When actress Camryn Manheim, clad in a gray pinstripe pantsuit, strode onto the stage last week at a luncheon sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the 900 or so women who turned out for the event had little idea what to expect.
Most knew she was an actress. Many remembered her role as the unabashedly zaftig Ellenor Frutt in the ABC-TV legal drama ‘The Practice.” Some had heard her views were controversial. Not all were aware she was Jewish.
Of this much they were certain: The 12-earrings-in-one-ear-wearing Manheim, who for many years rode a motorcycle, was not their mother’s kind of speaker.
Manheim knew she had won the crowd over, she said, when “one woman dashed over to me [during a pre-talk gabfest] and said, ‘Camryn, I have a very important question! Where do you get your bras?’”
Manheim then moved to a poem dedicated to women everywhere — “you’ve proved again and again, the pathos and power of estrogen” — and segued from there into a free-ranging discussion that touched on her career, how to change society’s ideas of beauty and something she calls Mitzvah Therapy.
Mitzvah Therapy, she told the audience, means fighting for the underdog. “My mother taught me you’re a citizen of the world and that every person counts, that tikkun olam means repairing the world, and one mitzvah leads to another.” And by setting that in motion, you feel good, too.
Manheim was born in New Jersey and raised in Southern California in a home she called culturally Jewish. Her parents, both educators, taught her to fight social injustice, schlepping her to rallies protesting racism and the Vietnam War. As a young adult, she once phoned her parents to tell them she had been arrested for participating in a pro-choice rally. Her mother, she recalled, replied: “Mazel tov!”
Manheim said she continues her parents’ teachings. Her current activism has included working with the disabled, the American Civil Liberties Union, Hadassah, Planned Parenthood and Project ALS. She teaches sign language at her 4-year-old son Milo’s school, and — in keeping with family tradition — now schleps him to rallies.
Nominated for a Golden Globe last year for her work in the television movie “Elvis,” Manheim said she is looking for a Broadway vehicle to bring her back to New York, where she keeps an apartment. Manheim is also in talks with CBS about starring in a comedy about “parenting in the new millennium.”
In her own way, maybe she was their mother’s kind of speaker after all.