From Hollywood to Tel Aviv: TV hosts connect over Jewish values

 Danielle Robay (photo credit: Joyce Park)
Danielle Robay
(photo credit: Joyce Park)

Danielle Robay is a TV host and journalist, a correspondent for IMDb, NBC4-LA and creator of the video podcast PRETTYSMART. You’ve seen her on HLN’s Dr. Drew, E!, EXTRA, Entertainment Tonight Online, The Steve Harvey Show, NBC’s 1st Look, and Defy Media. She was born and raised in Chicago, and is currently living in Los Angeles. Larry King has commented on her compelling interview style: “Danielle has the ability to make people feel seen.”

These two celebrity media influencers hit it off from the beginning of our three-way transatlantic conversation.

They both have the same passion to tell a story to their followers, but they see Judaism differently at times, even though they agree about most issues. They are even planning on physically meeting in the near future. Meanwhile, these two influencers met virtually at the invitation of The Jerusalem Post and the Ruderman Family Foundation, as part of a series celebrating 75 years of the State of Israel.

Danielle Robay, a journalist and TV host for major American networks, grew up in a liberal Jewish home in Chicago. “I grew up with a long story of Judaism in my family because my grandma and her whole side of the family were in the Holocaust,” she said, explaining that her family lived in Amsterdam and was in a work camp.

“I think the Holocaust was the most pervasive in my childhood. I think it’s a very familiar situation for any grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. There are a lot of blessings that come from it. There’s a closeness to Judaism. There are traditions that are important to be passed on and there’s also some remnants of things that I think I inherited too,” Robay said.

She explained that “people in my family have a strange relationship with food; they can’t throw anything out.” She continued by sharing a bit about her Jewish upbringing: “I grew up going to Reform Temple in Chicago, and had a Bat Mitzvah. I also studied political science abroad in Tel Aviv during my junior year.”

Yarden Mainfeld Dizengoff, a social media influencer and journalist covering entertainment and pop culture, introduced herself, “I’m half-Moroccan and half-Tunisian, but both of my parents were born in Israel. I was born and raised in Ashkelon, which is like a suburb in Israel, even though it’s a city.”

“Regarding Judaism, I feel like in Israel, most of the people who are of Northern African descent, like me, tend to be more religious and traditional. I was raised as a traditional Jew. Not strictly Orthodox, but not very religious.”She explained that “Judaism is in my heart. I think it’s kind of easier when you live here in Israel. You don’t have to practice it all the time like you need to when you’re abroad.”

Yarden Mainfeld Dizengoff (credit: Gili Algabi)Yarden Mainfeld Dizengoff (credit: Gili Algabi)

Yarden Mainfeld Dizengoff is a pop culture researcher and journalist for different Israeli media outlets, specializing in culture, fashion, beauty and celebrities. She has a master’s degree in law and is a lawyer, but she mainly focuses on being an Instagram influencer, online content creator, moderator, fashion designer and entrepreneur as well as an event producer. She grew up in Ashkelon but now lives with her husband and three children in Tel Aviv. 

Yet, Mainfeld Dizengoff added, “when you’re abroad you may at times feel more Jewish than in Israel.” She explained that she currently lives in Tel Aviv, which is very different from Ashkelon regarding the observance of Judaism. “During Yom Kippur, I feel like I’m the only one who is fasting. Everybody on the streets in Tel Aviv is out on Yom Kippur with their phones and eating. The kids in Tel Aviv are all out on their bikes having fun.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff said that on her many visits to the US for work, “I always felt that everyone there is into their Jewish community. Many people whom I’ve met were very involved in their own Jewish communities, maybe because they feel different than the people around them.” She added that Israelis don’t usually have that type of urge to find other Jews to hang out with. “In Israel, people think to themselves: We’re in Israel, it’s okay, we don’t have to show that we’re Jewish.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff shared that she would actively like to be involved in Judaism while living in Israel. “I feel like you need to practice some kind of Judaism in order to feel Jewish. Some people don’t like to do whatever works for everybody else.”

