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Starring in a CBS thriller, a Jewish actor confronts antisemitism (on screen and off)

For Adam Goldberg, a memorable episode of ‘The Equalizer’ hits almost too close to home.

Last summer, as the cast and crew of CBS’ The Equalizer gathered to start filming the show’s third season, the writers approached Adam Goldberg about an episode they were then working on entitled “Never Again.”

For those unfamiliar with the program, The Equalizer is a reboot of a 1980s series that starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a retired intelligence operative who uses his former job skills to get justice for those who’ve been wronged.

The latest version stars Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall, ex-agency operative, and Goldberg as Harry Keshegian, a computer hacker who works with her.

“The writers just said we’re going to be doing an episode about antisemitism that featured me heavily and they wanted to be sure I was comfortable with it,” Goldberg told me over Zoom. “As time went on, they would tell me a little bit more about what the episode was about.”

In the episode, McCall (Latifah) is tied up on another case leaving Harry (Goldberg) to investigate a series of antisemitic incidents in a Jewish section of Brooklyn. Over the course of his investigation, he meets a rabbi who knew him and his deceased Jewish mom from whom he’d been estranged.

This marks the first time on the show that Harry’s Jewish roots have been mentioned.

“Had I been asked maybe just three years ago to do an episode where suddenly out of the blue my character is suddenly a Jewish guy, well that isn’t what I signed up for, you know. I’ve played enough Jewish characters and explored enough I think of the subject matter.”

Goldberg has played Lou the Jew in the thankfully forgettable caper flick, Once Upon a Time in Venice. More memorable was his role as Fish Mellish in Saving Private Ryan and, of course, the Jewish superhero, the Hebrew Hammer.

This, however, was different. Here, Goldberg’s Judaism was integral to the episode; also, times have changed. “Now, given the incredible uptick in antisemitism, both on the internet and in real life, in a way I felt it was my obligation to do that part,” Goldberg said.

This episode of The Equalizer generated a lot of attention. In one interview with The Wrap, the online entertainment industry website, Goldberg said, “there’s a certain amount of distance that I feel from my Jewishness.” That distance, he told me, is a function of his career. He said he remembers “being told for many years that my audition was fantastic, but they were going to go more American.”

“I’ve had to decide at various points if I wanted to lean into my Jewishness or be a little more of a blank slate,” Goldberg said. “You want to be versatile. You want to be malleable. If you are closely associated with a religious or cultural denomination, you’re obviously limiting yourself.”

Goldberg, 53, grew up in a mixed household. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t. Still, he attended a Jewish day school from kindergarten through sixth grade.

“But by the time I was done with the sixth grade,” he told me, “I felt the religious aspect of Judaism was not for me. Certainly culturally I felt Jewish.”

He did not have a bar mitzvah. “I went to a school with a large Jewish population and pretty much everyone was getting a bar mitzvah. I guess it was an interesting choice, because certainly it looked like fun. I had fun at other people’s bar mitzvahs. I was a big fan of the lip synching contests that were very much in vogue in the ’80s.”

Until relatively recently, he’d been unaware of the level of antisemitism in he world. “You hear about the Holocaust. I probably first learned about it when I was 6 years old,” said Goldberg. “When you’re 6 years old, it might as well have been a million years. I’d say for half my life, I didn’t know that antisemitism was a problem. But as I became a little more well-known as an actor, I started to experience that through the internet in its infancy. And then increasingly as social media became the way people communicate.”

It reached a crescendo when Goldberg expressed his disdain for Donald Trump. “That seemed to trigger a whole lot of trolls.”

The numbers ebbed and flowed, depending upon how closely a site was monitoring for and scrubbing hate speech. “There was an immediate uptick after Elon Musk took over (Twitter). It was noticeable and not negligible,” he said. “I have two folders on my phone filled with screenshots of really heinous Holocaust-era imagery and tropes.”

He held his phone up to his computer’s camera to show me some of the images. “It was pretty alarming,” he said.

I asked Goldberg if The Equalizer episode in any way shortened that distance he felt to Judaism. “It did,” he said. “I think I’ve been moving in that direction. In the last couple of years I’ve been embracing and trying to have better understanding of my role as a Jewish person and what role Jewishness plays in my personhood.”

There was an interesting moment in the final scene of the episode where Harry, now more fully aware of his mother’s love, recites the Mourner’s Kaddish. Goldberg had reservations, mostly because he felt the Kaddish moment of reconciliation had a “been there, done that” kind of feel to it.

“It’s hard to delineate how much you do or don’t want to do something on how it feels to you as an actor and how much it has to do with your own personal mishegas. So I can’t say for sure,” Goldberg said. “But what I can’t say is that I remember when we finally shot it, I felt quite moved in a way that felt unexpected to me. I remember thinking, substitute this character’s relationship with his mother with your own relationship to your own Jewishness and the awful antipathy you’ve been subject to the last several years, and I found myself pretty moved and choked up.

“I don’t know whether you can see that in the episode, but when we shot it I kind of cried a bit.”

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