Ron Rifkin’s Jewish Journeys

LimmudLA weekend in Costa Mesa:

Video of Ron Rifkin

On Sunday morning, actor Ron Rifkin, 69, talks about his Jewish journeys. Raised Orthodox, sent to yeshivot, he’s never been to Israel. "I don’t travel well."

He left Orthodox Judaism at age 32.

He says President Bush is stupid.

He gives me permission to blog his talk and put the video on the internet.

Ron Rifkin: "I come from an Orthodox, sort of Hasidic, background. I was born in Williamsburg. I went to Yeshiva Torah V’Das. I went to Yeshiva Yitzhak Elchanan in the Bronx, Washington Heights."

"For my bar mitzvah, I said shacharis. I lened the whole sedra. I did the haftorah. I made a speech and I davened musaf. I was the star of that Shabbos. I was already an actor. I could still do the whole sedra of Noach by heart."

"My first Broadway show was an understudy to Joel Gray. I was shomer shabbos. I knew I had to be at the theatre every Friday night and Saturday and I lived in Great Neck at my parents house on Long Island, so I took a hotel room on Friday night and Saturday so that I wouldn’t have to ride on Shabbos.

"But eventually I decided that I needed to travel to see what that was like and I remember it was a quarter to go through the tunnel and I remember handing the guy a quarter sobbing. It was the first thing I had done on Shabbos that I wasn’t supposed to do."

"I was 22. I still cry about things like that. When I hear Shlomo Carlebach, it freaks me out. It’s the greatest sound in the world. It’s the sound that comforts me the most. I haven’t lost that. I’ve just reinvented it. But Orthodox Jews wouldn’t approve of that."

"I fell in love with a girl who was a dancer on Broadway. She was very beautiful. I didn’t know how to meet her. It was Hanukkah time. I sent invitations to all the Broadway theaters and said I was lighting Hanukkah candles for the next eight nights at the Les Atkinson theater, fifth floor, and whoever wants to come… That’s how I met my wife. We’ve been married 41 years."

"I’m trying to figure out what part Judaism plays in my life. When I listen to music, the music of my soul is the sound I grew up with in Brooklyn."

"When I got married, my wife, who’s Jewish, had to go to the mikveh. She didn’t know what mikveh was. It was a traumatic event for her because my mother said, ‘My mother went, my grandmother went, I went, you’ll go.’

"My wife was blonde. She had hair down to her waist. She had false eyelashes."

"Her parents were commies. They went to shul on Yom Kippur. She didn’t know what kosher was. But she can sing yiddish songs and she knows all of Shlomo Carlebach and it makes her so happy only because she sees how happy it makes me."

"It was 1966. I asked Rabbi Wolf in Great Neck to make sure the mikveh she went to was modern. I had a little MG. We parked on 76th street. This little yeshiva bochur opened the door and asked, ‘What’s a shiksa doing here?’

"The rabbi wouldn’t marry us unless she wore long sleeves. She designed a dress with breakaway sleeves. As soon as we were married, she took the stitches out. It was August.

"We kept kosher. I was still shomer shabbos. We moved immediately to LA. We lived on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills. We went to Beth Jacob. My wife came to shul every Shabbos. She wore a hat and gloves and learned. She still doesn’t read Hebrew.

"One day I said I wanted to taste trafe. I was 32. It was time for me to start my journey [out of Orthodox Judaism]. I am by nature a very spiritual person."

"I still am most comfortable in an Orthodox shul."

Luke: "What do you miss and what do you not miss about being Orthodox?"

Ron: "I don’t know that I miss anything because everything I loved about being Orthodox is in me — the smells, the sounds, I can still daven if I want to. There’s a lot I don’t miss. I don’t miss the prejudice. I went to yeshiva. Very strict yeshivas. In the fifties, those yeshivas were very tough. It’s not something I miss… I don’t miss the anger and hostility that is part of that world towards people who aren’t.

"After I stopped being shomer shabbos, I became a devotee of a Hindu monk. Friday night I’d get in my Volkwagon and drive to Oakland, CA to be with this teacher and put a red dot on my forehead [and bow down and meditate]. I thought, if my zayde could see me now… I left that world after five years."