She mentioned a recent Instagram post she shared about supermodel Gigi Hadid who has been very vocal in speaking out against Israel. “I really think that Gigi doesn’t hate Jewish people. Maybe she’s anti-Israel, but a lot of American people are making a separation between Jewish people and Israelis because of the political situation.”

ROBAY: “I personally feel like anti-Zionism is antisemitism. I have a hard time separating those two. I think that you can be critical of any government, but to be able to say ‘the Jewish state doesn’t deserve to exist,’ to me is antisemitic.

“And so I think it was beautiful to see the Haim sisters and Gigi Hadid together because I don’t ever think you can hate somebody from up close. And Yarden, like you said: I don’t think Gigi Hadid hates Jewish people. I hope that they do have those conversations and learn from each other.”

Robay shared that her first exposure to Israel was when she was a child. “My dad said to me one day: ‘Whether you feel like a Jew or not, the world sees you as a Jew, so you better figure out what that means to you.’ I didn’t know what it meant, so I went to Tel Aviv to try and figure it out.”

Robay then turned to Mainfeld Dizengoff and said, “Yarden, I’m curious to hear your experience, but in America, growing up Jewish, and understanding Israel, are two completely different things. I personally didn’t feel like I could understand what it meant for me to be Jewish without seeing Israel, and I felt that way about Amsterdam too, because that’s where my family came from.”

During her first visit to Jerusalem, which she prefers to Tel Aviv, she said that she “saw the [Western] Wall, I saw all the Jerusalem stones and even my rabbi from America who was actually there.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff asked to share her own personal Jewish journey, but in Israel. “I found myself really re-discovering my religious roots because of my kids. Once I became a mom, I asked myself: How do I pass on the tradition? You cannot teach kids about the values of Judaism without the tradition, so I decided when we moved to Tel Aviv four years ago, that my oldest daughter, who was six at the time, would go to a religious school. We now send all of our kids to religious schools, and I specifically looked for one that will be kind of liberal, not too religious.”

Asked what she knew about American Jews while growing up in Ashkelon, Mainfeld Dizengoff laughed and immediately answered that “the stigma is mostly that American Jews are really rich, without actually understanding what really exists there.” She added that “there is also the assumption that they don’t really go through anything [regarding wars and terror]. It’s like we’re safeguarding Israel for all the Jewish people from around the world.”

The conversation between these two women took place on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day when Mainfeld Dizengoff said: “I’m dressed like this, not just because of you, but since I just came back from a Memorial Day ceremony and it’s a really sad evening.

“Danielle, it’s probably not exactly like this for you, but I have to stop my reporting during days like these, or when there is a terrorist attack in Israel, because it’s not relevant for my followers to hear more about American celebrities at a time like this.

“I’ll also publish an Instagram story that says something like ‘it’s a very hard time for me now’. Unfortunately, this is something we deal with on a regular basis. So I think that’s the big difference between us.”

She added that she “didn’t know a lot of American Jews. I have family in Los Angeles and in Canada, but I just knew that they are very Jewish and respectful of Judaism, but very far, distant, physically and mentally. They live the American dream, but they’re not really in touch with what’s going on here [in Israel]. I knew that they are mostly Ashkenazi. Growing up, it was not very much of an issue or a connection.”

ROBAY: “I think Yarden is right in a lot of ways. I think you’re being kind when you say it’s a stigma, when actually, in many ways, it’s the truth. There’s a huge disconnect and I don’t think I fully understood it until I was in Tel Aviv and experienced having to go into a basement in the middle of the day because there was a terror attack and it was so commonplace for people. They weren’t even scared, while all the Americans on my program were screaming and freaking out. The Israelis said, ‘Relax, it’s fine.’”Asked about antisemitism, Robay said that she personally hasn’t ever personally suffered from this phenomenon until recently. “I haven’t personally felt it; I feel it when I read the news or see that there was a swastika six blocks from where I live, but I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I didn’t experience it.”

