Their Big Break| March 20, 2019
A Jewish power couple ditched Hollywood's glitz and glamour for spiritual treasure
Illustration: Itamar Rubner
magine the scene: A young couple sits on the steps leading to Mamilla Mall, tears running down their cheeks. Freshly inspired by a kiruv trip to Eretz Yisrael, their neshamos are lit up by the beauty of Torah, and they feel themselves pulled as strongly and inexorably as a wave back to the sea.
But where will that leave them? They’ve both spent an entire adult life trying to build a career in the entertainment business, and each is but a few steps away from breaking into the big time. Can a person be frum in Hollywood? Is becoming frum worth the sacrifice of so many years of scrabbling to get to the top? If they throw it all away, how will they survive financially?
As they sit there in despair, pulled between two worlds, a tourist walks by sporting a crocheted novelty kippah: “DON’T WORRY,” it reads, “BE JEWISH!”
Ari and Nes look at each other with a grin. Clearly Hashem is sending them a message…
“We were these flaming baalei teshuvah — we saw signs in everything,” Ari Blau now says with a laugh, recalling that moment. But that goofy yarmulke was just the nudge they needed to take the plunge into authentic Jewish life.
At the time, Ari was close to becoming a top comedy writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden, a popular CBS television talk show. His dream for over a decade had been to write and perform comedy, and he was on the cusp of making it.
Ari grew up on the southern tip of New Jersey in Cape May. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and went to a Jewish day school. “At 12 years old, while I was studying for my bar mitzvah, people kept telling me that soon I was going to ‘become a man,’ and that’s when things matter,” Ari recalls.
“I remember asking the rabbi of my Conservative synagogue what it means to ‘become a man.’ He told me all that matters in life is that you’re a good person. That answer didn’t sit well with me.”
Shortly after, Ari was invited by one of the teachers at his Jewish day school to go to Lakewood for Shabbos, together with his best friends, Ben and Izzy.
Ari was inspired by the Torah he experienced, and that one Shabbos in Lakewood turned into many. “I was growing without knowing the term ‘growing,’” he explains. At one point, he told his parents he no longer wanted to eat nonkosher food, and he put on tzitzis and a yarmulke. Then his day school closed.
His friends at this Jewish day school, Ben and Izzy, decided to enroll in yeshivah for high school. Ari wanted to go with them, except that now a new complication had arisen: Ari’s parents went through a divorce, and at age 13, his father left the family, visiting his children only sporadically and finally disappearing for good. Ari’s mother found herself alone to raise four children, and Ari couldn’t bring himself to abandon her during a difficult time.
In the absence of a local yeshivah, staying home meant public school. “I thought I’d find other Jewish kids there and that I’d maintain contact with Ben and Izzy, so it wouldn’t be so bad,” he relates. He gives a short laugh. “Turns out I was the only Jewish kid out of 1,500 students in the school! I showed up in a yarmulke, my tzitzis out. I brought a lunch box — how was I supposed to know nobody brings lunch boxes to school?”
The other students immediately seized the opportunity to bully the mild-mannered Jewish guy. Taking the bus became a nightmare. Ari found swastikas scrawled on his locker, and kids threw pennies at him. How does a Jew survive among enemies? “I made jokes out of it,” Ari says. “I later met a Holocaust survivor who told me that making fun of the Nazis kept him from going crazy. I think humor is in the Jewish DNA as a coping mechanism.”
When he found swastikas on his locker, he’d call out, “Maybe you could make this bigger, so I could find my locker faster in between classes?” When kids threw pennies, he’d say, “Why not throw quarters? They’d hurt more!”
Ari survived high school protected by his friends and buoyed by his sense of humor. To take his mind off his problems, he’d watch comedy films. He began making little amateur comedy film clips. When the time came to apply for college, however, Ari discovered there’s no such thing as a degree in comedy. Instead, he enrolled in a filmmaking program at New York University, his mother’s alma mater.
During Ari’s second year of college, his old friend Ben got married. Rabbi Yona Klahr, from the kollel in Cherry Hill, NJ (and currently rosh kollel), sat next to him. “I knew Ari’s name from Ben and Izzy talking about their day school days,” Rabbi Klahr says. “I’m sure that the very yeshivish wedding was new and strange to him — he came dressed in a very arty way. I took his name and number and reached out to him once, but it didn’t go anywhere.”
