Meet Michael Borkow: A Comedy Writer Who Takes His Judaism Very Seriously

by | in People

     Photo: Tim Sullens

Smack dab in the middle of a prolific Hollywood career, writing and producing such monster-hit shows as Friends, Roseanne and Malcolm in the Middle, Michael Borkow decided to create a brand new episode in his life–one that featured Torah study, Shabbat and shul. He had long sensed the wisdom and beauty in Judaism, but wasn’t yet sure he believed in God. Keeping his faith issues at bay, he chose to test the waters. He’s glad he did.

Borkow first began thinking about God when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. “I was in an environment with a lot of bright young people examining all sorts of ideas about the world,” he says. “We’d ask, ‘What is true? Is there an absolute right and wrong?’ I didn’t have a religious yearning or focus.”

Despite his lack of spiritual focus, Borkow felt very Jewish. He reports that starting from childhood he kept “kosherish.” “I would be at a Chinese restaurant with high school friends and when we’d order food to share,” he says, “I’d tell them, ‘I can’t have the pork or shrimp.’” Choosing to differentiate himself in that way paved the path for every “Jewish choice” he’s made since.

Judaism, however, took a back seat while Borkow set out to find his place in the work world.Halfway through his final year at Columbia Law School in Manhattan, Borkow realized he had a problem; the prestigious corporate law firm where he had interned during the summer offered him a high-paying position. Why was that a problem?

“I knew I wouldn’t be happy in that job,” says Borkow. “And I knew that if I graduated, I would take it.” He took a leave of absence to explore other career possibilities.Hearing that some of his friends from Harvard had landed TV writing jobs on shows like The Late Show with David Letterman and In Living Color, he thought he would “give that a shot.”

Borkow’s been hitting bulls-eyes ever since. His first network job was on Flying Blind, a short-lived sitcom about a Jewish young man from New York who graduated college and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Borkow says he had a “great experience” writing for the show and, unlike the show’s protagonist, he felt he had found a viable career option. But his two-year leave of absence from Columbia was about to expire. It was time to make a decision. Should he continue writing or complete his law studies?

His show’s executive producer suggested that he enroll in a law school in Los Angeles as a visiting student for his last semester, and continue writing for the series. Borkow informed him that it wouldn’t be possible; the application deadline had passed. “This is Hollywood,” declared his executive producer. “Anything is possible.” Borkow called his agent at William Morris who found out that one of the assistants there knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the assistant dean to admissions at USC Law School. Borkow was staying in LA.

He finished an intense semester juggling law school assignments and script writing, picked up his degree in New York and flew west again. “My parents wanted to know when I was going to take the bar,” he says. “A lot of people were asking me that question.” Truth was he was very busy with the bar–Roseanne Barr, that is. His first breakthrough TV job had arrived in the form of executive story editor for Roseanne, a top-ten show at the time. By the time he started working for Friends, as a supervising producer and ultimately executive producer, even his grandmother stopped asking him about the bar.

“My goal was to have a job that was fun, that I could do well,” he says. “I sat in what they call the ‘writers’ room,’ where I spent the day with a bunch of smart, funny people working on something creative. I was very happy.”

“I hadn’t kept Shabbat fully before and I thought, ‘What if in six months I don’t like it? What if I want to go out to a movie or to a restaurant Friday night? If I’m going home from work because I keep Shabbat, obviously I can’t do those things.’”

With his career flourishing, Borkow noticed that every once in a while a writer or agent friend would rave to him about a local course offered called “Introduction to Judaism,” a kind of “Hebrew school for adults.” He decided to go. He learned about Shabbat and immediately took to the idea. “It reminded me of my experience in Hawaii,” he says. “I remember lying on the beach; I felt incredibly relaxed and wondered why I had such a hard time creating that state of mind in my own home. I kept Shabbat one Friday night and there was that feeling.” He was hooked.

The class also “reignited” his interest in Israel. In the fall of 2001, while writing for Malcolm in the Middle, he found himself deeply upset over the news of the intifada in Israel, reading reports on the country’s decline in tourism, and the damage done to its economy and morale. He had a week’s vacation due him and wanted to use the time to volunteer in Israel. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find an organization willing to train someone who was only going to stay a week. All was not lost. His friend and colleague David Sacks (whose writing and producing credits include The Simpsons, Third Rock from the Sun and Murphy Brown), recommended he spend the week studying Torah at Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah in the Old City.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” says Borkow. “I sat down with the managing director of the yeshivah, him with his beard and black hat and me in my shorts and polo shirt.” The director told him all he had to do was keep an open mind and they would take care of the rest; they would set him up with teachers and a learning partner. Borkow responded that he didn’t think he could keep an open mind.

“My big concern about coming here was that I imagine you guys believe some stuff that I don’t necessarily believe,” he explained. “And if you are going to try to convince me of that stuff, I know this is not going to go well.” The director reassured him. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “We believe the Torah is the word of God and that God gave the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. We believe every word of it. We don’t care what you believe.” Borkow liked the approach and decided to give it a try.

