'Scrubs' Star Zach Braff Falls in Love With Tel Aviv

Actor says 'as an American Jew, it's an amazing feeling to come to a place where you feel you belong.'

Ruta Kupfer
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Ruta Kupfer

He enters the cafe in Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek quarter, walking with that familiar stride from the hospital corridors of "Scrubs," his shoulders tossed to the sides a bit, but he has no scrubs or stethoscope. He's wearing a blue T-shirt and is equipped with a camera. He hasn't shaved in a while. And, of course, everything takes place without the stream-of-consciousness narration you get on the television series. This is Zach Braff, who plays the lead character of J.D., John Dorian, on this very amusing comedy series. His full name is actually Zach Israel Braff and his 10-day visit to Israel, which ended over the weekend, was a private one. The series will be going into its eighth season, with the seventh being aired in Israel on Mondays (Yes Stars 1), and Braff has left it for good, so he could travel at his leisure.

He went to Jerusalem, Jaffa and Eilat, "all the touristy things," he says, but spent most of his time in Tel Aviv. "The best way to travel abroad is to live with the locals," he says. "I'm enjoying getting to pretend that I'm an Israeli living in Tel Aviv with my friend. He has a really nice place, we sit with his friends in cafes, talking with them. I love it so much."

This is not his first visit to Israel. "I came when I was in high school as part of a student exchange program with the Jewish Community Center in New Jersey, to Ramat Eliyahu. You come and volunteer for five weeks at a day camp. I was a teenager - I couldn't really appreciate it as much, and now I come back as an adult and I can really get the flavor of the city, and I love it. What I really wanted to do is live in the city and feel like a Tel Avivian."

And how does a Tel Avivian feel?

Braff: "As an American Jew it's an amazing feeling to come to a place where you feel you belong. You know we're such a minority in the U.S. Even though I grew up in New Jersey, which was very Jewish, and then I went to school in Chicago, which was Jewish, and then I moved to New York, which is very Jewish, and then I went to Hollywood, which is very Jewish. But they say we're only 2 percent of the population and shrinking because of intermarriage."

Braff says that when you come here, "you just feel this amazing sense of community. We hear so much about Israel and politics with the Palestinians and you feel so separate from it. So I really wanted to see for myself." He says he was "lucky" to be able to come and see things firsthand and to talk to Israelis. "As a Jew I think it's really important to come to this place. There is such a tremendous sense of community, tremendous bond for obvious reasons. I don't know if Israelis have a sense of it because they live here, but I love it."

The Israeli experience made such an impression on him, he says, he is thinking of his next film touching on a story about an American Jew who visits Israel. Braff, who wrote and directed the successful "Garden State," which also starred Natalie Portman, says a story like what he has in mind is something he's never seen in a movie and thinks it will be really interesting.

Braff grew up in a very Jewish household: "We were kosher, I mean very kosher, with separate dishes and separate dishwashers. Everything. I'm glad actually in hindsight because I can read Hebrew. I don't know what I'm saying, but I can read it, which is probably the hardest part. And now that I'm here, I'm inspired. I want to learn the language."

He decided to drop his observance of kashrut right after his bar mitzvah. His father was "very into explaining to me that is when you become a man in Jewish tradition. So I was smart enough to say, 'Well if I'm a man, I can make some decisions of my own, and I would like a cheeseburger.'"

His father, a lawyer, is an amateur actor who instilled in his son a desire to study acting. His mother is a psychologist. He has three siblings, and one occasionally works with him on television projects.

He left "Scrubs" because "there's so much I want to do with my life." But he prefaces his remarks with calling the series "the most amazing experience of my life" and says he is very grateful. Then he adds: "But when you work on a television series, they own you" - a reference that wraps up the studios, the network, the show and the insurance company that insures the actor. "I don't think they'd let me come here," he says. And he has just gotten his pilot's license. As a TV star, "they wouldn't let me take flying lessons."

Braff says that at 33, he wants his life to be about other things. "I want to take piano lessons, I want to study at university, I want to travel, I want to do other parts, make another movie. So it was time for me to branch out and start a new chapter."

His departure from the series, and that of its creator, Bill Lawrence, does not mean it's coming to an end. (Reruns of the fifth and sixth seasons are airing on Star World on cable TV.) The series recently changed hands, going from NBC to ABC, where the eighth season will be aired in the U.S.

"To be a hit in the U.S. - and everyone knows that at times it's two different countries, as you can see in the elections - you have to find a way to appeal to everybody, and 'Scrubs' found its niche. It's a specific comedy and style. So we found that audience and it was enough to keep us alive. But it was never a hit." Yet Braff was nominated for an Emmy.

He will part on screen from his good friend, Donald Faison, who plays Turk, his best friend on "Scrubs." The two met in filming the series and became real friends, just like on the show. "It's amazing. What I love about Donald is that we couldn't be more different - he's a black guy from Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, I'm a Jewish kid from the suburbs. We couldn't be more different in personality. He's a big athlete, an alpha male, and I like being a dork. We couldn't have less in common and yet we have the exact same sense of humor, we crack up at the exact same stuff. No one can make me laugh the way he can."

So a lot of things seep into the show from real life?

"Oh yeah. After eight years you can be sitting at dinner with Bill, telling him something that really happened in your life, and the next day it's in the script."

Braff adds: "Me and Donald joke that we're as gay as two guys can be without being gay."

There are people he admires: "Ricky Gervais, I think, is a genius. He's someone I really look up to. I love everything he does. You know, you see people that can make you laugh, and then there are people that you go 'wow!' I think Sasha Cohen is another example. I love [TV hit] '30 Rock.' I think it's the funniest thing on."

He also offers a tribute to the late John Ritter: "When I was a kid, our parents were exposed to Chaplin and Buster Keaton. For me it was John Ritter on 'Three's Company.'" He calls the show "the funniest thing I've ever seen" and says of Ritter: "The man could fall over a couch like nobody else." One of Ritter's last roles was playing Braff's father on "Scrubs."

Tony Goldwyn, who directed Braff in "The Last Kiss" said he has the qualities of an "everyman" and reminded him of Tom Hanks when he was younger.

Braff comments: "Whenever a young actor who's not stunning-looking has a hit, people say 'oh, he's a young Tom Hanks.' I think when you see Brad Pitt, you say, 'wow, that's a really handsome man.' I've never seen anyone in my life that looks like that, and there are some actors, like myself, who you think, 'wow, I went to high school with that kid. I know that guy. He was in my Hebrew school class.'"