Actor, Writer and Director Stephen Tobolowsky Visits YU

Stephen Tobolowsky Talks About His Journey To Faith

On Thursday, October 25, actor, writer and director Stephen Tobolowsky came to spend the day at Yeshiva University. Tobolowsky has been in numerous movies and television shows, including Groundhog Day, Freaky Friday, Silicon Valley, Glee and Momento.

Jordyn Kaufman interviews Stephen Tobolowsky for Scroll Up, A Yeshiva University Podcast
Jordyn Kaufman interviews Stephen Tobolowsky for Scroll Up, A Yeshiva University Podcast

Tobolowsky began his day by recording an episode of “Scroll Up,” a Yeshiva University podcast, which features an author speaking about his or her book. In this case, Stephen Tobolowsky spoke his newest book, My Adventures With God.

In Adventures, Tobolowsky weaves together various stories of how faith has affected his life; for him, faith is all about embracing doubt and going from there because “the power of faith comes from asking questions, not sprouting answers.” Faith’s power for him also comes from being rooted in the past: “A lot of moving forward involves always looking back and never forgetting where you came from, because the truth will be embedded in where you came from. And one thing that’s powerful in Judaism is that we try very much to hang on to where we came from.”

Dr. Daniel Rynhold (l), director of the Honors Program, discusses faith with Stephen Tobolowsky

After the podcast, Tobolowsky headed to the Jay and Jeanine Schottenstein Honors Program to speak to the students about his connection to Judaism and its intersection with his acting career. He shared what he calls his “back to shul” story, the occurrence that brought him closer to Judaism again.

He was riding a horse on volcanic cliffs in Iceland when the horse threw him off, and he broke his neck. His doctor told him it was a fatal injury, “which is a horrible thing to hear as a live patient,” but it also made him realize how truly blessed he was.

Being a faithful Jew in the entertainment industry wasn’t, and isn’t, always easy, but he has found a way to make it work. “Sometimes you have to learn to pray on the road,” he said. “And I’ve had some of my most meaningful experiences when I’ve had to improvise and come to grips and create a holy moment in the middle of the desert.”

Following his talk to the students, Tobolowsky spoke at a Wurzweiler School of Social Work Care Cafe entitled “The Gift That Keeps On Giving: The Unexpected Way Faith Makes The World Better.” The event was introduced by Dr. Danielle Wozniak, Dorothy and David Schachne Dean, and Assembly member Carmen De La Rosa (D-72), who articulated the importance of the event: “Care Cafe is bringing back to this community a sense of hope, that sense that your neighbor cares about you and what you’re going through, and that no matter what happens there is help.”

Dr. Danielle Wozniak and Stephen Tobolowsky at the Care Cafe
Dr. Danielle Wozniak and Stephen Tobolowsky at the Care Cafe

The many topics Dr. Wozniak and Tobolowsky discussed hinged, in one way or another, on how the practice of faith can enhance life.

Tobolowsky illustrated his point with a story about how getting a job to shoot a movie in Toronto made him question if he would be able to stay connected to his faith while he was on the job.

He asked his rabbi for advice, and his rabbi told him to say the Shemaan affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God, in the morning and evening as an expression of gratitude as well as every time he had an unexpected blessing and every time he missed some kind of catastrophe.

“Plane didn’t crash, I said the Shema. Got through customs quickly, said Shema. Working television in the hotel, Shema. I realized I was saying the Shema from morning to night! It got to be where a snowflake would land in my cup of coffee, and I would say the Shema. It was an experience that completely changed my life and that’s when I saw how gratitude can totally reform your life into something else.”

He summed up his experience by saying that “the way faith works, the way a prayer works, is you put it out there. You don’t know what will happen or how it will change your life, but if you don’t put it out there, nothing happens, that much I know.”

For his final stop, Tobolowsky spoke with the women of the Stern College Dramatic Society. He explained to them that if they wanted to go into this world, they would have to be extremely dedicated and need to believe in themselves. “When you’re in a creative pursuit, like acting or writing, you certainly are your own performer, you have to be your own director, sometimes you have to be your own producer,” he said. “You are not allowed to be your own critic. You are not. It is more important for you to hear the creative voice in your head and to follow it, not kill yourself with criticism.”

He connected his advice to Judaism. “Devarim means words, but it also means things,” he said. “It means the magical connection of words becoming things, because in Judaism, there is a concept, a kind of magical thinking, that if you say something out loud, it has the power of becoming real. So don’t plough that field and plant the seeds for not succeeding. Instead, plant seeds that say you will succeed.”

The podcast with Tobolowsky will be released soon and can be found on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you usually get your podcasts, so stay tuned!

Stephen Tobolowsky speaks to the members of the Stern College Dramatics Society
Stephen Tobolowsky speaks to the members of the Stern College Dramatics Society