Encouraged by one of his professors, Ari began participating in open mic nights at an Upper East Side comedy club. His acts alternated between the observational — the insanity of New Yorkers, the cost of college, the absurdity of life — and self-deprecating jokes about his life (“My dad went out for a carton of milk. He just never came back”).
“It was like a kind of therapy for me,” he admits. Ari got an internship working for a show on NBC, and by hanging around the set, got his first taste of show biz. In 2012, he landed an internship with The Daily Show. At one point, all the interns were invited to a Q & A session with the host. When Ari asked him how to succeed, he answered: “Don’t have a Plan B. My family thought I was crazy, I wasn’t making ends meet — but I just stuck with it.”
“I was very struck by that advice. I wrote it on a piece of paper and kept it with me,” Ari says.
o Plan B” was the mantra he kept with him when, after several years of trying to break in without success in New York, he decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. But his first three months in L.A. were a rude shock. Rather than being “discovered” quickly, he soon came to the realization that there were thousands of people like him in L.A. — some of them even funnier. But he clung to his resolve: NO PLAN B. “I figured I’d just outwork all the others,” he says.
Finally, another friend from college contacted him about an opening for a production assistant for the James Corden show. “I had no idea who James was,” Ari recounts. “He’s British and wasn’t so well-known yet in the US.” The job itself was little more than a glorified gopher job, paying minimum wage, but at least it was a foot in the door.
And Ari was irrepressible. He began going around trying to sell his skills to the executive producer telling him, “I’m funny! I do standup!”
“I’d write jokes on a piece of paper and hand them to the producers,” Ari says. “They was always dismissive — they’d give me a curt, ‘Thanks, but we don’t need it.’ But finally they became receptive and promoted me to another popular producer.”
Corden started Carpool Karaoke as a stunt for a charity fundraiser. Reflecting that people often sing in their cars, they had the idea to drive around with celebrities talking and singing along to music. The idea was a hit, and the popularity of the James Corden show shot up meteorically. As part of a team, Ari worked on the first 25 Carpool Karaokes and some of the monologues (his team even won an Emmy award). He managed to squeeze in a Birthright tour to Israel with his two sisters one summer; it was special, and he unexpectedly found tears streaming down his face when brought to the Kosel on the last day. But there was little Torah content and no follow-up.
Then Ari’s brother got married in Cherry Hill. Rabbi Klahr ran into him and re-introduced himself. “Ari couldn’t believe I remembered him!” Klahr says. “Ben stopped by the wedding for a few hours, and I invited him to visit the kollel. He came the next day wearing a pair of tzitzis he’d bought on his Birthright trip.”
Sensing potential, Klahr called Rabbi Alex Landa, the founder of LAJ (Los Angeles Jewish Experience), whom Klahr had met 17 years earlier when Landa showed up at the kollel wearing a backpack and hoping to learn. Rabbi Eden Markowitz, who worked for LAJ, gave Ari a call once he was back in L.A., telling him about their program. Rabbi Markowitz even went to CBS to meet Ari and learn with him. One learning session a week quickly became two, then three. “He’d had some previous foundation, and all the right middos were there,” Rabbi Klahr says, “so he grew naturally into it.”
Rabbi Yisroel Majeski, rav of Kehilas Lev Simcha in Valley Village, was also one of the people who came to CBS to learn with Ari. “You could see how much people there liked and respected him,” he says. “But Ari was uncomfortable with it. He’d tell me, ‘It’s all fake,’ and show me the ways television manipulates reality. He’d point out that the lives of many actors are empty and unhappy. Ari himself is tremendously sincere and asked great questions.”
t was around that time that Ari met Vanessa Elgrichi, a young Jewish actress, when she was performing at the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip. They began dating, sharing a love of show business and Jewish connection. Vanessa’s father came from Casablanca and her mother, also of Moroccan descent, grew up in Israel; they were traditional but unaware of halachah. Having been told they’d never have children, when Vanessa made her appearance one year around Hanukah time, they gave her a Hebrew name, Nes.
Vanessa starting acting in films and commercials at the tender age of eight, initially pushed by her parents; eventually, she says, “I became obsessed myself.” She starred in popular sitcoms and commercials for companies like McDonald’s and Burger King.
