Peter Coyote - An Outsider with a Jewish Sense of Humor

by Lori Eppstein, Jewish Bulletin Staff

(January 1998)

Peter Coyote -- actor, Buddhist Jew and former hippie -- has carved for himself yet another niche, this time as author.

His new book, "Sleeping Where I Fall," is not due from the publisher until spring, but Coyote is already divulging its topic.

It's his life.

The autobiography and a role in the upcoming Barry Levinson film "Sphere" will be topics in a live interview of the actor by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff at 5 p.m. this Sunday at the Marin Jewish Community Center.

The program is part of the JCC's CenterStage series "Lives in the Theatre," which hosts interviews with musicians, artistic directors and movie and stage actors.

The book chronicles Coyote's escapades with the hippie group the Diggers during the 1960s and '70s and his consequent spiritual searching. This quest, he says, speaks to members of his generation: Once morally estranged from the mainstream, they ultimately influenced the political culture of America.

Coyote said in a recent interview that while he is not a practicing Jew, his heritage has informed his wanderings.

"I've always felt like an outsider, rootless, [with] a sense of being a traveler [and having] a Jewish sense of humor. All those things are like my respiration."

The 56-year-old Mill Valley resident is the son of an Ashkenazi mother, an "executive secretary from the Bronx shtetl." His stockbroker father was from a secular Sephardic family.

Coyote was raised without religious observance but nevertheless celebrated his bar mitzvah -- "for my Orthodox grandparents.

"I was raised in a highly intellectual, cultural but unreligious family."

He explains, "Judaism has three vessels -- culture, intellectual tradition and religious practice. When I meet rabbis who give me a hard time I remind them that I've sailed on two of those vessels, but Judaism is as foreign to me as anything else."

The young rebel first tested the waters of Zen Buddhism at 16. He became more serious about Zen after 15 years of drugs, money struggles and life on the road crashed down around him.

Twenty-three years later, he is still a meditator.

"It's like being given the keys to the skybox where you can get a more detached view of the ballgame below," Coyote says.

He also has indoctrinated his young son in the practice of Zen meditation, but doesn't push it.

Despite feeling alienated from Judaism, Coyote says he envies friends who find meaning in their seders and Yom Kippur observances. But to begin a similar practice himself, he says, would make him feel phony.

Nevertheless, he finds his own meaning, or at least a sense of the aesthetic, in minor-key music, Yiddish and Jewish humor.

The humor helps him relate to his Jewish directors in Hollywood.

"Barry Levinson and I have the same sense of humor," he says. "So do Spielberg and I. I know that comes from [our] Jewish background. There is a kind of resonance."

Whether that familiarity has more to do with heritage or shared interests, Coyote says he didn't hesitate to volunteer the expertise of his cousin, Lani Silver of the S.F. Holocaust Oral History Project, when Spielberg was producing his Shoah epic "Schindler's List."

Coyote calls Hollywood conspiracy theories bogus. The Jews who were prominent in Hollywood's early days did their best to disguise their Jewishness, he contends.

"Names were changed and Jews were rarely featured in films" -- in the beginning, that is.

Later, he said, multinational corporations came to own Hollywood.

These corporations were owned by aristocratic families who chose Jews to stand at the helm "while they played polo."

It is no coincidence that many Jews excelled in Hollywood just as they have in other fields, Coyote claims, but their success is "not because there's anything about Hollywood and Jews that goes together.

"If owning mashed potatoes was the thing to do in the U.S. you would see a bunch of Jews owning mashed potatoes."

"And then," he joked, "you'd read a bunch of stories in the newspaper about Jews controlling the mashed-potato market."

Excerpt - "Jewish Democrats paint GOP ticket as extreme: But area delegates see healing of rifts" by Lesley Pearl, Jewish Bulletin staff.

(August 30, 1996)

"There's a lot of Jewish delegates and a lot of signs in Hebrew," noted Coyote. Meanwhile, Coyote contended, the real work was taking place "in the smaller meetings. the value of networking and relationships that facilitate future work."

There "are no big issues, no contesting candidate, no big floor fights," he acknowledged. "It's a pretty canned event [but] what I do see is a real spirit of healing. Racial healing. The black-Jewish rift. The black-white rift."

"There's a feeling that we weren't perfect in '68 but 25-plus years later, we're still on the same side. The ideological differences that were quite pronounced have melted away and a long-term solidarity was left."

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Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.