metaphor of Judaism that burns in my chest is when I asked Abe how he survived Auschwitz. He told me he made the rounds at synagogues that were still standing after the war. It did not matter if one had faith; the synagogue was an information clearinghouse. To meet his needs, Abe said all he had to do was rip out a page of the prayer book and hold it up in the street to indicate that he needed food or clothing. It was a shocking, striking image from the Holocaust that I will never forget.
Find more information about Stephen Tobolowsky’s appearance at the Vilna Shul here.