Thursday, June 01, 2023

On a Sunday afternoon a number of years ago, my in-laws were visiting us from Lakewood and we went to a local pizza shop here in Monsey for lunch. As soon as we walked in I detected an uncharacteristically excited expression upon my father-in-law’ s face that I had never seen before. Before I could say anything, my father-in-law motioned to a sole fellow who was quietly eating his lunch, and asked me if I knew who he was. When I replied that he didn’ t look familiar, my father-in-law told me almost giddily that it was Steven Hill.

My father-in-law was a big fan of the famed actor from the ‘ 90s hit TV show “ Law and Order.” Despite Mr. Hill’ s chassidishe garb, my father-in-law recognized him immediately. During the late 1960s, Mr. Hill decided to become shomer Shabbos and a Skverer chasid. After a two-decade hiatus, he returned to act in “ Law and Order” but only on his terms, which included strict adherence to halacha.

Seeing how excited my father-in-law was, a few minutes later I presented him with a paper plate, upon which was hastily written: “ To Nate, All the best, S. Hill.” My father-in-law was far more thrilled with the note than I thought he would be. In fact, if I had realized how excited he would be with it, I never would have written it. He was pretty annoyed at me when he found out.

Last week, Steven Hill passed away at the age of 94. The truth is that there is a great deal to admire about him. He was a person who had “ made it” in the celebrity world, with all the endemic glitz and glamour. Yet, he was willing to put it all aside to pursue a life of deeper meaning and fulfillment.

In an interview in 1969 with Irene Klass, the late publisher of The Jewish Press (and republished in this week’ s Jewish Press), Hill explained why he left acting to pursue a life of Torah:

“I used to ask myself ‘ Was I just born to memorize lines?’ I knew there had to be more to life than that... I was feeling depressed because I seemed to be leading an aimless existence... My life seemed empty—meaningless...”

My father-in-law related that, on a different occasion, he met Steven Hill at a wedding, clad in his chassidishe garb and holding a sefer. I don’ t think he gave my father-in-law an autographed paper plate, but my father-in-law was deeply impressed by Mr. Hill’ s sincerity and apparent pride in being an observant Jew.

Those of us who grew up and live a Torah life within the confines of our communities often hear about how Torah and mitzvot afford us to live meaningful lives, in contrast to the glitz and wealth of Hollywood, which, although externally alluring, is in reality vapid and devoid of meaning. Yet, on some level, we remain skeptical and don’ t really believe it. We maintain this inner feeling that we would be different. If only we “ made it big” and “ had it all” we would defy the statistics of high rates of depression, empty lives and broken homes.

Iconic personalities like Steven Hill inspire us to realize that we would be wise to appreciate the gift we were granted of being born into a life of potential meaning and purpose. I say potential meaning and purpose because it’ s up to us to develop this incredible gift at our disposal.

Unfortunately, there are many people who live a Torah lifestyle but do so without feeling. That’ s kind of like acting out the script like an actor without really embracing the role. And that’ s exactly the type of life Steven Hill left behind.

It’ s not enough to keep the mitzvot—we have to live it, for that is true living.

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is the rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as guidance counselor and fifth grade rebbe in ASHAR, and principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor, and a division head at Camp Dora Golding. He also presents parenting classes based on the acclaimed Love and Logic methods. His email address is: [email protected] His website is: www.stamtorah.info.

Sign up now!