Wherever I travel (as I did last week to Israel) and people learn that I serve at Temple Israel of Hollywood, they ask excitedly – ‘and do you have celebrities in your synagogue?’
“Yes” I say. This is, after all LA, and LA’s big business is TV, film, music, and media. Movie and television stars are everywhere, as are writers, directors, producers, agents, publicists, and behind-the-camera professionals and technicians.
Though it seems childish to fawn over big stars, I confess that I can become star struck at times, depending on the celebrity.
Over many years, I’ve sighted celebrities everywhere, big names and people whose faces I recognize but can’t recall their names. I’ve met many and seen more on the street, in the market and in my synagogue.
I thought to write this blog after reading a wonderful piece in Roger Angell’s new book, “This Old Man – All in Pieces.” Angell is now in his mid-90s, and he compiled a group of his essays, fiction, humor, film and book reviews that he wrote over the decades mostly for “The New Yorker.” I loved his piece called “Who was that?” on celebrity sighting on the streets of New York.
He wrote the following after seeing Paul Newman one day outside his local Korean fruit store: “…the man just coming out – gray, trim, shockingly handsome – was Paul Newman.” When he got home his wife asked: “How’d he look?”
“Great!” Angell had told her. Then he reflected:
“…my mind, repeatedly and oddly returning to this non-event, has been telling me that celebrity-spotting, like other New York amenities, has actually been in a long decline…the old New York street-meet always had its own protocol of strict privacy; one looked and then looked again at the passing diva or statesman but did not speak. One smiled in recognition, and sometimes got back a tiny gleam or nod of acknowledgment. It was enough. We told our friends about the moment, and they said “No!” or “Wow! In the manner of an exchange between dedicated bird-watchers, and then we tucked the specimen and the circumstances away in some mental life list.”
I’ve lived most of my life in LA, except for 12 years in the SF Bay area, 2 years in NY, 2 years in Washington, D.C., and 1 year in Jerusalem.
On the plane home from Israel last week while reading Angell’s book, I made my own list of sightings that have provoked in me the “Wow!” factor. Here are the most notables:
Charlton Heston (spoke at a funeral I conducted – he was like God talking);
Frank Sinatra (yelled at my kids at his beach home after they woke him up one morning – great singer – nasty that morning!);
Lauren Bacall (at a funeral I conducted – she had disarmingly beautiful and piercing eyes, and as we passed each other it was as if she looked deeply into my soul – I was flattered);
Jimmy Stuart (he was very old and still very tall);
George Burns (old – at Hillcrest playing cards with a cigar in his mouth);
Nancy and Ronald Reagan (a year after leaving office I stood next to them as I delivered an invocation at a Hebrew University Scopus Awards dinner honoring Merv Griffin – Trump was there too, and I felt no awe for him then or now!);
Lucille Ball (as a kid with my Little League baseball team we were at a rodeo at the LA Coliseum. I was packed into a hollowed out VW bug with 20 other kids, a goat, a clown, and Lucy. We came out one at a time and extended half way around the track);
Gregory Peck (I introduced my wife to him at that same Scopus Award night – he is her dream man! No – I didn’t know him – but he was gracious and a gentleman);
Mel Wasserman (at a funeral – I overheard him telling Charleton Heston that life was short – they are both gone now);
Chick Hearn (sat next to us in a restaurant – thrilling! We told him how much we loved him – he was a mensch);
Vin Scully (he attended a funeral of a mutual friend – beyond thrilling! We exchanged letters. I framed his to me!);
Joe DiMaggio (saw him driving in SF – I was floored);
Sidney Poitier (I had a one-on-one lunch with him at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel – I’m still pinching myself – he’s a great story teller about his own life, and still handsome!!!!);
John Lennon and Yoko Ono (they came into a restaurant on the upper west side of NY – I was speechless);
Leonard Cohen (he came to Shabbat services with his grandson who is in our Day School – I was reduced to mush);
Buddy Hacket (he told me a dirty joke at a 90th birthday party – he was my father’s favorite comedian 60 years ago);
Don Rickles (he insulted the 90 year-old birthday boy at that same party – I always loved him for his heart and for calling out Frank Sinatra for his mob connections on Johnny Carson);
Angie Dickinson (at the market – an aging beauty);
Allison Janney (at the same market – different day – she is really tall);
Jay Leno (in that market’s parking lot – wearing cowboy boots – he smiled at me);
Dustin Hoffman (he told me a joke about a rabbi and a cantor – I don’t remember the joke, but his timing was perfect);
Jack Nicholson (at a funeral and at Laker games, of course! At the funeral, he wore sunglasses, as if no one could recognize him!);
Robert Di Niro (at a bat mitzvah – he scared the s_ _t out of me! But I know he is a kindhearted and good man);
Robert Wagner (at a bris – still handsome after all these years);
Hillary Clinton (my wife and I had a 10-minute conversation with her about forgiveness – She said she knew something about this theme – I said, “I bet you do!” I loved her then. Still do!);
Bill Clinton (we commiserated over the divorce of mutual friends – he is the most charismatic human I’ve ever seen or met);
Joe Biden (my son Daniel’s political idol – I love him too);
Denzel Washington (at the premiere of “He Got Game” – he apologized to me for all the cursing in the film – he seemed sincerely embarrassed);
Billy Crystal (at his grandchild’s TOT Shabbat at our synagogue – he didn’t want to converse – I left him alone);
Sarah Silverman (at our Temple fundraiser – she wanted me to come up so she could make fun of me – I refused – in hindsight, I should have done it!);
Mandy Potemkin (came to Rosh Hashanah services – his agent is a good friend – Mandy loved my sermon – I am flattered);
Natalie Portman (I was in her home for a J Street event before she moved to Paris – my heart throbbed!);
The cast of Madmen (at two Temple b’nai mitzvah – Elizabeth Moss charmed me completely – January Jones is gorgeous – so is Jon Hamm);
The cast of Friends (at a Starbucks in my neighborhood – they were then on the top of the world – still are);
and many more.
In Israel too, I’ve sighted among our people’s historic leaders. Every sighting between 1973 and the present makes me feel proud to be a Jew and Zionist: Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin (met him twice), Yitzhak Shamir, Ehud Barak, Arielle Sharon, Shimon Peres, Bibi Netanyahu (met him twice), Benny Begin (a dear friend’s cousin – I was thrilled to meet him), and Natan Sharansky (met him twice).
In Washington – politicians are everywhere.
What is it about celebrity sighting that so thrills us? I don’t know. I leave the answer to psychiatrists. All you therapists out there – please feel free to share!
In spite of the thrill, I’m reminded of the story of the Hassidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol who was seen crying one day by his Hassidim. They asked him what was wrong.
He said: “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life. They will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery, nor a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land? They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'” (Martin Buber, “Tales of the Hasidim”)
Make your own list – but remember Zusya.