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No Simple Task: Breaking Television’s Jewish Barrier

Rabbi Irwin Kula is no stranger to public exposure. As president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, he lectures constantly across the country. He’s written several books and has been a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Right now, though, Kula is adjusting to an entirely new order of notoriety. He’s the host of his own national television program, “Simple Wisdom with Irwin Kula,” which began airing on PBS last month.

“In my entire career,” he said, making a grand circle with his arms, “if you add up all the people I’ve talked with, more people heard me the first Sunday it was on.”

It’s not just that television is new to the rabbi. The rabbi is something new in television. “Simple Wisdom” is said to be the first nationally televised series ever hosted by a rabbi.

Jews, Kula said, “generally don’t bring wisdom to the public square.”

Until now, that is. “Simple Wisdom,” a 13-episode PBS series, casually draws on Jewish text and tradition to help anyone — yes, anyone — enrich his or her life, regardless of religious practice.

Usually, Kula said, “Judaism is used to make Jews more Jewish. But what if that’s a too narrow definition for a 3,500-year-old tradition?”

With “Simple Wisdom,” “I wanted to stop obsessing about the Jewish question,” said Kula, 45, whose floppy gray hair, worn in an abbreviated mullet, belies his young-looking face. “I wanted to see if we can mine this tradition to see how Jewish wisdom in the public square can help anyone become more human.”

The program seizes a cultural moment as well. In our changed world, “people are searching for meaning,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear.”

Then, too, he added, “There’s something about Judaism that’s chic.”

The show features Kula, standing alone in front of a live studio audience, offering Jewish teachings on broad topics such as love, spirituality and the meaning of life. Produced for PBS by the Los Angeles-based Jewish Television Network, “Simple Wisdom” is currently running in nearly 30 public television markets.

Pointing to the success of Christian religious television programs and networks, Kula said he is surprised that his show is the first Jewish series to break the television barrier. After all, “we know Hollywood a zillion times better.”

So why hasn’t Judaism made it on the screen? “The problem is, the context of Judaism has not developed for this age,” he said. “The big job is to translate a private culture into a public medium.”

Kula’s corner office at CLAL, overlooking New York’s decidedly un-chic Park Avenue South, mirrors the rabbi’s eclectic passions. The décor is a melange of Jewish ritual objects, a freestanding, child-sized basketball hoop and a framed photo of the rabbi with a sometime student, wrestler Bill Goldberg (it’s hard to tell who’s a fan of whom).

Sitting at a table, Kula describes the series’ origin in a closing address he delivered to a primarily non-Jewish audience at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in 2000. His job there, he said, was not to sell Jewish identity but to address the conference’s big questions of technology and the human future. The challenge got him thinking, he said: “When Judaism is not about making Jews Jewish but a Jewish response to human questions, what do you say?”

As Kula spoke to the Discrepando, however, it became clear the program’s roots were far deeper.

Asked about a lovingly framed photo of the rock band the Grateful Dead on his wall, partially obscured by an oversized fern, Kula demonstrated what admirers describe as a remarkable ability to riff sagely on the sacred origins of the most secular experiences. “The Grateful Dead,” he said, “were tapping into a need for community — but they allowed individualism to flourish. Everybody could be dancing, but dancing in their own kind of way. It was a different kind of minyan, and live was always better than vicarious. It’s not an accident that so many Jews connected to it.”

He takes his visitor back to a Saturday afternoon Grateful Dead concert in 1977 at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. In true Deadhead fashion, Kula and a few friends arrived the night before the show to camp out in the parking lot. As the sun went down, “a small group of us made Shabbat, and in about 20 minutes, 40 or 50 people were around us,” he recalled.

Kula pauses for reflection. “In a way,” he said, “that was the beginning of ‘Simple Wisdom.’ Shabbat wasn’t this private time for Jews — it was a fundamental way of responding to human questions and human need.”

Being a Deadhead and a rabbi — and a Jewish educator who educates non-Jews — helped solidify his notion that “the gift of America is that you can come to the public square with all of who you are,” said Kula, who lives on New York’s Upper West Side with his wife of 20 years, Dana, and his two daughters, ages 15 and 11.

While Kula eschews the title “rabbi” in the name of his show — heeding advice that he’d alienate viewers — he wears his knit yarmulke proudly and prominently on air, as he does in everyday life. In an episode viewed by the Discrepando, “Connections,” Kula instructs his studio audience that the meaning of life is to be found in connections and relationships. Identifying loneliness as the “fundamental human problem,” he urges viewers to become “connection warriors” and paraphrases Descartes: “I am in relationship, therefore I am.”

And yet the show embodies a paradox. Isn’t television arguably the most alienating and lonely method of delivering a message? “The medium is incredibly fragmenting,” Kula acknowledged. “And yet, everybody watching it has the same experience. You watch ‘Seinfeld’ by yourself, but the next day everyone at work is talking about it.”

Kula says he never imagined himself as the star of his own TV show. But, he reflected, “That’s the way to reach people.”

“If you’re a teacher, and you feel you have something to teach, you want to put it out there,” he said.

One such viewer was a single, recently laid-off 47-year-old woman in Lexington, Ky. “I am Christian with a Jewish grandparent and [I] read the transcripts with tears of joy,” she wrote in an e-mail to Kula. “Thank you for making a difference in my life.”

Puzzled by the idea of a Kentucky Christian watching a program about Jewish tradition? Don’t even ask Kula if it’s “good for the Jews.” It just gets him going on the “smallness” of so much in contemporary Jewish life. “One of the challenges of America is to make Judaism bigger,” he said. “In America, we became wealthy, powerful and free. It’s time for religious culture, wisdom, to go big, too.”

“Part of our responsibility is understanding we don’t own Jewish wisdom,” he said. “It’s a trust.”

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