By: Jessica Sion
On Tuesday, November 19th, Cornell Hillel invited Scandal and West Wing actor Joshua Malina to give a talk, “How to Make it in Hollywood and Remain a Mensch.” Scheduled for 5:30, the event attracted a diverse but eager crowd that filled Statler Auditorium.
Josh Malina grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., attending Westchester Day School and then Horace Mann. He graduated from the Yale theatre program in 1988 and made his professional acting debut in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway production, A Few Good Men. His parents are both Cornell alumni; the three could be seen walking around campus on Monday and Tuesday.
Hillel welcomed Malina on stage by presenting him with a white Hillel hat – an allusion to his character on Scandal, attorney David Rosen, who is often said to wear the “white hat.”
Malina began by reassuring the audience that he would define all ensuing Yiddish terms, explaining that a “Mensch” meant a good person. He then turned his focus to the topic of the evening: exploring the ways in which his religious identity has overlapped with his career as an actor.
“‘Actor’ describes what I do. A Jew is who I am,” Malina explained, admitting that the two have not been particularly intertwined. The actor noted that he identifies with the conservative movement, though he and his family currently belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Los Angeles. He added that his days in a Yeshiva nurtured a lifelong Jewish spirit in him, citing Sukkot as his favorite Jewish holiday.
Malina took a moment to adamantly urge the Jews in the audience to embrace their religious identity and take advantage of Hillel, simultaneously stressing the importance of Tikkun Olam, or charity. Addressing his role as a Jewish father, he discussed his attempts to cultivate a strong Jewish identity in his two children.
Malina soon began to talk about his acting career. After graduating from Yale, he moved to New York City, where his mother put him in touch with Aaron Sorkin. Malina shared with the audience the life changing moment that occurred shortly after his debut in A Few Good Men: he saved Sorkin from choking on a doughnut. The actor went on to work with Sorkin in several other productions, including Sports Night and West Wing. His advice to aspiring actors – “Heimlech somebody who’s more talented than you are.”
After mentioning his reputation on set as a prankster and revealing his more devious attempts to a crowd of amused fans, Malina shared one particular experience during which his Jewish identity came into conflict with his career. Back as an aspiring actor, Malina went to audition for a commercial over Passover – only to discover that he had to eat pizza to try out. Placing his religion over his career, he refused to audition.
The actor explained that he began to deliver talks on this topic after going to a rally for Israel in Los Angeles, only to find that no other celebrities were attending. “If it has to do with Israel,” he remarked, “celebrities won’t come out!”
A loyal supporter of Israel himself, Malina expressed his concern over the lack of role models willing to link themselves to Judaism. He mentioned the younger generation’s tendency to associate with cultural, rather than religious, Judaism.
Malina concluded his speech by once again encouraging the Jews in the audience to embrace their religion and reach out to Jewish organizations such as Hillel. He closed with the Jewish prayer, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” – “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.”