BY JEFF ZELL / AJT //
This is a story of boy meets Judaism, boy loses Judaism and then boy gets Judaism. It is also the story of Hollywood screenwriter David Weiss, who has written such hits as “Shrek 2,” “The Smurfs,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” and the “Rugrats Hanukkah” special.
Last week, Weiss was in Atlanta to speak about his spiritual ride at an event hosted by Chabad of North Fulton entitled, “From Hollywood to Holy Hood.”
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Born and raised as a reform Jew in Ventura, California, Weiss left Judaism to become an Evangelical Christian youth worker at the age of 18, only to return to Judaism and become Modern Orthodox and Shomar Shabas later in life.
Rabbi Hirshey Minkowicz listened to a lecture Weiss gave in South Africa while driving his family of 10 from Atlanta to New York City and decided he would be the perfect guest speaker to begin an annual Fall Event.
“I listen to various lectures while the kids watch movies on this long drive and found David Weiss,” Minkowicz recalled. “My goal is for people to have a meaningful Jewish experience and with David they can have one that is both funny and inspirational.”
About 50 people attended the Gallery Events Center in Johns Creek to hear Weiss speak about his journey.
“I was a very scared and confused kid,” Weiss opines about his youth in a part of California where few Jews settle. “I never really understood Judaism and became an Evangelical Christian for 15 years. I converted at 18 having had Jewish experiences but mostly in a social and cultural way. People are interested in my story because I am a screenwriter. If it was a Falcons Cheerleader who had the same story people would be interested in her.”
Weiss’s road to Hollywood was a bit more direct than his path to Judaism. After wowing people with his writing of a short movie at USC Film School, many Hollywood agents vied to sign him as a client.
“I decided to sign with the prettiest agent I could find,” he mused. “She also happened to be the dumbest.”
He eventually got his big break when he was hired to help write “All Dogs Go to Heaven” in Ireland. It was in this Irish Catholic country that he met an Orthodox Jewish person on the set who started to introduce him to some Jewish concepts. As they talked and argued, Weiss began to realize he had an amazing connection to many Jewish beliefs and began to revisit his Jewish background.
When he returned to California he met influential talk show host Michael Medved who invited him over for Shabbat dinners and eventually convinced him to attend shul more regularly.
“I would go to shul on Saturday and church on Sunday and thought to myself, ‘When do I have time to go to Costco?’ The more I attended shul the more Judaism made sense to me and less stuff in the church made sense to me.”
During this time his wife Eliana, who he had met in the Church, began going to synagogue as well and they both decided to convert to Judaism. The two became more and more immersed in the culture and eventually got to the point of observing Shabbat.
“Hey when my wife first decided she wanted to have a Kosher kitchen in the house, I was not ready, but I did it because it was important to her. It’s kind of like the theme we put into Shrek 2, ‘love means what’s important to you is important to me.’ It is an act of love to decide to be interested in what your significant other is.
“Then when I was eating bacon and eggs at my favorite deli, I began to realize maybe I should not eat bacon out if I am in this wonderful Kosher home. And then maybe I should not eat the eggs since they are cooked with this bacon and then I stopped eating at my favorite deli because it did not make sense to do so. And that really is my motto – take one step toward realizing your potential every day. Shema Echad, do one more thing each day and now I have a beautiful little Jewish family with two children.”
Weiss then told the crowd that the way in which the world portrays Hollywood as controlled by Jews is very misleading.
“There are a lot of people who were born Jewish in Hollywood, but they have gravitated away from observing. They are more secular Jews and do not observe many Jewish customs,” he revealed.
Being an observant Jew can often be a hindrance to getting big breaks in the world of show business. In fact, when he got another big break by being hired as a script writer for the television show “Cybil,” he hid the fact that he did not work on Shabbat because that show did all their rewrites on Friday night and Saturday.
When he eventually told the head writer that he could not write at these times, the man became angry. However, after offering to resign or promising to write 24/6 for the show, the head writer decided to keep him on.
“It was there that there was this great kitchen on the lot created for Roseanne Bar and her show and this top of the line German chef who made the food for us, the cast of ‘Seinfeld,’ and the cast of ‘Third Rock from the Sun.’”
Eventually, the chef realized that Weiss was the only person who would not eat his renowned chicken. He was initially resistant to cater to Weiss before deciding to prepare the food so that Weiss could also partake.
And in that story you see the ironic plot twist in Weiss’s story come full circle – a German chef preparing a Kosher meal for an Orthodox Jew who came back to Judaism after meeting the first Orthodox Jew while shooting a move in Catholic Ireland. Sounds like a good script for a movie!