From Carpool Karaoke to Jerusalem
For Ari and Nes Blau, Hollywood fluff proves no match for Jewish destiny.
O n the set of CBS's The Late Late Show, Ari Blau strums an inflatable toy guitar, rehearsing a parody skit that host James Corden will perform later that night for millions of viewers. Then it's onto Carpool Karaoke, where the legendary Stevie Wonder joins Corden for a sing-along on a Los Angeles freeway, while Ari monitors the production in a car behind them.
Ari with his mother and sister at Hebrew school
Welcome to the life of Ari Blau, whose comedic talents were born out of anti-Semitism, which led him on a circuitous route through Hollywood, Jerusalem, and back to his Jewish roots.
Ari grew up in the southern New Jersey resort town of Cape May. He was the product of a Conservative Jewish household and a Jewish day school. At 13-years-old, he was invited with his friends to spend Shabbat in Lakewood, home of America's largest yeshiva. Inspired, the boys started becoming observant. The Jewish school he was attending closed down and when it came time for high school, Ari's friends went off to yeshiva; he opted for public school.
Ari with high school friends
"I walked in the first day with a kippah on my head and tzitzit hanging out – the only Jew among 1,500 students," Ari tells Aish.com from his home in Los Angeles. "I was a target for the bullies and they hit hard. Two things saved me: I became friends with a group of black kids who understood that the same intolerance directed against me was a rejection of them.
"Second, I turned to comedy. When the bullies drew a swastika on my locker, I joked back: 'Thank you! Next time please draw a bigger swastika so I can find my locker faster.' When they threw coins at me, I said, 'Pennies don't hurt so much. Try throwing quarters'."
Ari used comedy as a defense mechanism but the comments eventually wore him down.
"One day on the high school track team, the guys said, 'The Jew's up next! The track coach snapped back at them: 'Be careful – one day you'll be working for the Jew.' Even as he was defending me, there was cynicism in that remark."
Without a Jewish support system, Ari took off his kippah and stopped observing Shabbat.
W ith his love of comedy sparked, Ari began following the careers of people like Adam Sandler. "I realized you could get paid for hanging around with friends and being funny. So I picked up my mom's camera and started shooting films with my friends."
Ari performing stand-up comedy in Manhattan
Ari enrolled in the prestigious NYU film school and started doing open mics. "That was my first introduction to the business side of comedy," he says. "The amount of time you got on stage was based on how many friends you brought, and how many drinks they bought."
In 2012 Ari interned at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who offered career advice: Upload content to YouTube – a free platform with no gatekeepers. Ari took that to heart and for two years uploaded a new video every Monday – comedy sketches, pranks, parodies, and social experiments.
Ari on Stage with late night star Jimmy Fallon
"Jon Stewart also told me: 'The only way to succeed is to not have a plan-B.' Many dream of making it in the entertainment industry, but most drop out. Jon said that early in his career he lived in poverty and his family begged him to get a real job. If not for his persistence, he wouldn't have made it. So I decided to do whatever it takes."
Ari first tried making it in New York, but after two years packed up his car and drove cross-country to LA. "I had no job, no apartment, nothing. I slept on a couch."
Ari's big break came a month after arriving in LA. "At film school I'd made a pact with some friends that whoever got a job in the industry would help the other person out," he says. "My college friend became production manager at The Late Late Show and got me a part-time job as a gopher. That was my foot in the door."
Ari celebrating with two Emmy Awards for the Late Late Show
As the show became more popular, the staff grew from five to 150 and Ari was hired full-time, albeit still as a gopher. "I would go into the producer's office and suggest funny lines," he says. "He dismissed me at first, but I kept going back."
Eventually Ari was promoted to writer and producer. He was one of the producers for the first 25 episodes of the wildly popular Carpool Karaoke and also worked with the monologue team. The team won Emmys. It was a wild ride.
In the summer 2015, Ari went to Israel on Birthright along with his two sisters. "Immediately after getting off the plane I felt something different in the air," he says.
Ari at the Western Wall – Birthright 2015
Yet the trip had very little Judaism content and only on the last day they were given a few minutes at the Western Wall. "I got to the Wall and began crying with tears streaming down my face. I didn't know why, but I needed to find out," Ari says.
Unbeknownst to Ari, another 20-something Hollywood starlet was in Israel at the same time, on a different Birthright trip.
Vanessa Elgrichi grew up in Los Angeles to parents who wanted her to become a famous actor. At age 8 they began driving her to auditions, and for the next four years she rarely went to school – spending most of her formative years on set or at auditions.
"At first, I wasn't motivated, but my parents pushed super-hard and I didn't have much choice," she says. "Then, the more I watched TV, the more I became obsessed with becoming a TV star."
Nes, age 11, appears on the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond
At age 11 Vanessa appeared in The X-Files science fiction series and in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. She did commercials for McDonald's and Burger King. "My parents were really into it and put my photos up all over," she recalls.
Then, at age 12, Vanessa's parents moved to Las Vegas and her career stalled. "That was hard for me because being an actress was all I knew," she says.
She persisted, and at age 15 got her driver's license and began driving to LA for auditions. "Auditions are cut-throat competitive because thousands of people want the part, but the producer can only audition about 25. So just to get in the room is a big deal," she says.
