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Bag of Tricks

Wallace Shawn on being Jewish—onscreen and off

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Wallace Shawn as Cyrus Rose on Gossip Girl (Giovanni Rufino / The CW (c) 2008 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Wallace Shawn may recently have become eligible for Social Security, but the 65-year-old writer and actor shows no signs of slowing down. His latest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, had its London premiere in May; he has a recurring role on the hit TV series Gossip Girl; and a collection of his nonfiction, Essays, was just released this week. Tablet Magazine recently spoke to Shawn about his youthful ambitions, Judaism’s place in his life and work, and how Gossip Girl may be the key to Mideast peace.

One of the essays in your new book, which originally appeared in The Nation last year, discusses how “it is not surprising” that centuries of irrational anti-Semitism would color Israel’s attitudes toward its neighbors. Are you arguing that Israeli policy is the product of a persecution complex?

I think that most Israeli leaders have implicitly if not explicitly taken the position that they have the right to act in a way that they themselves might think leaders of other countries might not. They are saying, when challenged, well, you may think what we’re doing is ruthless, but we have the right to do it because this is not just any old country— this is the last refuge of a group of people who have been persecuted for millennia, and we have the right to take these steps. That attitude comes from the history of the Jews. It just does. Do I think it should be attacked and wiped out! No! As I say in the essay, giving the land of Israel to the Jews after World War II was a costless way for Europeans and Americans to atone for what had been allowed to happen to the Jews. It was a gift that was not a great gift.

You often make reference to your Jewish background in your writing. What is your connection to Judaism?

I recognize so many of my characteristics as deriving from my being Jewish. I usually carry a large bagful of things with me, things I think I might need. People mock me and say, “Oh, isn’t that absurd that you carry that large bag.” I don’t honestly know why I carry it. I’m guessing that maybe the Cossacks chased my great-grandfather and he had to escape quickly; he carried a big bag in case he had to run away. I live on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator. It’s rather heavy to carry that bag, and yet I can’t not do it somehow.

What does being Jewish mean to you?

I’m an atheist. I don’t even know what people could possibly be talking about when they talk about God. On the other hand, I’ve always been very drawn to religious music, religious art, and, I have to say, religious people. I have been to quite a few bar and bat mitzvahs, including those of my niece and nephew. In each case, I have been sort of repelled when, for instance, the portion of the Torah that was being read offered a justification for what, by today’s standards, would be considered war crimes—or meaningless lists of items to be sacrificed. I’m thinking, why are we sitting here and listening to this? But then, in each case, something has happened that has actually overwhelmed me with emotion. The Jewish belief in the importance of each individual becoming a decent human being is thrilling. It’s incredibly moving, fantastic—the belief in justice and the belief in thinking about things and examining things. These are deeply moving Jewish values that affect and move even me.

Do you ever feel that, as an artist, you’re not contributing to society as directly as you could?

It’s been a lifelong conflict for me, partly because there was a time I was planning to actually help people, to devote my life to trying to make the world a better place. I was very inspired when I was a young man by a man I knew who worked at the U.N., Brian Urquhart, who now writes for the New York Review of Books. He went in every day and tried to make the world a better place, directly.

When did you decide to change course?

When I was 20, John Kennedy was president. I thought he was the ideal president, and we were the ideal country. And then I traveled. I spent a year in India. I was envious of many people in India who I thought understood more about life. I gave myself permission to be a writer. I thought that what people need is insight.

How do you like playing the ostentatiously Jewish Cyrus Rose on Gossip Girl?

I love playing a Jewish character. Although I play a character who has worn a yarmulke in two out of my five episodes so far, I was fascinated in London this spring to meet many people from Arabic-speaking countries who told me that the show and my character were very popular in their homelands. So I feel I’m contributing to international understanding.

Gwen Orel is a New York-based arts writer.

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Stephen Folkson says:

I had no idea that he was Jewish. However, his understanding of judiasm seems a little convoluted.
I did like him in “Radio Days,” however.

susan says:

Wallace Shawn – I used to really admire you. I saw you in your one-man show years ago and bought your book which you autographed for me. Can you just lay off Israel? Why can’t you find another country to pick on? China, Burma, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia? Shouldn’t India give Kashmir to Pakistan?

Israel was bombed on a daily basis for years from Gaza. Only one other country has suffered that fate – Britian during WWII. The Americans and Brits leveled Dresden to stop that. Israel obviously cannot open the border from Gaza because it would be suicidal. Would the US allow Mexico to send missiles into Arizona every day?

It was a knife in the heart for you and other prominent Jews who I used to admire to sponsor the boycott of Israel for the Toronto film fest. Israel isn’t perfect but they have tremendous challenges. We care about having a Jewish homeland. It’s not important to you but please think of the Jews of every hue who were thrown out of every other country in the middle-east and North Africa, who have a refuge there. If Israel opens its borders to the former Palestinians it will become one more place of oppression and poverty.

You’re a smart guy. Look at both sides of the story.

Eve Worth says:

Wallace Shawn is one of my favorite people in the world. I am pleased to see him tell us he is an athiest. Naturally, he has that right. I agree with him when he tells us that Isreal has had many difficult challenges. Moreso than most countries.

I will watch him on Gossip Girl and see where it takes me.

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Bag of Tricks

Wallace Shawn on being Jewish—onscreen and off

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