Winger's terms of endearment focus on bilingual school

American actress comes to Jerusalem to back bilingual school.

debra winger 88 (photo credit: David Brinn)
debra winger 88
(photo credit: David Brinn)
"When I come to Israel, I put on my cynic hat, so I don't stick out. But it's a little harder to do that here," said American actress Debra Winger Thursday while visiting the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Jerusalem School run by the Hand in Hand organization. At the newly inaugurated sparkling Jerusalem campus - one of four Hand in Hand bilingual, multicultural schools in the country - the Academy Award-nominated actress, best known for her roles in 1982's Officer and a Gentleman and 1983's Terms of Endearment, sat in on a kindergarten class, joined students in folk dancing, and promoted the organization's efforts to bridge the gap between the Jewish and Arab population. "It's facing the dilemma head on," said Winger, who was accompanied on her week-long visit to Israel by her 10-year-old son and her husband, actor, writer and director Arliss Howard. "I was talking to one of the teachers at the Kfar Kara school and told him that must be changing the kids' lives. He said, 'They don't have to change, it's us that have to change, the parents have to change. The kids feel it to be totally natural.' "And I think that's the beauty, when they start in kindergarten. I'm not here carrying a message. Every day when you see parents dropping their children off and saying good morning to each other and they leave their children here, I don't need anything more than that." The 53-year-old Winger was first exposed to the Hand in Hand schools while giving a speech recently for the Jewish Federation in Florida. Asked to focus on the 60th anniversary of Israel, she spoke about her experience here during the Second Lebanon War when she was a judge at the Jerusalem Film Festival and the need of communication between the Jews and Arabs of the region.. "I was disillusioned and angry with both sides, and I decided to speak about that, even though I knew it could be last time I got a Federation gig," she told The Jerusalem Post in an interview after the tour of the school. The speech was met with silence, except for one audience member who was standing and applauding, and trying to get others to join in. At the end, he approached Winger and introduced her to another speaker at the conference, Lee Gordon, who co-founded Hand in Hand 11 years ago. "He told me that Lee has schools in Israel that deal with the very thing I was talking about," recalled Winger. "I took his card, and about a month later checked out the organization. Honestly, I thought 'It's another Jewish school that invited a few Arabs and, you know, Kumbaya… it will never really ultimately work.' But it looked different, so I e-mailed Lee and told him that someday it if worked out, I would like to visit. As it turned out in two weeks' time, my son was having a break, and Lee is a guy like 'now,' and so am I. And suddenly we were on a plane." That impulsive quality to her character also contributed to Winger's decision to first visit Israel back in 1972 as a teenager. "I had Orthodox grandparents and despite my parents being secular Jews, I had valued the rituals. I had always heard about Israel, but nobody in my family had ever gone, so I was really the one that went in 1972," said Winger. "I was shocked - Israel was less Jewish than my parents… not true, seemingly less Jewish but it wasn't; it just had nothing to do with wearing a kippa." Winger spent time on various kibbutzim and participated in a Gadna army preparation program designed for Diaspora youth. She then stayed on in Israel after her formal program was completed. "I had my own experience, which was deeper I think. It made an impression. I was here five months and considered staying, but I really wanted to try this acting thing, and I wasn't fluent enough to dream I could be a Hebrew-speaking actress. So I had this dream to follow," she said. Her next encounter with Judaism was not so pleasant, as she fell in love with a gentile, resulting in her grandmother disowning her. "That's a pretty deep experience to have your grandmother sit shiva for you while you're still alive. It teaches you an aspect of the religion that's pretty tough," said Winger. After years in the Hollywood spotlight, Winger has spent most of the last decade raising her children (she has two other sons, one with ex-husband Timothy Hutton). But she didn't see her break from her film career as a deliberate move. "That's someone else's perspective that I walked away from something or made some big decision not to act. It's just that the movies were not particularly interesting to me. I think that if you look at that decade of films, I didn't miss all that much. I always say 'Tell me a film I should have been in?'" Winger took to writing, and the stories she compiled will be published in June under the title Undiscovered. "They're stories from my life, observational essays," she explained. While out of the public eye physically, Winger's name still drew headlines from the acclaimed 2002 documentary film by Rosanna Arquette - Searching For Debra Winger - in which Arquette talked to various actresses about the pressures they face as women working in the entertainment industry. Winger claimed that she's never seen the film and didn't know here name was going to be in the title. "I really adore Rosanna and I respect what she did, although when she asked me for an interview for the film, she said it was going to be called State of the Art. When she finally called to tell me the title, I thought, 'I can't say no to her... and ultimately who's going to see it? It will be in a few festivals and go away," laughed Winger. "I think it spoke to something that women in general are interested in. about aging and the different doors in your life that you go through, which is also what I wrote about in my book - accepting each transformation so you can enjoy it instead of always holding on to the last one." Winger has slowly eased her way back into acting, just completing a role in a new Jonathan Demme movie called Here Today. She admitted that she's still getting used to working in a new environment which has changed since her heyday. "Demme shot the film on digital video, a new way of working for me; I'm not sure I love it," said Winger. "You don't know what film he's making because it's really made in the editing room. There's no film, it doesn't cost anything to shoot, so they shoot a lot. It used to be holy between 'action' and 'cut.' Now it's 'Okay, let's do another one.' There's a laziness that can be created in the acting that way. But it can also be a good thing by creating a casual quality."