Not a Sitcom: Debra Messing on the 'Ugly Reality' of Being Jewish in Hollywood

Jewish Federations of North America opens amid emotional anecdotes of Jewish life in America.

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Debra Messing speaks during a panel discussion for an upcoming drama series in Pasadena, California. January 6, 2012.Credit: AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Debra Messing knows how to make people laugh. But the Emmy-winning film and television actress best known as the star of the long-running comedy hit “Will and Grace” had some very unfunny and painful stories to tell in her address to the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America about her childhood and what she called the often “ugly reality” of being Jewish in Hollywood.

“The word anti-Semitic was a grown-up word that I learned early,” she said, relating her experiences growing up in a small town in Rhode Island. “We were different. We looked different, and people didn’t like us, which was very painful for my parents who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens I remember my mom crying when she went outside the day after Halloween and saw a swastika painted on my grandmother’s car who was visiting. Again, I just remember being confused. I knew something bad had happened and I could tell that being outraged, my mother was scared, so I was scared.”

As the only Jewish child in her elementary school in the 1970’s full of Irish and Italian Catholics, she recalled, “people didn’t look like me.”

“I had kinky, curly hair and a strong nose. All of my friends were blonde or had straight shiny brown hair and small noses.  I stood out. I never felt beautiful.” She said that her “most vivid memory” of second grade when a boy told her “Get to the back of the line, kike.”

“When I would stay home from school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I would return to school and kids would ask why I hadn’t been there, I would say I was sick there was danger in being different, so I kept quiet and tried to hide my identity. And I felt very wrong.”

After high school, she went to Brandeis University and New York City where she said she finally felt a sense of belonging and experienced being part of a Jewish community. In Hollywood, she said, she faced a different kind of crisis of loneliness when even basic religious observance collided with the realities of being an actress.

“Hollywood is a one-industry town. Everything revolves around creating and and profiting off of the newest TV or movie. So if going to Temple conflicts with performing in one of these money-making creations you are not going to Temple. As an actor, if you are lucky to get a role, you act if you are told to act. So if your first day of filming is on Kol Nidre, that means you perform on Kol Nidre .. This fact, this ugly reality of the entertainment business was the greatest source of tension between my father and myself.”

“Being an actor is hard enough because you can’t control if or when you get offered a job. Then to put on top of that the inability to control your spiritual life, it’s insane, but it’s the truth.” Messing said that it was only after she found success, and become one of the rare few who achieves stardom, wins awards and proven one’s worth “then and only then, do you have the power to say no.”

Messing’s was far from the only emotional personal story told in the JFNA plenary.

David Gregory, former host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and the author of the book “Faith,” also had to wipe away tears as he told them how his father, born Don Ginsburg, had passed away just two days earlier and that, after his speech to JFNA, he was leaving to bury him in California the next day.

Gregory said he showed up to speak out of appreciation for the Federations and to “create some moments of holiness" by talking about his father, with whom he had an often rocky relationship, and how they came to mutual forgiveness and understanding at the end of his life.

Through tears, Gregory described their last meeting.

“I was leaving him. He had just come back from the hospital, I said Dad, I hope to see you again, but if you die before that  that’s OK, my heart is full, because everything between us has been said and I love you and I’m so grateful you are my father. I held his hand and we prayed Adon Olam and I said my goodbye and he was gone the next day. “

He urged the audience to explore their faith and “make peace with those in people your life that you care about because there is no greater moment than experiencing something difficult and experiencing God’s grace and loving each other.”

Next Saturday, just days after the funeral, is Gregory’s son's Bar Mitzvah, and, with a catch in his voice, said “I really wish my father could be there on Saturday  - I was so looking forward to passing on the prayer book he gave to me when I was 13.”

The Sunday plenary was opened by a powerful and tearful speech by Justice Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, “Who I am, what I am, what I believe in, and what I hope for, all started with the Holocaust.” Her parents were in concentration camps for four years and lost a child and much of their family in the Holocaust. After the war, her parents moved to Germany where, her father, a trained lawyer who had never gotten to practice in his native Poland, worked for the U.S. government representing displaced persons. She was born there in 1946, and the family moved to Canada in 1950.

She grew up in a home of survivors where there was “no bitterness, no anger, no fear, only hope,” and only learned of the horrors her parents had endured as an adult. She felt that she - and all children and survivors, had a duty to “wear their Jewish identity with pride” and “make the world a safer place for their children than it was for their grandparents, a world where all children can wear their identities with dignity, pride, and in peace.”

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