Yet that has recently changed, “I experienced it mostly online when Kanye West started to say [antisemitic] things. It was the first time that I had experienced antisemitism online. That was a new thing. It was very saddening, mostly because it was the first time I felt a disconnect from my friends who practiced other religions and cultures, and didn’t understand what I was going through. I’d never felt a separation [from them] before that.”

“I don’t talk about being Jewish very often online,” she disclosed. “I don’t hide it, but I don’t talk about it a lot. And if I’m being honest, I think some of it comes from fear because I don’t want to deal with all of that. So I have tried to do more things, I guess, behind the scenes, such as working with the Jewish Federation and hosting panels [for Jewish causes].”

“This is my first interview about being Jewish, I’ve never done that. I have a complicated relationship with it, if I’m being honest.” She shared that “publicly, I’m a little bit nervous.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff: “I can totally understand you, even though here in Israel, most of us are Jews. I’ve never been in this type of situation. Danielle is really exposed to the whole world; to hundreds of millions of people and most of them are not Jewish. As opposed to Israelis, she’s not part of a Jewish community online that can protect her.

“I don’t know what I would do if I was in your shoes. The only thing that may be similar is that I lost about 100 followers when I shared a photo of myself with an Israeli flag at one of the recent demonstrations [in Israel], even though I usually don’t get into politics.”

MAINFELD DIZENGOFF said she had a hard time understanding the situation Robay was in regarding Jews in the ‘showbiz’ industry since the situation in Israel is very different. “Do you feel any special connection when you meet another Jewish person in the industry? Because in my imagination, there should have been this big network of Jews in the industry that can help each other out.

Robay: “That’s a great question. I wish I felt that more. I don’t think that when I meet somebody who’s Jewish in Hollywood, there’s a relatability, but I don’t feel like there is an inherent immunity, necessarily. I feel it among women, actually, in Hollywood.”

Robay said that she had a question for Mainfeld Dizengoff: “In the last few years of my career, I’ve seen my Jewish values in the workplace more. I didn’t recognize them as Jewish until then. For instance, we are both journalists. We’re obsessed with questions. I recently realized that it’s so Jewish that we question everything. So, I’m curious as to how you see your Jewish upbringing and values show up in your work.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff: “I haven’t really ever thought about it. I don’t know if it’s due to me being Israeli or Jewish. I think it’s kind of a little bit of both, that you feel like everybody is your friend. I can totally talk to you and say ‘Danielle, I’m coming to LA let’s meet up or ‘let’s have Shabbat dinner together.’

“Regarding the work, it’s everything: Questioning things and being curious. I’m always curious, I always want to learn more. Now, for instance, when both of us met, I think the connection we have between us is Jewish. It’s kind of a Jewish hotspot where you feel like you can say a lot of things and feel good about who you are.”

Asked how we can create more connections between Israeli and American Jews, Robay said that “I think what you’ve put together [this conversation] is so beautiful, and to expand on it.  If the Jewish Federation has a young leaders group, why aren’t we Zooming with the young leaders in Israel at least once a month?” She added, “Yarden, if you come to LA, you better call me.”

Mainfeld Dizengoff added that when Robay comes to Israel, “you’re invited for Kiddush and Friday night Shabbat dinner. I’m not kidding. Feel free. I will also take you up on that invitation because I’m in LA every other month. I cover a lot of red carpets and I do a lot of projects.”

Robay: “I have to take you out for a night in LA.”Mainfeld Dizengoff: “Consider it done.”

The interview is a joint project of the Ruderman Family Foundation and The Jerusalem Post in honor of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, recognizing its special connection with US Jewry.

For more information: Ruderman Family Foundation 

A special project of the Ruderman Family Foundation