Upbeat from an hour of wining and dining, the 400 people who packed the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Washington on March 16 were ready to be entertained when Jewfro-topped actor Jesse Eisenberg came strolling down the aisle.
Attendees laughed or applauded every few minutes while Eisenberg was on stage being interviewed by Brian Abrahams of Jewish Federations of North America.
Eisenberg, who was the highlight of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual networking event, seemed timid at times throughout the 30-minute interview and spoke rapidly in a stream of consciousness. But as the actor, best known for playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” told story after story, the hotel ballroom began to feel like a late-night comedy club.
Take the humorous story about his son’s circumcision.
“We were at our pediatrician [in Bloomington, Ind.], and we said, ‘Is there like a mohel in town?’ No. There’s no mohel in town,” Eisenberg said. “There’s not enough Jews to warrant a mohel. That would be no one’s full-time job to be proficient enough to do the circumcision. So [the pediatrician] did the circumcision. She’s from Texas. She’s Christian and married a guy from the Emirates, and so it’s kind of like the least Jewish circumcision.”
Abrahams asked Eisenberg about his Jewish upbringing in northern New Jersey, which the actor described as “living in a bubble” in a town where it seemed everyone was Jewish. He was so sheltered from the gentile world, he said, that had to have someone else explain that people sometimes went skiing for vacation.
“We went to one hotel growing up called the Atlantic Budget Inn, and there was cinderblocks in the wall. And my sister had made up this game: who could jump to reach the highest cinderblock. So that was our game.”
Asked whether he ever watches his own movies, Eisenberg said he never does.
“The analogy I would give people is it’s like hearing yourself on the answering machine,” he said. “It’s an outdated analogy. You cringe when you hear your voice but on a massive scale.”
There were a few serious moments, including when Abrahams asked Eisenberg about the future of the Jewish people. He spoke about the recent rash of hate crimes against Jewish institutions, including the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center in his home state, which has received two bomb threats.
“When I heard older generations being paranoid about being Jewish in America I used to think, this is just regressive thinking and you’re taking us back to a paranoid time, and I have to say now that I’m living in Indiana, there’s a bomb threat to the JCC, and it really does feel like that,” he said.
Gallaudet University Hillel Director Jacob Salem began the evening by speaking about growing up as a deaf Jew and struggling to fit into the community. Salem said he learned to lip read during Shabbat services but still felt disconnected — a common problem he sees in students at Gallaudet.
“I’ve been in their shoes, feeling that disconnect from traditional Judaism and the Jewish community and not placing much stock in my Jewish identity,” he said. “It is not our obligation, but our opportunity, to eradicate these feelings and show all our Jewish students that they are a valuable part of our community.”