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Shrek's Mazal

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

This summer's blockbuster hit is peppered with Jewish messages, thanks in part to one scriptwriter and his own wild Jewish saga.

David N. Weiss is an Emmy-nominated writer whose latest effort is "Shrek 2," currently the most popular film in America. The story follows the escapades of a swamp-dwelling ogre (Shrek) who marries a beautiful princess (Fionna), and along the way discovers the deeper meaning of marriage, self-identity, and devotion to others.

Weiss' personal story is a fascinating rollercoaster from an assimilated Jewish upbringing, to running a Christian youth ministry, and eventually to observant Judaism. Age 44 and married with two children, Weiss spoke to from his home in Los Angeles. Shrek 2 is such a big hit -- breaking Jurassic Park's box office record for Memorial Day weekend, and is on it's way to becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time. Is this something you expected?

Weiss: I always knew the film would open big, based on the success of the first Shrek film. But you have to realize that I finished writing Shrek 2 almost two years ago. At that stage the project didn't yet have that complete jelled, coalesced impact. With animation, so much depends on the storyboard artists. You can see these artists standing in their cubicle, acting out scenes by making crazy faces in the mirror. That's what gives the script so much of its magic. So we were hopeful that it would all come together, but you can never be sure until the public sees it and reacts. While kids love Shrek 2, there are obviously deeper messages that appeal to adults as well. Did you include any Jewish-specific themes?

A main theme is a definition of love that I heard from a rabbi: 'What's important to you is important to me.'

Weiss: Actually, a main theme is based on something I heard from Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg (who heard it from Rabbi Noach Orlowek). It's a definition of love: What's important to you is important to me. In the film, after Shrek marries Princess Fionna, he assumes he'll get to stay an ogre in the swamp. But Fionna's father (the king) begins scheming to get his daughter back to the palace. The king works on Shrek's self-esteem, making him feel like he's ruined this poor girl's life. And there's enough evidence to make Shrek, and even the audience, question that maybe that's true.

At first Shrek feels very selfish about it, and just wants Fionna to be with him in the swamp. But then he has second thoughts: Maybe Fionna would have been happier as a princess, instead of the ogress that I turned her into. And because Shrek loves her so much, he wants to give her a "happily ever after" potion and let her return to the royal life she deserves. Not because that's what's best for Shrek, but he wants it for Fionna's own sake.

At the meetings with Dreamworks executives (many who are Jewish), now and then I would mention that this is a traditional Jewish idea. It's really a basic theme of the film, and I'm proud to have helped steer things in that direction. So through Shrek, some Jewish wisdom is getting out to millions of Americans. What was your Jewish affiliation growing up?

Weiss: I was raised Reform, which for me basically meant the paintings of Chagall, the Holocaust, and trees in Israel. But I was more interested in spirituality. I had heard the story of Abraham, who understood from a young age that there must be something bigger than idols, bigger than the sun and the moon and the stars. That story really resonated with me. I remember at age 6 waking up in the middle of the night, wondering what happens when you die, and wondering if there wasn't really more to life and the universe. It seemed awfully terrifying to me, if life just ends when you die. So you became more interested in Judaism?

Weiss: No, because I was under the impression that belief in God and heaven were Christian ideas. It was like, whatever they believe in, we don't believe in. But I was on a determined quest for God. How was that satisfied?

Weiss: In my high school in Ventura (California), out of 2,800 students only seven were Jewish, and nominally so. All of my close friends were going to church. And I had a late night conversation with a youth minister, who led me through a logical argument for belief in God. That convinced me to become a Christian. I probably would have become an observant Jew had there been a Jew convincing me about God.

I probably would have become an observant Jew, had there been a Jew convincing me about God. That's quite a leap -- from bar mitzvah to Holy Communion.