Her dreams were stalled when her father was lured to Las Vegas by the possibility of making it big in real estate, but before long, Vanessa was taking the car and driving to L.A. for auditions — sometimes driving almost five hours, spending just a few minutes being appraised by a casting crew, and driving back. But she did it willingly: “I thought I was good, and I thought this was my future,” she says simply. By the time she was 21, the commute had become wearing, and she decided that if she was serious about her career, she had to move back to L.A.
She took a job as a waitress (“So typical, right?” she groans) and found a few parts in independent films but nothing of major significance. Sometimes she’d be awarded a part and get cut in the end, or be cut from the credits. “There were so many obstacles. But today I’m glad I didn’t make it in,” she says.
After she began dating Ari, he brought her to LAJ and introduced her to the rabbis. Rabbi Markowitz suggested Vanessa join Ari on the LAJ trip to Israel. Like Ari, she had gone with Birthright to Israel and returned moved by the experience but undirected. “That sounded like a big commitment to someone in the secular world,” she says. “We’d only been dating a couple of months which is considered like nothing.”
Ari himself experienced unusual Hashgachah pratis for the trip. When it was proposed to him, he was sure he’d never be able to get away. Since the trip is subsidized, participants are expected to show their seriousness of intent and prep themselves via mandatory attendance at classes in the preceding months. Ari went to classes but didn’t expect to be able to go. Then, unexpectedly, Corden called his entire staff in for a meeting. “I’ll be filming a movie this summer,” he said, “so we’ll be on break for a few weeks.” The dates meshed perfectly with the LAJ tour.
The tour deepened Ari and Vanessa’s commitment both to Judaism and each other. The former, for Vanessa, would be tested almost as soon as she walked off the plane. “I got an email from a very exclusive agent, who only takes on a couple dozen celebrity clients, telling me he’d scouted me and was interested in taking me on,” she says. “I told him I’m Shabbos observant and can’t work Friday afternoons or Saturdays, but he said he thought it was doable.”
The Yamim Noraim approached, and Vanessa was put off to realize just how many days of Yom Tov she’d need to take off. “At home we only celebrated Yom Kippur. Now there was Rosh Hashanah, Succot, Simchat Torah, and Shemini Atzeret! I finally told the agent I needed to take off the whole month of October. And he was okay with it.”
Still, Vanessa was offered some inappropriate roles and had to lie to weasel out of the auditions.
Yet she knew she had a limited window of opportunity: “Even as a kid,” she says, “I understood that in the industry your job is to sell yourself. If you miss opportunities in your early 20s, when your looks are at their peak, you might end up with no opportunities ever.”
She finally admitted to her agent that she couldn’t do inappropriate roles. The pressure became so great that she sat herself down to write him a break-up email. “I’d finally reached a career level where I could get great auditions,” she says, “and then I felt I couldn’t go forward. I sat in front of the computer thinking, ‘Hashem, show me the right thing to do.’”
That instant, an email popped into her inbox. It was from the agent, preempting her own. “This isn’t going to work,” he said. Instead of feeling upset, Vanessa felt a huge weight roll off her shoulders.
ri and Vanessa — now Nes — were soon engaged, but in terms of religious commitment, they were still a work in progress; for example, Nes couldn’t see herself covering her hair.
An LAJ trip to Poland, with a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp, cemented her commitment. “It was very emotional, very depressing,” Nes says. “There was a room full of piles and piles of hair, hair in ponytails, hair of different colors. I couldn’t stop crying. It made me see: The Nazis saw hair was important to us, so they took it from us.” Three months later, after her chuppah, Nes put on a sheitel and never looked back.
The more they grew, the less desire they had to remain in the fickle, superficial entertainment world. “The more time I spent around celebrities, the less I wanted to be one,” says Ari. “Celebrities aren’t the people that you see on the screen. A lot of them are unhappy and lost. And comedy writers are often told to write inappropriate jokes. My old dream was to be on Saturday Night Live, but how could I do a show that’s prepped on Shabbos?”
They decided to take a year to live and learn Torah in Jerusalem after their marriage. Ari says, “I never got my chance to go learn in yeshivah like Ben and Izzy, and there was so much I wanted to explore. I wanted to build a foundation, and to learn to be the best person I could be — husband, father, son, employee.”