“I enjoyed every moment,” he says. “I learned how Judaism works–the Torah, the Written and Oral Laws, halachah.” He also got an unexpected, close-up look at Jewish faith in action.

He happened to be at the yeshivah on September 11, 2001. “It was a very powerful experience,” says Borkow. “The rosh yeshivah came in and said: ‘If Hashem allowed this to happen, we must not be doing our job.’ Everyone buckled down and became even more highly motivated and focused on their learning. I remember thinking: I don’t know if I agree with a single premise he just asserted. I don’t know if there is a God. If there is a God, I don’t know if He had anything to do with 9/11. And if He did, I don’t know if He’d make that decision based on whether people are learning Gemara in Jerusalem.

But everyone I knew in New York and Los Angeles spent the week watching CNN, staring at the same images over and over again, feeling despair, while these people were motivated and hard at work; it just seemed like a much healthier response. I thought–true or not, there is clearly wisdom here.”

If It’s Saturday, It Must Be Borkow’s
When Borkow got back to LA, he shared his newfound excitement about Torah learning with his friends Adam Miller, president and CEO of Cornerstone OnDemand, an award-winning software company, and Jeff Astrof, a fellow TV comedy writer whose credits include Friends, Grounded for Life and The New Adventures of Old Christine. He told them he’d discovered the world’s longest-running book club–Judaism. “For the last few thousand years, every week Jews all over the world have been reading the same pages of text,” he said, “and getting together on Saturday to talk about it.” Miller suggested they start a club of their own. Borkow promptly offered his home for the following Saturday.

It was an instant hit. Every week, they would study the parashat hashavuah and meet to discuss it. “There was no rabbi; no one pushing any agenda,” says Borkow. “It was just a bunch of people sharing their thoughts and reactions.” Word of the club spread, and by the following year, dozens of Jews from a variety of backgrounds joined in stimulating discussions while partaking of Borkow’s multi-course Shabbat seudah. “Even though none of us were religious, we formed something of a Jewish community,” says Borkow.

The book-club-turned-community strengthened many Jewish identities and impelled Borkow to start keeping Shabbat. In 2003, he moved from Brentwood to a home in Beverly Hills on the outskirts of the Torah-observant neighborhood of Pico-Robertson. Every Shabbat, he walked to Beth Jacob Congregation. Astrof also took the halachic leap; he gave up driving to the gatherings at Borkow’s home and, instead, found an Orthodox synagogue in his own LA community of Hancock Park.

Shabbat may have changed Borkow’s Saturday schedule, but in a TV writer’s world, Friday night was still a work night. He felt increasingly uneasy about working into Shabbat, but didn’t feel ready to make an outright commitment. “To come out and say I don’t work on Friday night anymore felt like a public declaration of something I wasn’t particularly comfortable being public about,” he says. “I hadn’t kept Shabbat fully before and I thought, ‘What if in six months I don’t like it? What if I want to go out to a movie or to a restaurant Friday night? If I’m going home from work because I keep Shabbat, obviously I can’t do those things.’”

Despite his qualms, he took the plunge, and met surprisingly calm waters. “You want to keep Shabbat?” asked the show-runner, the TV series supervisor. “More power to you. I envy your faith.” Relieved, Borkow thought it wise not to bring up the fact that he wasn’t sure how one can truly know there is a God.

“That was an extreme act of mesirut nefesh,” says Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, then rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation. “The decision didn’t just affect him; it affected the whole writing team on the show. When he took that on, it was pretty significant.”

Borkow’s move to his new community led to some unanticipated frustration. While attending Rosh Hashanah services that first year, he found himself totally unfamiliar with the Hebrew liturgy and hightailed out of the shul after fifteen maddening minutes. Borkow applied his creativity to finding a solution. The following year, with Rabbi Weil’s support, he launched “The ‘I Wish I Got More out of Services’ Services,” sponsored by Beth Jacob and held across the street from the shul. He sent an e-mail out announcing the new “explanatory” High Holiday services to all the Torah book club members and enlisted two friends to serve as rabbi and chazzan.

“The first day of Rosh Hashanah services went well, with one complaint,” says Borkow. “A lot of people expected that I would be involved in leading the service. I didn’t tell them that the whole point of the service was that I didn’t know what was going on either.”He spent the next twenty-four hours cramming all he could find on the topic of Rosh Hashanah so that he could properly colead the next day’s service. “It went pretty well,” says Borkow. Apparently so. When Yom Kippur rolled around, close to one hundred participants filled the room. The service was so popular, he is in the process of establishing a Shabbat version of the minyan.

Finding God in the Mitzvah-Gym
By 2006, Borkow found himself at yet another crossroads. He had been working on Joey (a spinoff of Friends) and when the show finished its run, Borkow knew that the obvious next step would be to pitch a new TV pilot idea. On the other hand, he had been actively keeping up with his learning, flying to Israel to attend Bircas HaTorah during his breaks from writing/ producing and continuing to learn Torah over the phone. At this point he felt the need to fill in the gaps in his Torah knowledge. “Being so dependent on others to tell me what was in the Talmud was frustrating,” he says. “I didn’t have the skills to access it myself and knew it would take a lot of effort to develop them. It occurred to me that I could take time off and work on it.”

