Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in films and sitcoms from Groundhog Day to Mississippi Burning, from Glee to Californication. Tobolowsky is in Seattle this weekend to talk about his new collection of personal stories, “The Dangerous Animals Club.” He talked to JTNews about his book and his deep relationship to Judaism.
JTNews: Tell us about “The Dangerous Animals Club.”
Stephen Tobolowsky: “The Dangerous Animals Club” is a collection of stories that are all true, and they all happened to me. If I were to characterize what the entire book is about, they’re stories that are about the beginnings of things. Stories like first love, first heartbreak, first agent, first job, first dog. The Dangerous Animals Club itself was the first club I was in. So it’s our entry point into life, both the happy parts and the sad parts.
The first major loss — when I lost my mother — that story’s in there too. Most of the stories are funny. A few of them are not. I usually see most things in life as funny. It’s just kind of a barometer of who I am.
JT: Jewishness seems to factor into your work quite a bit. How does it function in the book?
ST: It’s funny. I gave the book to my Hebrew teacher to read, and she said, “You know, Stephen, this is a very Jewish book.”
We grew up in a very strange part of Texas, and there were only three Jewish families. Growing up I was always a stranger in a strange land. You grow up being like, “why couldn’t I just be like everybody else?” Our family was not particularly religious. We didn’t celebrate the Sabbath, we didn’t celebrate Hanukkah because I think Dad didn’t want to buy presents for eight days. Heaven help us, we never had any wine. But we were a very ethical family. I think that was what my Hebrew teacher was telling me. We followed Jewish values even though we weren’t educated in them that well.
JT: How about in your life today?
ST: When I came out to Los Angeles, I kept telling Mom, “I’m going to find a synagogue.” [Years later] I was working on a sitcom and the producers were Jewish. And they said, “Well, we’re going to work on Rosh Hashanah. Does that bother any of you?” Richard Kind says, “Oh, you don’t have to worry, the only Jews here are me and Tobolowsky, and we’re the best kind of Jews that there are. You know, the Jews in name only.”
Everybody was laughing, and it hurt me when he said that, but there was truth. I guess what hurt so much was that it was a barb of truth. It had been over a decade since I had been in a synagogue, maybe two.
I remember I woke up the next morning at, like, dawn, and I just couldn’t sleep all night. I had just done a movie with Larry Miller, and he was telling me about the synagogue he went to, which was one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall synagogues, just like a little house. I went over there first thing in the morning, and there was an old man sweeping up in front of the place. And I said, “Excuse me, could I have a ticket for Rosh Hashanah?” And he says, “We don’t have any tickets.” I said, “Please, I just need one. I just need one.” And he says, “There aren’t any. I’d give you one, but there aren’t any.” I said, “I’ll stand. You have to understand. I have to go this year.” He says, “There’s nothing. I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing.” I said, “Well, do you know when the guy who’s in charge of stuff? And he says, “Well, I’m the rabbi! I’m the one who’s in charge.”
And I said, “Please, please.” He said, “Well, tonight is Friday night. Why don’t you come to synagogue tonight and see if you like it, and then we’ll see if there’s any room for you on Rosh Hashanah.”
And I thought, Oh damn, I just got shnonkered! I called up my wife, Ann, and said I’m going to be home late. I said, “I got shnookered by this old man, and I’m gonna go to services.”
I was sitting in the back of this tiny little room, and the rabbi comes out and says we’re going to start with a prayer about how happy we are when brothers are united. And I had never heard the song before. Everyone sang along, and I pulled a prayer book out of the back and tried to look reverent, try to appear inconspicuous.
The rabbi goes “Stop, stop, stop! Now is not the time to be in prayers. Now is the time just to sing with joy. Sing with joy and we’ll do our prayers later.” It was obvious that I had no clue what was going on.
The rabbi does not look at me, he just says “You know, there may be some of us who haven’t been in a synagogue for a very long time. And maybe they don’t know the songs anymore; maybe they don’t know Hebrew anymore. Well, guess what, I know Hebrew very well, so I’ll do the Hebrew for you, and all you have to do is sing ‘la la la’ and be happy.” And I thought, This guy is for me! So I told the guys on the TV show that I was going to go to Rosh Hashanah. They were going to have to come up with other plans.
I ended up going every Friday night and every Saturday morning for the next 10 years. By the end of that 10 years, Larry and I were helping him with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
ST: You gotta have exodus at some point in your life before you’re able to come back. I began to see the wisdom in Judaism that I’d never really seen before. I didn’t understand how profound it is on so many levels. Of course, my generation is one that was very taken in the 60s with Buddhism and counter culture and all this kind of stuff. It was all there in the Torah before. The genius of the Torah — you cannot go too deep. However that came about was such a miracle, such a blessing for everybody. To have this book of wisdom that’s available for people to look at.
So I go to minyan when I can in the morning when I’m not working. I go to services Saturday when I’m not working. My wife and I, our goal is to have a real Shabbat once a month. If it’s possible. With no electronics, no nothing, no TV, where you just read, stay with your family. Just try — once! But it’s so hard because showbiz does not recognize such things. You work all the time. It’s difficult to maintain that.
This is really humiliating: I’m going to read from the Torah for the first time in my life on Shavuos. Heaven help me. Heaven help everyone. It’s terrifying.
JT: You had a near-death experience yourself, when you were thrown from a horse and broke your neck. How did that impact your faith?
ST: I’ve had in my life an unfortunate experience with the miraculous. The doctor told me I had a “fatal injury.” I felt like it was a miracle to be alive. And from that experience I understood what the Talmud talks about when it talks about the afflictions of love. Sometimes a curse is not a curse. Sometimes a curse happens to be a blessing that enables you to see your life through new eyes.
I think is what I want my stories to do. That’s what I’ve found Judaism’s done for me. I’m very appreciative of all the giants in our faith that have laid their ideas down…great minds throughout history that have embraced this idea of how to see your life through new eyes. The key to rejuvenation is all right there. That’s why I love it and embrace it.
JT: Any other projects in the works?
ST: I’m working on a second book called “My Adventures with God,” which is a series of stories about people and their relationship to things. I always saw life as two kinds of people: People who are good at algebra and people who are good at geometry. People who are good at algebra are good at finding x. To be good at geometry, you have to know the answer before you start the problem and get to the end in the fewest steps possible. That ain’t me. People’s relationship to faith is more like calculus, and most of us have dropped out of math by the time we get to that point in the book. Calculus is learning the shape of a curve. The change of trajectory, the change of minimum force, and as you go through life it all changes very much. When you’re a child religion means one thing to you, and when you start a family it means something else, and when you encounter death and near death in your own life it develops and changes again. So this book is a series of stories that starts when I was a little kid. My first exposure to God and Judaism and the Torah when I was 5 going to religious school, and the first time I broke the 10 commandments and knew it, and wanted to break them. We all have that desire to just implode on ourselves.