Jewish Family Service could not have found a better spokesperson than actor/singer Mandy Patinkin, whose extemporaneous speech at the lunch fundraiser Wednesday hit all the right notes.
Despite his disclaimer that he is not a public speaker, but rather a mailman who delivers the brilliant words of the likes of Sondheim and Shakespeare, Patinkin used his acting skills to deliver an impassioned speech that championed the good work being done by JFS for those in desperate need.
Describing himself as a fortunate person who has never known suffering, he wove personal stories of loved ones whose crisis touched him, as he touched the audience’s heart. He also emphasized that he has the privilege of celebrity and chooses to use it to help organizations who help others. He appealed to everyone privileged with affluence to do the same.
Patinkin was such a perfect pitchman, that in the Q&A following his speech, when asked why he supported the JFS mission, the audience laughed and groaned since he had gone to such dramatic, effective – even at times schmaltzy – lengths to state the organization’s case.
When I face my fears, it changes my life. Facing the unfamiliar and being here has done that. JFS will never leave my soul.
Patinkin was also highly personal in his talk, laughingly describing the disproportionately large number of lunatics in his family, his own ongoing therapy, the importance of family, and his feelings of guilt, fear and worry. He also spoke personally about his career, of how “Homeland” co-star Clare Danes had taught him grace and a recent play about Anne Frank changed his view of Jewish history and suffering.
In the Q&A, he spoke about his first showbiz “break” which occurred in the synagogue when he was seven and, as part of the family choir, was asked to lead “Dem Bones, Dem Bones” and then do the twist. From that moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Peppering his talk with Yiddishisms, Patinkin described his feelings of connection with the work and people of JFS, who are so dedicated to positively impacting lives – of the elderly, immigrants, people in a financial or health crisis – 50% of whom are not Jewish. He also identified with the Jewish anxiety of failing to meet those needs, admitting his own nervousness.
Patinkin need not have been nervous. After he closed by singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (written by Jewish composer Yip Harburg) in English and Yiddish, it was clear the JFS message of hope had been delivered by a consummate actor and passionate human being.