NEW YORK (Aug. 3)
If you didn’t catch Friday’s episode of “The Young and the Restless,” here’s what you missed: Neil blew off Dru for dinner. Nick and Sharon continued struggling with their divorce. And Brad Carlton came out as Jewish. That’s right, Carlton — a mainstay of the long-running soap series — told viewers that his real name is George Kaplan and that his mother, Rebecca Kaplan, is a concentration camp survivor.
Carlton’s declaration of his lineage illustrates the degree to which the Holocaust, and Judaism, have infiltrated pop culture. Though the soap opera may seem an unlikely genre for a lesson in Jewish history, scriptwriters, such as “Young and Restless” head writer Lynn Latham, say it’s just the opposite.
A veteran soap writer, Latham pointed out in an e-mail exchange with JTA that “storytellers are storytellers no matter what form we work in…and we are always looking for compelling stories to tell.
“I believe the most riveting ones reflect real life,” she wrote.
Don Diamont, who has played Carlton on the show for two decades, couldn’t agree more.
“You can’t tell the Holocaust story too many times, however the Holocaust story is told,” he said.
The plotline has particular significance for Diamont: He too is Jewish, and like his character, Diamont — whose real last name is Feinberg — came to his Judaism later in life.
Raised the “ultimate secular Jew,” Diamont knew little of religion growing up. His family had a Christmas tree but no Chanukah celebrations.
Diamont has vivid childhood memories of being taunted for being Jewish.
“I remember going home and saying to my dad, ‘You know what’s a kike?’ He said, ‘It’s the worst thing you can call a Jew.’ “
The bullying led Diamont into fights at school, and gave rise to conflicting emotions.
“When you have no sense of who you are, any sense of where you come from, who your people are, and then you’re attacked in that sort of way, there’s a natural sense of pride,” he said. “But the other half is ashamed because you’re being made fun of, you’re being abused.”
Diamont took his mother’s maiden name when he began acting and modeling. He remembers an agent recommending that he choose a more, ahem, “rhythmical” name.
“Donald Feinberg is kind of like a neon sign,” he said. “Its flashing ‘Jew, Jew, Jew.’ “
But Diamont’s attitude toward Judaism began to change as an adult when his older brother, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, began to study for his Bar Mitzvah. Diamont began to study too.
His brother passed away before becoming a Bar Mitzvah, but Diamont underwent the rite of passage at age 29.
Diamont’s sense of Judaism also was heightened by his father’s death. As he grew sick, his father expressed regret at not having given his children a Jewish education, Diamont said.
“Particularly with my dad’s passing, I really felt a longing just to get more in touch and ask who I am and where I come from,” Diamont said. “I’m not suddenly going to become the most religious, observant Jew in the world, but as I started getting older, the pride started to overcome the shame.”
Now Diamont goes to synagogue on High Holidays, celebrates Chanukah and has bar mitzvahed his two sons, with another one scheduled for 2008.
After playing the same character for 20 years, Diamont said it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the character’s true identity was not unlike his own.
“I open a script one day and I knew that they were delving into” the character’s history, “but I had no idea my real name was George Kaplan,” he said. “I called upstairs to the head writer and I said, ‘So, I’m Jewish?’ And she said, ‘Are you okay with that?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I am Jewish.’ “
Diamont also is glad that his character, a chiseled Navy SEAL, doesn’t conform to Jewish stereotypes.
“It’s not usually Rambo, not Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, not Collin Farrell in Miami Vice. He’s not the guy taking names and kicking ass,” Diamont said of stereotypical Jewish roles.
“This guy,” he says of his character, “is not Woody Allen.”
Carlton set the record straight about his identity in Friday’s episode.
When World War II broke out, Carlton’s mother, Rebecca Kaplan, was stripped of her possessions and sent to a concentration camp. But because she spoke German and knew a great deal about fine art, Rebecca was put to work cataloguing stolen Jewish artwork.
“It’s what kept her from the gas chamber,” Carlton explained in the episode.
In typical soap opera form, the intrigue doesn’t end there.
Because Rebecca Kaplan is responsible for so much lost money, “the killers” are still after family. The episode ends with the Carltons hustling to the airport to escape.
Will the Nazi bounty hunters have their revenge? Will Brad Carlton’s friends accept his new identity? Will the Holocaust continue to play a role in what has been the No. 1 daytime drama for 16 years?
Tune in to find out.