Tinseltown Rabbi Saves a Prayer for Prime-time Show

By Jennifer Siegel

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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Michelle Missaghieh is a rabbi. And she plays one on TV.

On May 15, viewers of ABC’s hit medical dramedy “Grey’s Anatomy” will be introduced to Missaghieh on an episode titled “Save Me,” in which a newly Orthodox 17-year-old girl struggles with her faith when faced with a potentially fatal heart condition.

The decision to cast Missaghieh as herself in the rabbi’s role may reflect, to some degree, the changing face of the American rabbinate in both life and art. But the decision to have her counsel an Orthodox girl — who has indeed become so observant that she balks at receiving a lifesaving heart valve from a pig — is sure to leave knowledgeable viewers with an “only in Hollywood” feeling.

How did such a religious patient end up in the operating room with a woman rabbi ordained by the liberal Reform movement?

It’s a good question, Missaghieh acknowledged. And one she raised in her role as a consultant for the episode before being asked to play the role.

The writer, Mimi Schmir, insisted that the rabbi be female.

“Whenever there is a story that has a rabbi I never see a woman, I just see old men,” Schmir explained to the Forward. “I wanted to clash with the stereotype a bit.”

To make the plot more realistic, Missaghieh suggested that the woman rabbi be identified as the girl’s childhood rabbi — but to Missaghieh’s surprise, the proposed scene establishing the connection was not included.

Despite what many would describe as a farfetched pairing, the decision to cast a woman rabbi does shine a national spotlight on the demographic shift in the rabbinate.

Nearly 60% of students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the training ground for Reform rabbis, are now female. The Conservative movement, which celebrates its 20th anniversary of ordaining women this year, recently saw its first woman become senior rabbi of a synagogue with more than 500 families.

Lately this gender revolution has begun to percolate up into culture; in addition to Missaghieh’s performance, female rabbis have been featured prominently in three new novels this past year — Jonathan Rosen’s “Joy Comes in the Morning,” Amy Sohn’s “My Old Man,” and Julius Lester’s “The Autobiograpy of God.” In fact, Missaghieh, ordained by HUC-JIR in 1996 and the associate rabbi at Los Angeles’s Temple Israel of Hollywood, was herself the inspiration for a character on HBO’s hit show “Six Feet Under” several seasons ago — a young, sexy rabbi who develops a flirtation with dashing undertaker Nate Fisher.

Missaghieh’s involvement in television could be said to uphold the tradition of a congregation that has grown up alongside the entertainment industry. Several of Temple Israel’s founders were in the business, including Sol Wurtzel, a producer who populated films for the Fox Film Corporation with stars like Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Spencer Tracey. In later years, the synagogue’s rabbi, Max Nussbaum, wed Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, among other Hollywood glitterati, and served as spiritual adviser to Sammy Davis Jr.

Missaghieh’s star turn — the “Grey’s Anatomy” gig — fell into her lap when Ann Kindberg, a congregant at Temple Israel and a past producer of the show, needed a rabbinical consultant for the episode. Missaghieh’s participation ensured that the Orthodox character’s jean skirt was the right length (long), that she prayed in the right direction (east) and that any confusion about whether rabbis typically bless heart valves was dispelled (no, emphatically). Still, when Missaghieh finally agreed to play a rabbi in front of the camera, not everyone was in on the joke.

“At first, they thought I was just another actress,” Missaghieh said of her cast mates in a recent interview with the Forward. “They said, ‘Well how did you learn all that?’ I’m like, ‘I am a rabbi. I’m playing me.’”

Still, she’ll be hard to recognize: Covered as she is in a poofy, surgical shower-cap and facemask, we hardly notice her gender until a voice — her voice — sings out sweetly and strongly. The camera zooms in on the rabbi’s hand cradling the girl’s. Then it cuts to Missaghieh’s deep brown eyes staring intently into the eyes of her congregant, who seems, for one instant, held aloft.

While the clip of her praying in Hebrew takes barely 30 seconds, the shoot lasted three-and-a-half hours. By the end, even the cameramen were humming along.

The effort was well worth it, Missaghieh said, given that the show offers her a platform to reach millions of Jews and gentiles. “I hope,” she said, “they’ll see that Judaism is a religion that has many comforting sources to it and that Jewish people will be reminded of the comfort that rabbis and prayer and their community can give them during times of crisis.”

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