Nes acting in a feature film
Vanessa would drive five hours for a three-minute audition, then turn around for the five-hour return trip.
After attending film school at UNLV, she moved back to LA, joining thousands from around the world who come to Hollywood to become famous. She worked as a waitress, appeared in various indie films, and waited for her big break.
It was then that Vanessa went on Birthright, experiencing her own emotional moment at the Wall. "It was a Friday night and there was beautiful singing and dancing. I felt a bone-chilling feeling from my head to my feet. I started crying and didn't know why. My neshama (soul) felt something, though at the time I didn't even know I have a neshama!"
Don't Worry, Be Jewish
Back in Hollywood, the rarified air of Jerusalem felt far away.
"The real Hollywood is the opposite of glitz and glam," Ari says, describing how one famous celebrity demanded that nobody be allowed to look her in the eyes. Other celebrities would make ridiculous demands for food; others would get angry, cause a scene, and walk off the set.
Ari performing a skit with James Corden on The Late Late Show
"More and more I became disillusioned by how fake everything is," he says. "On a talk show, all the interview questions are pre-arranged and highly edited. There are teleprompters all around the studio with the scripted lines."
Ari couldn't stop thinking about Israel. A few weeks later, he became connected with Rabbi Alex Landa and Rabbi Eden Markowitz of the Los Angeles Jewish Experience (LAJ) and began celebrating Shabbat.
Meanwhile, Vanessa was performing at the Comedy Store on the famed Sunset Strip. The two met at an open mic and started dating.
Ari meets a childhood hero, Adam Sandler
In the summer of 2016, LAJ had a trip to Israel, similar to Birthright, but with more Jewish content. "I really wanted to go but couldn't imagine getting off work," says Ari. "Then James Corden announced that he'd booked a role in a movie and our show would be on hiatus for the summer. Those were the exact dates of the trip to Israel."
Ari and Vanessa went together. "Sitting on the stairs leading to the Western Wall, we both had the same thought: How can we combine Judaism and Hollywood? After that, we walked to the bus and saw a man wearing a kippah that said: 'Don't worry, be Jewish.' We understood that if we move forward with that attitude, everything will work out."
Immediately upon returning to LA, Vanessa received the big break she'd been waiting for. One of Hollywood's biggest agents, with two dozen exclusive 24 clients including Halle Berry, wanted to sign Vanessa.
"We met and I explained that I keep Shabbos and would not be available from Friday evening to Saturday evening. He agreed. Then I told him that I need the month of October off for the Jewish holidays. He agreed."
Inspiration at a Jerusalem bus stop – 2017
Vanessa began getting offered immodest roles, but she refused. At some point, the agent presented stark terms: "Becoming a star is not a hobby. It requires the commitment to be 'all in'."
Vanessa wanted to end her career, but this had been her life since age eight. "I was praying for clarity and just then got an email notice on my phone. It was my agent saying that he no longer wants to represent me. I was so relieved!"
She began using her Hebrew name, Nes, given by her Israeli-born mother who was told she couldn't have children. "When I was born around Chanukah time, they named me Nes – which means 'miracle' in Hebrew."
Nes and Ari's wedding – summer 2017
Shortly after, Ari and Vanessa went with LAJ on a trip to Poland. While they were there, Ari had his own epiphany when they visited the Belzec death camp. "I picked up bones that were still scattered in the field. I thought about the millions of dollars spent to produce just one hour of television, and how meaningful life truly is. I thought about work and felt so disconnected. What's it all for?"
Ari and Vanessa decided to get married and spend the next year living and studying in Jerusalem. "I met with James Corden and told him that I want to take some time to work on myself, and to build a solid foundation for our home and family," Ari says. "James looked me in the eye and said, 'I really envy you. You don't often hear Hollywood people speak about working on themselves. I live in a $35 million mansion, and I wish I could take time off to be with my family. I'm so happy for you'."
Ari and Nes in Israel – 2018
Then he told Ari something that encourages him till today: "You're greater than this show," James said. "You can do many things – not just in this world, but in many worlds."
Ari and Vanessa got married in the summer of 2017 and then flew off to Israel. "Rather than immersed in superficiality and commercialism, we were focused on introspection, growth, and building our relationship," says Ari. "It was the best decision."
Ari and Nes are now back in Los Angeles, part of the Lev Simcha community led by Rabbi Yisroel Majeski, and the proud parents of 2-month-old Shira. Ari is involved in video production and marketing for the Jewish organization, Tomchei Shabbos, and is producing a Jewish marriage show for YouTube.
Ari and Nes, now married, revisit the Western Wall
"I finally feel grounded,” Nes says. “I realized that I was always chasing a dream. A dream of being on the screen. I was chasing roles of characters and living in their footsteps. I was chasing fake moments in fake life all while real life in my own footsteps was flying by. I was missing out on my own life moments that were happening before my eyes. That’s when I realized, if I’m going to keep chasing Hollywood and keep trying to be other people, then who will be me? There is only one me and I want to live in my own shoes and embrace my own moments every single day.”
Ari Blau can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org