Michaela Watkins isn’t entirely sure why she came to Israel. The actress, comedian, former Saturday Night Live star and current lead in the critically-acclaimed Hulu sitcom Casual, said it’s just something she’s been thinking about recently.
Fast forward a little from the thinking phase, and Watkins is now smack-dab in the middle of an eight-day tour of the country with 28 other “media magnets,” organized by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP).
I caught up with Watkins, 45, during the fairly somber third day of the trip, after the group had been to Yad Vashem and Har Herzl, where they heard from Miriam Peretz, whose sons Uriel and Eliraz fell in battle.
Watkins was clearly moved by the morning, and came across as contemplative and reflective. Her thoughts and feelings about choosing to come on the trip were jumbled up with the experiences of the day, and what she sees as the current disturbing political situation in the US.
“For the first time in my life I’m experiencing intense antisemitism directed at me and that is so weird,” she said. “There’s a very coordinated effort on Twitter to silence people – I’m not silenced for my humor, my acting, my writing – things I have chosen to do with my life. They’re coming after me for something I didn’t choose, which is the fact that I’m Jewish. I was born this way, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Casual Season 3 Official Trailer [HD] Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, Tara Lynne Barr (YouTube/ We Got This Covered)
While Watkins was always aware of being Jewish, she said she never really felt it with any intensity. She grew up in Syracuse and then Boston, and wound her way from New York to Portland, Oregon and then Los Angeles. Along the way she did theater and improv, eventually landing on Saturday Night Live
in 2008 for one season. She then appeared in a range of comedies, including The New Adventures of Old Christine
, before landing her own show, Casual
, on Hulu, which just wrapped up its third season.
“For whatever reason I didn’t want to claim my Judaism [for a long time] because the way it was disseminated to me in my education – it didn’t resonate with me,” she said. Then almost 10 years ago she participated in Reboot, a conference about Jewish identity, which flipped a switch inside her. Later she met her husband, Fred Kramer, the former executive director of the Jewish World Watch NGO, and an active member of the IKAR non-denominational Jewish communal group in LA.
“I met my husband and he took me to IKAR and... that’s where I really felt like I had the spirituality of Judaism brought to me,” she said. “This is not just saying and doing things by tradition and rote, this is how it can take seed in you and grow and become part of your identity.”
Even with her Jewish identity growing, Watkins surprised her friends and family – and even herself – by deciding to pick up and go to Israel for eight days. While it isn’t technically her first time – that was around age 12 when her dad went to a math conference in Haifa – “it feels like it is.”
“It hasn’t been one of the highest places on my list of where to go when you take a trip,” she said, “but recently it’s been starting to creep in and feel like a place I need to go and I don’t know why, but [I’ve been] having intense curiosity about it.”
Her friends and colleagues were “surprised and shocked” that she was taking off to Israel for eight days, in part because “Baruch Hashem – am I now using it right?” When I assure her that she had mastered the guttural sound and the casual dropping of “Thank God” into conversation, she continued – “Baruch Hashem, I’ve been very busy doing what I love, and so to take a vacation and to take time for myself... was surprising.”
But, on the recommendation of her manager, Watkins made the leap and entrusted this trip to the hands of JWRP, joining the group of 29 “media magnets” on a tour of the country. While Thursday was a particularly solemn day, the women had already experienced a graffiti tour of Tel Aviv, met with Israeli fashion figures, explored Safed and will be climbing Masada, dipping in the Dead Sea and much more before returning home.
JWRP has been running subsidized, women-only Birthright-style visits to Israel since 2008, bringing groups from communities around the US on a similar trip. The media magnets tour is their second specialized trip for “influencers,” and is in partnership with the Tourism Ministry, said Adrienne Gold, the JWRP education and trip leader.
“These women are already deeply engaged, not necessarily Jewishly and not necessarily with Israel, but they are engaged in the processes of communications and sharing,” said Gold. “These women are watching Israel and learning about Israel through a lens – they are both seeing it and promoting it at the very same time.”
While Watkins sees the women around her snapping photos and sharing them almost non-stop, she has chosen to reflect more carefully and pointedly.
“I’m trying to be judicious with everything because... I really want to process everything,” she said. “I’m trying to let it all settle in my brain and figure out what to do... I don’t know if it comes out in my scripts, I don’t know if it comes out in my public speaking, I don’t know if it will come out in storytelling.
“I’ve been surprised multiple times during each day in ways that are unexpected,” she said, “so I’m just gonna let it rise up.”
One thing Watkins said she didn’t see coming was the intense reflections on child-bearing that rose up after visiting Yad Vashem and hearing from Peretz.
“Coming from Yad Vashem I just had this realization, it was the first time I understood that need,” she said. “I don’t have children, and that’s been a choice, but for the first time I understood that deep-seated need that people feel to continue the line... [my husband and I] chose to go another way, and that’s been perfectly fine – of course, now I’m like ‘hmm, is it?’”
She was also blown away by the group’s visit to the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, where they met Syrian refugees being treated by Israeli doctors
“I knew nothing about that and that was really, really fascinating,” Watkins said. “It just validated and confirmed so much of the Jewish values – that we take care of everybody in the world, no matter who you are. If somebody is hurt, I hurt, if somebody is in pain, I am in pain.”