Mandy Patinkin made his fourth trip to Israel while filming the pilot for the Showtime series Homeland, in which he plays CIA division director Saul Berenson.
The filming took place in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Old Jaffa, but the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor had five free days at the start of the trip. He reflected on his experiences all over Israel, visiting with people “on the far right, the far left, and the middle,” at a variety of sites, including the West Bank, Ramallah, and Hebron.
“It was a life-changing experience,” said Patinkin in a March 1 phone interview. He spoke with NJJN ahead of his March 7 appearance as a featured speaker at Live from Greater MetroWest, a fund-raiser for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Perhaps best known for his role as Che in the original Broadway production of Evita and as the swordsman Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride, Patinkin has also explored his Jewish roots with a starring role in the film Yentl and in his performance and recording of classic Yiddish songs. In Homeland, based on an Israeli drama, his character often draws on his Jewish roots to steady the series’ volatile protagonist, played by Claire Danes.
“My identity is inextricably intertwined with Jewish culture, my Jewish ancestry, my grandparents, my religion, words the rabbis speak, things I learned in Hebrew school or in books, and the things I’ve picked up in life,” said Patinkin. “It is who I am. It is the air I breathe.”
Moreover, he said, he brings that identity with him into his work.
“Every character I do is Jewish. Inigo Montoya is Jewish. Georges Seurat [from the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George] is Jewish. Avigdor, from Yentl, is, of course, Jewish.”
And what does being Jewish mean to him? The actor answers, as he did throughout the interview, with a long, passionate, and at times digressive soliloquy.
“In my view, that means all humanity is equal. We all want freedom, justice, and equality,” he said. “We must never give up the struggle for all who are living. To me, that struggle…, that dream of equality, for all to be able to live side by side, that is the definition of Judaism. The Talmud says if you save a life you have saved the whole world. It doesn’t say whose life. It doesn’t say a Jewish life. It’s every life. Any life, anywhere. That’s what I learned as a little boy before my bar mitzva and as a grown man.”
His most recent trip to Israel brought him “clarity” about the Middle East that goes “beyond discussions in someone’s living room.”
“I was there on the ground in the trenches,” he said. “I breathed in firsthand everything good and bitter in the vicinity.”
“The current situation is unsustainable for both sides. We must find a way to find a peaceful, sustainable situation.” He added, “I don’t have the brains to figure it out. I’m a cheerleader on the side, but I will never give up the struggle for peace and humanity for all. As a Jew, it’s basic to care for all of humanity.”
Patinkin was raised in an observant household, attending the Conservative Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago, where he first sang with the synagogue choir. Though he acknowledged that he hasn’t belonged to a synagogue since he moved to New York in 1972, he added, “My synagogue is the theater and the world at large. I pray every day, everywhere I go. I pray traditional Hebrew prayers, Stephen Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. I pray the Sh’ma, Kaddish, and e.e. cummings.”
He added a recitation, in English, of Psalm 137 in its entirety, which begins “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”
On March 17, Patinkin will perform with Israeli, Palestinian, and Syrian Druse musicians in a program for Intercultural Journeys, which promotes conversations across ethnic and religious divides through the arts. The Philadelphia concert will include songs in Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish as well as show tunes. The performance, he said, “is a celebration of all different cultures and ways of life. It’s the way I wish the world could be.”
Patinkin dismisses those who suggest that such interfaith events have little impact on resolving the Mideast conflict. “I couldn’t disagree more,” he said. “We have to find a way to sit with each other and look for peaceful situations. The day we give up on that journey is the day we all will lose everything.”