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The Joys of Rena

From “Loving” to “Just Shoot Me,” the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi has landed some unorthodox roles.

Rena Sofer always seems to land ethnic roles. As the newest regular on NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” Sofer plays Vicki Costa, a hairdresser from Brooklyn, whose name is Greek, but whose ethnicity is undefined. It’s reminiscent of her Emmy-award winning role of Lois Cerullo Ashton, the brassy Italian Brooklynite she played for five years on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

She’s also known for playing journalist Rachel Rose, the stereotypically ideal Jewish woman who goes out with a Reform rabbi (Ben Stiller), in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.”

In real life, Sofer doesn’t date a rabbi — she was raised by one, albeit of the Orthodox persuasion. Perhaps it’s her religious background — intermittently attending Lubavitch and Conservative day schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that gives her the edge of authenticity.

For example, when she went to audition for the part of the Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be in the 1992 film, “A Stranger Among Us,” she knew she stood a good chance of getting it. “All these blonde Nordic-looking women are going over their lines,” she said, and they were making eye contact and flirting for their “first time” meeting with the groom. But Sofer knew better. She wouldn’t look him in the eye or touch him. “It’s negiyah,” she said, referring to the Jewish prohibition of men and women touching. Sofer landed the part.

Words like negiyah easily roll off Sofer’s tongue, probably because she was raised in a religious home. Sofer was 2 when her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and brother from California to Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. There, Sofer attended a Lubavitch school.

Sofer said that since an early age she has questioned her religious upbringing. Lubavitch “turned me off to a lot of it, but I love the ritual of Judaism and I love the spirituality of Judaism,” she said.

Although it may seem unorthodox for the daughter of a rabbi, she began modeling at age 15, when she was discovered in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her father was always encouraging and paid all the expenses. “As religious as he is, he’s always been supportive of my life and my choices,” she said. Her father believed modeling would help her since, “when I was younger, he saw me as a child that didn’t have a lot of confidence.”

She quickly decided that modeling was not for her, and went into acting. She got her first steady gig as a teenager in the role of Rocky McKenzie on the ABC soap “Loving,” working her way up to parts in TV shows like “Melrose Place,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a recurring role on “Ed,” as well as in Steven Soderbergh 2000 film, “Traffic.”
The role of Judaism in her life has carried over into at least three parts. In addition to “Keeping the Faith” and “A Stranger Among Us,” Sofer played a Jewish character in an episode of the sitcom “Caroline in the City” titled “Caroline and the Nice Jewish Boy.” She’s also had an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” with Bill Maher, discussing God and the meaning of life. Sofer sees her casting in these kinds of roles as quite logical. “I’ve been studying to play a Jew my whole life. I can walk in there with an authenticity.”

Sofer’s Judaism may not fit into her father’s mold, but it’s clearly a big part of her life. She refused to wear a cross for her role on “General Hospital,” and a wedding scene that called for her to kneel before a large crucifix had her in tears. And despite her first marriage to a non-Jew (her co-star and husband on “General Hospital,” Wally Kurth), one thing that was always understood was that their daughter would be raised Jewish. Sofer does say that the fact that Kurth wasn’t Jewish “made a difference in my life.” She compares it to her current relationship with fiancé director/producer Sanford Bookstaver (“Fastlane”). “When I go to temple with my fiancé, I don’t have to explain what’s going on.”

Today, Sofer lives in Los Angeles with fiancé, her father and her daughter from her marriage to Kurth. These days, Sofer’s planning her wedding. “Dad, God willing, will perform the ceremony.”

Of her role on “Just Shoot Me,” she said she’s thankful for the security. “The gift to me is to be able to come in for 22 episodes, as opposed to doing a pilot where you don’t know.”

Her other recent work was in this month’s television remake of Stephen King’s horror classic, “Carrie,” where she played the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Desjarden. Sofer, whose first name means “joy” or “song” in Hebrew, was particularly pleased to get to play this part because of her love of King’s books. Her own idea of joy is a road trip with the “Bag of Bones” book on tape, read by King, playing on the car stereo. “Listening to him scare the crap out of you — it’s fabulous!”

by Keren Engelberg
November 14, 2002
Jewish Journal

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