Weiss: Actually Jesus was annoying baggage that came with the package. I didn't like the name "Jesus," and I couldn't speak it for probably a year. There were parts of Christianity that didn't quite work for me, which I just ignored. But I was in passionate pursuit of God and this was the only path being offered. So I became indoctrinated, and spent the next 17 years as a Christian youth minister, doing elaborate theater and film productions for teenagers. But eventually something turned you back around.

Weiss: In 1989 I was in Ireland doing a film, and in my spare time was a youth minister at the local Presbyterian church. There was a young Orthodox man working at the film studio, named David Steinberg. (He's now a producer at Disney, and an author of children's books.) This was the first time I'd ever met an observant Jew. He was hip and delightful, and everyone in the studio adored him.

We intentionally steered clear of each other for almost a year. Then at one point I was teaching my church group about the Jewish festivals, and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. So I asked David if he would come and teach a few classes. He agreed and he was phenomenal.

At that point he realized I wasn't trying to convert him, and we began a dialogue. I remember asking him, "I have Jesus as my sacrifice. But you have no Temple, hence no sacrifices. What do you do for atonement?"

He answered the question beautifully, explaining that God says: "I want the sacrifice of your lips. I want the service of your hearts. Prayer. This to Me is better than offerings."

I came to realize that the Jews had been faithful to God for thousands of years without a Temple, and without sacrifices. This left me stunned, because that's not what they teach at church. They teach you that someone's blood had to be shed for our sins. No blood, no forgiveness.

I was blown away by this discussion. And it was annoying to me that a group of people were doing so well without Jesus. Especially since Christians say that the whole world needs him.

So that let some wind out of my sails. And I was becoming tired of Christianity anyway, because it really wasn't home. I always felt slightly like an outsider.

So I began questioning what I believed. And I wondered if I wasn't supposed to be more like David Steinberg. So what was the turning point?

Weiss: One weekend I drove up to some remote cliffs on the northwest coast of Ireland. There you are, looking 1,800 feet down, as the Atlantic Ocean slams into a sheer wall of rock, and the wind coming off the sea shoots a geyser of water straight up across the face of these rocks.

It was so wild and powerful. I looked out at the sea, having my "quiet time," as devout Christians do every morning. I looked out over this spectacular force and thought: This is clearly the hand of God, "The heavens and earth declaring the work of His Hands" (Psalm 19).

And I was very upset, because I didn't know who to pray to. I thought if I pray to JC, I could be offending the one true God. And if I pray directly to Hashem, then I'd be betraying my religion of the last 15 years.

It felt very much like an incident that happened when I was 14 and my parents were just getting divorced. One evening I just wanted to get to my mom's house. I thought that seeing her would relieve the anxiety I was feeling. My dad asked me when I stepped out to the front door, "Where are you going?"

I answered, "I'm just going for a walk." I didn't want him to know where I was going, because I didn't want him to think that he wasn't enough for me. And when I got to my mom's apartment, I burst into tears. I felt like I had betrayed my father. It was a horrible, horrible feeling.

And that's how I felt looking out at the cliffs, not knowing who to pray to. So how did you eventually make the transition?

Weiss: I met Michael Medved, the film critic. I thought he was Christian from his writings, because I'd see him quoted in Christian magazines. I met him at a film festival, and he was wearing a yarmulke. He invited me to his house for Shabbat lunch. It was just gorgeous, with the shul and the families and the children. I met my wife during this time, and we began taking introductory Judaism classes.

For awhile I was going to shul on Saturday and church on Sunday.

But I kept going to church, thinking I would incorporate Judaism into my Christianity. For awhile I was going to shul on Saturday and church on Sunday.

But then I realized something had to give, and Judaism was becoming much more meaningful. Besides, they were getting annoyed by me at church, because I was starting to pick holes in the theology, and objecting to what seemed to me anti-Semitic bible passages.

