In the legendary book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which Judy Blume published more than 50 years ago, an inquisitive 6th grader grows up with a Christian mother and a Jewish father who decide to raise her with no religious affiliation.
Decades later, actor Benny Safdie has brought Margaret’s sincere, supportive Jewish dad to life, in the much-anticipated film adaptation of “Are You There God?” just released.
It’s a role that has felt the most comfortable to Safdie, who has taken on acting roles in the past few years after establishing his career as a filmmaker, working with his brother Josh on movies like “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems.”
“In a weird way, Herb is probably the closest to me that I’ve ever played,” Safdie tells Kveller. “Because I have two boys, I’m Jewish, I’m playing a father — all this stuff.”
And just like Herb, who is married to Barbara (played by Rachel McAdams), in real life, Safdie’s wife is not Jewish, either. “In that sense, I could relate to the character. You’re falling in love with somebody who isn’t of the same faith, and that’s just how it is. How do you navigate that with your child? That’s something that we’re dealing with now.”
Having gone to Hebrew school and celebrating his bar mitzvah, Safdie felt the immense weight of playing the Jewish father to one of the most iconic characters for young women.
“I remember being on set, when Judy [Blume] was down there and we were talking just about everything,” Safdie recalls. “She told me something about her own father, how when he gave her a hug, everything kind of disappeared. And that even if he couldn’t say certain things, there was a deep love and understanding that he imparted to her. So in a way, my character was very similar to her own father.”
Blume wanted Safdie to bring that feeling of emotional connection to his role in some way, shape or form.
“I took that to heart deeply. I wanted him to be somebody who was loving and caring, who you could trust and be around and have fun with.”
Safdie was familiar with Blume’s other books, having read her “Fudge” books to his two boys, now 7 and almost 4.
“It was actually very nice to read that to my oldest son, Boswell, because he could relate to his younger brother Murray being like Fudge. It was very fun for him to see and hear his emotions spoken about in such a realistic way. This is something that Judy does so well — when I’m reading it to my son, he so instantly catches on and latches onto what the main character is feeling, because somehow she’s able to speak his language, through his thoughts.”
It’s no wonder, then, why Safdie deeply resonated with “Are You There God?” and its complicated family dynamics and portrayal of a young girl’s journey through puberty.
“When I read the book, I’m like, this is unbelievable, because it totally puts me in a place that as a man, I would have no idea about. And here I am understanding all of these things that go into this intense, intense process, you know? That’s the beauty of the book.”
The one thing the veteran actor/writer obsesses over as a father is how to at least try and relate to what his kids are feeling — something his onscreen character struggled with as well.
“[Herb] loves his daughter and his family so much. He always wants to be the best dad that he can be. The thing that’s so sad for him is that he can’t necessarily give Margaret what she needs. He can be supportive and proud. But he can’t protect her in all places. That’s a hard, hard thing for a dad who really wants his daughter to grow and be exactly herself.”
In his own life, Safdie often incorporates Jewish traditions with his family, doing most of the bigger holidays, like Passover and Yom Kippur.
“My kids watch me fast, and then we’ll have the break-fast. I actually had a moment with my son that is similar to the movie, when Margaret says she wants to go to temple with her Jewish grandmother, Kathy Bates, who was incredible. I was going to go to services somewhere, because every once in a while, I’ll feel the need to do it. I don’t know why, but you feel compelled to be a part of a collective experience with people, and so I wanted to go to temple. And my son looked at me and said, ‘I want to go, too, I want to know what that’s like.’ He was like 4 at the time. And of course, we went, and he had no idea what was going on. He was bored out of his mind, but he wanted to go. I was excited to share that with him in some way.”
Safdie notes that his parenting from a Jewish perspective is present, but not forced.
“We’ll have our own seder where it’s basically just like, ‘OK, this is what it is.’ It takes five to 10 minutes to explain it and then we eat the food, because I know that there’s a limit to how much you can actually do and that they’ll pay attention to.”
“It’s definitely a part of who I am,” Safdie says of his Jewish identity. “I don’t necessarily put any emphasis on religion with them. So in that sense, I can relate to the movie and the book a lot. You don’t really want to force anything onto your kids. You want them to be able to decide what they want.”