Luke: "Do you miss Orthodox community?"

Ron: "I don’t miss that. I don’t like to join groups. I’m a very private person. That part of it was never exciting to me."

"My mother (one of 14 children) died recently. She was 96… I haven’t put tefillin on in 30 years. I went to my shul in Tribeca and this is what I don’t miss. I’ve been a member of this shul for years. I’m a lefty. I put tefillin on my right arm. I forgot something about. The rabbi was looking at me and didn’t come over to help me and that freaked me out."

"I called this rabbi in Queens to officiate. He takes me to the yeshiva. He says, your family for 60 years have been contributing to this yeshiva. I had no idea."

"My real name is Saul Rifkin. I graduated college in 1959. To be an actor in those days Saul Rifkin, I took my sister’s name Ronit. I wouldn’t change Rifkin. I thought, if I ever did well, I want my parents to be proud of me."

"When I was an apprentice at Summerstock, I had a small part and I had to light this guy’s cigarette. I said to the director, I can’t do it on Friday night and Saturday. I can’t strike a match. He said, you have to do it.

"This was a Southern uptight guy.

"They took the part away from me. It was one line."

Question: Have you encountered anti-Semitism?

Ron: "Not really. We, the people in show business, are very open. We’re not really prejudiced at all for the most part and people who become actors or writers or dancers or musicians are very respectful of people’s roots."

"I have run into anti-Semitism from Jews. I’ve been told I’m too Jewish… There is an idea in show business that you shouldn’t be too Jewish."

Luke: "Do you get embarrassed by the behavior of other Jews?"

Ron: "I get embarrassed by vulgarity, by people who are rude, by people who aren’t kind and respectful. Somebody who walks around with tzitzit hanging out or a sheitl or a skirt down to her ankles, no."

"I could lay tefillin every morning and say shacharis by heart and it was all by rote. I was shuckling and suddenly I thought, what am I doing? This has become a habit. I need to find out what my connection to G-d is…"

Luke: "What did you take away from your five years of [Hindu] practice with that monk?"

Ron: "Not to judge anyone. Ever. And not to be judged."

"I lived at the ashram for a while. My wife called me Hinjew. It was a fantastic time for me. I just knew that when it was over, it was over."

Luke: "What about when you encounter evil?"

Ron: "What does that have to do with what I took away?"

Luke: "I asked you what you took away from five years of Hindu practice. You said you took away to never judge anyone. If you never judge anyone, how then do you relate to evil? Jews react passionately to evil. We judge."

Ron: "I’m talking about judging people’s spiritual beliefs. I don’t want people to judge me based on the fact that I’m not shomer shabbos and I don’t want people at an ashram to judge me because I didn’t meditate for two hours Wednesday morning."

Luke: "We judge other people’s political beliefs, their competency with their work…"

Ron: "I’m a Democrat. I was having dinner with my cousin and I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting with a blood relative and she voted for Bush twice.’

"My wife was kicking me under the table."

"We have to be very careful how we express [our political beliefs]."

"It would be very hard for me to be friends with someone who voted for Bush."

Man: "What about working for someone like that?"

Ron: "I would choose not to."

"I have very strong feelings about this administration."

"This administration makes me crazy. I could kill, that’s how crazy it makes me. People are dying. There’s a war we shouldn’t be in."

"When people say, you won’t go to Heaven unless you accept Jesus…"

Luke: "Does that bother you?"

Ron: "I think it’s stupid."

Luke: "Are there prominent people in America who you fear?"

Ron: "What’s your thing about fear?"

Luke: "I like passionate emotions, like love, hate, fear."

Ron: "I fear intolerance."

"I stopped acting from 1982 to 1990. I didn’t like the parts I was playing. This kid wrote a play for me and I won a bunch of awards."

"I don’t have the kind of intelligence people in politics should have. Barak Obama is really brilliant. Hillary Clinton is really brilliant. George Bush is really dumb. Look at the difference when they speak and what they talk about and their use of the English language. That’s enough about George Bush. He’s an idiot."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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