So the end of the story is I went to the mikveh and renounced my Christianity. And my wife went to the mikveh and became a Jew. Now, thank God, we have two beautiful Jewish children attending Jewish day school, keep Shabbat and have a kosher kitchen. And we still have a ways to go. What do you see as the next stage in your growth?

Weiss: Coming to Israel was a big step for us. We came for Sukkot last year. It was our first visit to Israel ever, and we were afraid to come. But the impact was that we came again six months later. I gave a talk at a Jerusalem film school. Now my wife wants to spend more time there and is figuring out a way to buy an olive orchard or something in Israel. Aliyah is probably too big a leap at the moment, but we feel like that's where we ultimately belong. I imagine your employment outlook has probably changed somewhat since this film.

Weiss: Thank God, the employment outlook has been pretty good these last several years. So this just helps increase our longevity. I compare Hollywood to taking off in a plane across the sea. You want to get as much altitude as you can, so that when the engines cut out, you can hopefully coast to the shore. So Shrek 2 gets us a bunch more altitude, more fuel in the tank. You write all your TV and film scripts with your partner. How does that differ from writing alone?

Weiss: It's less lonely. It's like having a second marriage. All the same issues that come up in marriage, come up in a writing partnership. And the two relationships are very helpful to me, because if I'm being clumsy and offending my writing partner, then usually I'll notice it and spare that with my wife. And sadly for my wife, when I realize something I'm doing wrong in our marriage, I'll then spare my writing partner that clumsiness.

I feel like each of them gets only half as much stupidity out of me as they otherwise would.

But I feel like each of them gets only half as much stupidity out of me as they otherwise would. So it's easier on both of them. How does your observant lifestyle jive with the stereotypical Hollywood scene?

Weiss: I'm still a Hollywood guy, but not in the sense that I'm out at parties all the time. There's actually a large group of Orthodox script writers. And it's been surprisingly easy being observant in Hollywood, with really no particular challenges in terms of scheduling or whatever. When we went to Cannes for the premier of Shrek 2 there were some events on Shabbat, but there's rarely a conflict. In terms of making a broad impact on people, a film like The Passion seemed to be successful. Have you thought about trying to make a high-impact Jewish movie?

Weiss: I don't know that The Passion changed anyone. The Passion riled people up about what they already believe. They say that Jews and Christians saw two completely different movies. I know how I would have felt watching it 15 years ago -- I would have been weeping and had a powerful religious experience. And now I don't even want to see the film. I just don't have the stomach for two hours of violence. Having seen both sides, how might you define the difference between Judaism and Christianity?

Weiss: Judaism speaks of the notion that we put the words of Torah on our hearts, because our hearts are like rocks and we can't put them in our hearts. But if you stack them up, then one day you're at a concert and you have this ecstatic experience and your heart opens, then all these words of Torah that are sitting there tumble in.

But if you just have ecstatic experiences and the Torah is not stacked up on your heart, nothing happens. You're ecstatic, and then it's over and you forget about it. You need both components. And the real power of Judaism is the Torah and mitzvot that build a concrete structure to hold the passion. With so much assimilation in the American Jewish community, how do you think we can turn things around and reach people?

Weiss: I only can talk about what worked for me, which was feeling embraced, feeling welcomed and loved. But a lot of people, for some reason, are just not interested. They won't talk to a rabbi, they don't want to come for Shabbos dinner. So I don't know what you can do about that.

But I do think, in a mystical sense, we keep mitzvot, we study Torah, and we change ourselves, and that has a mystical impact on the universe that I think will affect assimilation to one extent. And more directly, while we're walking along, we can stop and chat with our neighbors. For example, one man has been my neighbor for four years and we've only said "hello" a couple of times. But last week we chatted for about half an hour. He wanted to know the whole story about how I got to be where I am. And now he wants to come for Shabbos with his family.

Getting connected is such an individual, personal thing. Ultimately I think the way to reach the masses is one-on-one, to build an intensive connection to another soul. There's no magic potion for everyone.


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