How did it happen? David N. Weiss – a Jewish kid from the Ventura suburbs, now a Hollywood writer – helped radical rapper, Ice Cube – who comes straight out of Compton – create his greatest box office success ever. Weiss’s words also flow from mouths of such movie stars as Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Julie Andrews, John Cleese and others – dialogue and stories that have entertained millions of people.
On May 23, at 7 p.m., at Beth Jacob Congregation Irvine, Weiss will regale an intimate crowd with tales of Hollywood, the movies he has worked on, the personalities he’s worked with, and his journey from being born into Reform Judaism, becoming a born-again Christian, and returning to his roots as an observant Jew. A highly successful writer of hit family films and television, Weiss has just returned from an extensive speaking engagement in the U.K, where audiences, from teens to adults, found the presentation of his unusual journey “riveting… entertaining… and hilarious.”
You’ve probably seen or heard of many films Weiss has worked on – from the Academy Award-nominated international hits, Shrek 2 and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, to The Rugrats Movies, Are We There Yet, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and next summer’s Smurfs Movie – now shooting in Manhattan.
Growing up, Weiss didn’t mind being the oddball Jew among his friends. Perhaps his artistic nature allowed him to feel comfortable with being different. But, not unlike Shrek the ogre, eventually being the outsider took its toll, and Weiss began to look elsewhere for his “true identity.”
Christianity was the appeal. It was everywhere, and most people Weiss knew were Christians. Over time, reading, learning, taking in Christian thought, and being embraced by the Christian community, Weiss converted. He was baptized into the Church by age 18. Soon, Christianity was his life. As an active youth worker, he participated in the largest missionary conference in the world. Using his literary and media talents, he became involved in Christian publishing, education, and film. At one point, his various evangelical materials were represented at five different booths of North America’s massive Christian Booksellers Trade show.
But by age 30, Weiss found himself troubled by questions. If Jesus was the “only” way to God, why did so many portions of the Bible seem to indicate that the Jews had a relationship with G-d that did not require an intermediary? And why had the church done away with practices that the Bible seemed to indicate should be kept forever (e.g. circumcision and the Sabbath)? And there were smaller things… How much is enough prayer? How much of a good deed is enough? How do you know when you have completed what you need to complete? Perhaps it was his Jewish soul calling, but despite the many Christians he met and all the information and books that surrounded him, Weiss needed to seek answers elsewhere.
Returning to Judaism did not happen overnight. It was a gradual change, a combination of several factors; but most importantly, a visceral recognition of his heritage and the reactivation of childhood memories, as he became aware of and met people who were practicing Judaism in beautiful ways to which he’d never been exposed. He began encountering devout Jews, who lived in the modern world with interesting, creative professions, but who fused their spiritual beliefs into all aspects of their life. And, their theology was seemingly complete without Christianity. Like Shrek, when he met Fiona (his ogre soul mate) and realized that he was not alone in the world, Weiss became reassured that being Jewish was not odd.
While writing and living in Ireland, Weiss met an observant Jewish family, who lived a normal life. They were not “fanatical freaks,” as he had assumed most observant Jews would be. The son was a normal guy with a cool career in the animation arts. He did wear a yarmulke, but through his presence, the son showed Weiss that a Jew could be normal, even fashionable, and contemporary. Moving back to Los Angeles, Weiss met some really “hip, young rabbis,” who may have looked like they stepped off the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem but who had their fingers firmly on the pulse of the 21st Century.
In the process of being reintroduced to his heritage, Weiss was excited by many spiritual concepts he did not know existed. Key to his shedding the last vestige of Christianity was when he realized how much of Christianity is taken verbatim from early Jewish sources; that all that had attracted him turned out to originate in Judaism; ideas such as: Eternal life, The World to Come, a Messiah, Resurrection, Forgiveness of Sins, and an intimate relationship with the Creator. “That really blew my mind. I’m not sure if I’d simply never been exposed to these ideas as a kid or was just not ready to understand them.” And, when he learned to pray the “Shemona Esreh,” (the 18 benedictions, central to the Jewish prayer service) one of his most exhausting questions was answered… “When is prayer complete? By taking three steps back,” you finished that one portion and can go on to something else.
For Weiss, there is little conflict with living and working in Hollywood and being an Orthodox Jew. You can be artistic, successful, even a snappy dresser – though he’s often most comfy in the writers’ uniform of sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. Although he works really hard, (“24/6”), Judaism recharges him every Shabbat, and he is ready to take on the many demands of Hollywood life.
He attributes some of his success in Hollywood to a “quirky little Judaism 101” class he took where he learned of the challenges our forefathers went through – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and King David. “What they endured makes Hollywood look like child’s play. Jews have survived, in part because of the crazy situations our forefathers went through; and we, their heirs, can continually apply their lessons to our contemporary lives. What is more difficult — dealing with a despot Pharaoh or a Hollywood Mogul?”
Weiss is so excited about the beauty of Judaism that he delights in sharing it with others. His hope is to help others to find what he discovered – the beauty and power of their own heritage.