He marshaled his courage and went to give notice at work. To his surprise, James Corden was sympathetic and thoughtful. They’d been in close contact, as Ari had been writing monologues and jokes for him for a while. Ari thanked James for the previous three years and wonderful opportunities and told him he’d be leaving for Israel. Corden asked what he planned to do there. “We just want to work on ourselves and our marriage,” Ari replied.
“That’s really cool,” Corden replied. “I’m jealous. No one in Hollywood does that. Who works on himself? I have a mansion in Malibu, I get everything on a silver platter, the more money I make, the less I pay for. People think I have everything. But there’s one thing I don’t have… time with my wife and three children.”
Ari was especially stunned and flattered by Corden’s intriguing last words of encouragement. “You’re bigger than this,” he said, indicating his office. “You can do more than this in many worlds.”
In a fitting coda to his long pursuit of comedy, Ari’s former idol Adam Sandler came on the show during his last week on the job. Sandler had long been his ideal of Jewish success; in college Ari had even made a documentary about him. Now he was finally meeting him in person.
The man before him looked haggard and tired, even jaded. “He wasn’t dismissive, but he spoke to me in a pretty pareve way,” Ari relates. “I asked him what he was up to next, and he rolled off ‘Oh, Movie A, then Movie B’ in a pretty apathetic way. I could see right into the emptiness and realized he also never has time for family life. It really solidified my decision to go to Israel.” When Sandler left, Ari found himself teary-eyed, deeply moved to realize the difference between his old heroes and his new ones, between the path not taken and the path that beckoned.
efore leaving for Israel, Ari and his bride flew to New Jersey to visit his father’s mother, who’d stayed close to his family despite her son’s defection but hadn’t been well enough to attend her grandson’s wedding. Shortly after the visit, her condition deteriorated precipitously, and when Ari arrived at the hospital, he found his father’s non-religious siblings determined to cremate her. “Ari called me, and I spoke to them, but I saw they were just brushing me off,” Rabbi Klahr says. “When I suggested that this was a last opportunity for them to do something for her — kevurah, Kaddish — one son said, ‘I don’t do Kaddish, rabbi. I don’t do minyan.’”
After discovering Ari’s grandmother had already bought herself a plot, Rabbi Klahr suggested to the funeral parlor that cremation might lead to a lawsuit. Finally an uncle authorized the kevurah. “Every single step was a struggle,” Klahr says. “But at the cemetery, I told the uncle who said he doesn’t ‘do Kaddish,’ ‘Look: How many people have the merit to have their family there with shovels, helping to give a respectful burial?’ Ari’s uncle immediately yelled to his sons to come help, and as their Conservative rabbi began organizing them to form two lines, he suddenly shouted, ‘Wait! I have to say Kaddish!’ Then he said it, with tears rolling down his cheeks.”
Rabbi Klahr later told Ari, “Look how you became frum just in time.”
Having accomplished the grandmother’s kevurah, Ari and Nes left for an uplifting shanah rishonah in Eretz Yisrael. He studied at Machon Shlomo, she at Neve; Ari discovered frum cousins in Beit Shemesh and Lakewood. A year later, they returned to Los Angeles, where Ari began working as the marketing director for the local Tomchei Shabbos creating videos and helping them fundraise. He also films videos for his community, such as the Pledge for Pittsburgh video he made with Rabbi Majeski after the shooting, showing Jews pledging to take on mitzvos l’ilui nishmas the victims. Ari and Nes recently started a video production company called “NesProductions.” They’ve produced kollel banquet dinner videos, inspirational Jewish stories, commercials, and more. They are now new parents to a baby girl.
Ari’s old friends Ben and Izzy are married and living in Lakewood and Cherry Hill, and he still touches base with his old protector Donte a few times a month. He and Nes have joined Rabbi Majeski’s Lev Simcha community and are taking life one day at a time. They’re often invited to tell their stories to synagogue and kiruv groups. “People are mesmerized hearing them,” Rabbi Klahr says. “Very few people gave up as much as they did to live as Torah Jews.”
In the meantime, this engaging young couple has a glow that comes from inner satisfaction and fulfillment, the kind of joy that doesn’t need television jokes to give life its spice.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 753)
Oops! We could not locate your form.