He told his agent he was considering taking off six months to a year to travel and study. To his surprise, his agent urged him to make it two years. “He told me: ‘That’s life; this is just work; two years from now you should be able to slide back in without a problem,’ tells Borkow. “I went for it.”

He focused on mastering Talmud study. “The yeshivah is a unique place; if you’re coming for just a week, they do a great job of holding your hand,” he says. “Being there full time, they did a great job of not holding my hand. I often would spend night sedarim trying to figure out what had been going on during the day.” While immersed in deciphering God’s laws, he came face to face with a dilemma he had been avoiding his entire life up to that point. “I never understood how anyone could be certain there was a God,” he says. “We can’t see Him, feel Him; there is no logical proof. The only position that made any sense to me was agnosticism. It’s hard to be comfortably agnostic in yeshivah.

“One of the hardest things for me and a lot of people raised in a secular environment is that you are taught that truth is relative,” says Borkow. “I have my truth and you have yours. I found this to be very much at odds with Jewish thought, which asserts there is a God and the Torah is true. But I felt, if you can’t prove these things, how can you ‘believe’ in them? Through my study of Chazal on this topic I learned a believer isn’t necessarily someone who is 100 percent certain there is a God. He can be someone who strives for the courage to act and think faithfully despite living in a world that doesn’t offer absolute scientific proof.”

“We believe the Torah is the word of God and that God gave the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. We believe every word of it. We don’t care what you believe.”

You might say that while in yeshivah, Borkow discovered an antidote to agnosticism. “The impossibility of scientific certainty about God isn’t a glitch in God’s plan. It isn’t a challenge to faith; it’s the essential starting point for faith,” he says. “If one is having doubts, that can, in fact, be a reason to practice. It doesn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to pray because I’m not sure there’s a God,’ just as it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to the gym because I’m out of shape.’ The same way the gym is designed to get you into shape–prayer and mitzvot are the tools for strengthening one’s belief.” In 2009, Borkow returned to LA a “believer.”

Proving his agent right, soon after Borkow’s re-entry into “the industry,” he sold a new TV pilot. His community also gladly welcomed their “Shabbat show-runner” back. “There was a definite void when he left,” says Miller. “People would say, ‘I miss Borkow’s.’ As his commitment to lead a Torah life grew stronger, those around him couldn’t help but be affected by his understated ability to inspire. “When Michael came back from Israel, people referred to him as ‘refined,’” says Astrof. “In Hollywood, they look at those who become religious as fringe people who need a crutch or who’ve burned out. Here’s a normal guy who is extremely smart and extremely successful and deeply into Orthodox Judaism; he’s saying that he can be part of this world and have a higher purpose. By virtue of the fact that he is able to do both, [he is making] a big kiddush Hashem.”

Traversing the starkly different worlds of Hollywood and Torah can pose some hefty challenges. “There’s a small community of frum writers here; it’s good to have people to turn to,” says Astrof. “Michael asked me how I handle being in the writers’ room, where a lot of gossip goes on and the language can get salacious. The line I have to walk has become much narrower. Despite that, I believe I can bring kedushah to my work by keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher in a room full of Jews who don’t. I think Michael would agree that it’s a huge opportunity.”

Some say Borkow has become more thoughtful about the content of his writing. “In any job, a Jew has to conduct himself within the bounds of halachah,” says Borkow. “Then the question is: Is my work consistent with my values? Is it strengthening my values, or undermining and challenging them? As I became more observant, I refined my understanding of right and wrong. My writing has always been, to some extent, values driven. I’ve always wanted it to be meaningful. In TV comedy, sometimes that happens, a lot of times it doesn’t.”

His friends and admirers will attest that in “real life,” Borkow exemplifies the highest values–and the meaningful parts happen more frequently than not. “In a town where it’s what can you do for me, he asks what can I do for you,” says Astrof. “People become very jealous of others having contacts. Michael won’t hesitate to introduce me to people he thinks could benefit me. He’s truly out to make the world a better place.”

Known for his many acts of quiet generosity, Borkow lends his leadership talents to many organizations including AIPAC and the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem. A Wexner Heritage Foundation Fellow, he initiated the Israel Volunteer Corps and he lectures to students in the States and in Israel about his unique Jewish journey.

“This is a guy who was at the cutting edge of his industry and has become a serious ben Torah,” says Rabbi Weil. “There’s a tolerance for being one’s own person in Hollywood, being distinct, expressing oneself differently; that’s how these writers can survive.”

Astrof concurs. “People do terrible things here and they’re forgiven,” he says. “I was very happy when Michael got back from Israel and was able to sell a pilot. He’s treated with respect; I imagine since people have a good experience with him they’re willing to overlook the fact that he left to do something crazy like become closer to God.”

Borkow asserts that what God wants of him is what He wants from every Jew, “to live according to Torah, to do it well and commit to it fully.” It’s an ongoing script he relishes and intends to follow for a rewarding, mitzvah-filled 120–year run.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2010.

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