It’s not every day that a Disney animator and director visits Yeshivat Frisch, but when he does, it’s part of Frisch’s annual Teshuva Program. Saul Blinkoff masterfully captivated students for close to a solid hour last week as he told them about his journey from geeky kid obsessed with the movies to professional animator and director for Walt Disney—and a committed, observant Jew.
Rabbi David Goldfischer, Assistant Principal, introduced the program, held each year during the Aseret Yemai Teshuva, with a thought from Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a”h, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. “The secret of getting close to God,” explained Rabbi Goldfischer, “is getting close to your true self.” A short video accompanied his message, featuring the pivotal scene from Disney’s The Lion King where Simba realizes that he must stop running from his responsibilities and become who he was always meant to be. Blinkoff took the stage next, continuing the Disney theme, and started by telling students the origins of his professional path. “I always loved to draw, and when I saw the movie E.T., it made such a huge impression on me that I knew I wanted to be a director one day,” he said. “Eventually, after seeing The Little Mermaid, I decided I wanted to be a Disney animator—but I had no clue how to get there.”
Blinkoff drew laughs when he spoke about how his devoted mother toured the Walt Disney animation studios with him asking how someone might get a job as a Disney animator, until an employee gently pointed them in the direction of professional art schools from which Disney regularly recruited graduates. Determined to succeed, Blinkoff began his studies at the Columbus College of Art and Design, where, he readily admits, he was the least talented student there. After several failed attempts to land a coveted Disney internship, Blinkoff worked harder on his craft each day until finally, he achieved his dream. “I want to impress that on you again,” he told the students. “I was a really motivated guy without talent who worked really, really hard to achieve his dream job.”
For awhile, it was a dream: Blinkoff worked on such seminal Disney films as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mulan (murmurs of appreciation could be heard throughout the audience).When the animators didn’t have anything to sketch, they would ride roller-coasters or camp out at Disney hotels. But a trip to Israel with his parents during this time left Blinkoff with a seed of curiosity about his Jewish roots and heritage—a seed that didn’t come to fruition until three years later. “I had everything I ever wanted, but something was missing,” he explained. He decided to enroll in a short yeshiva program in Israel, called Isralite, run by Rabbi Binny Freedman and Rabbi David Aaron.
There, Blinkoff learned of the mezuzah’s role on a doorway to signify a place of transition. He began asking certain questions for the first time. “What am I going out into the world for? What kind of home do I want to create?” he told the students. His Jewish journey had begun in earnest.
Eventually, his questions and search for deeper meaning led Blinkoff to a fully observant lifestyle. Today, Blinkoff works as a director for Disney and says he sees himself as not just a filmmaker anymore, but a Jewish filmmaker. (He often infuses the films he now directs with Jewish symbols, like adding a mezuzah to Piglet’s door in Winnie the Pooh.)
He lives with his wife, Marion, and four children in Los Angeles. Two of his children, Meira and Asher, are involved in voiceover work for major motion pictures. Asher voices a key character in Hotel Transylvania 2, coming out in just a few weeks. “The Hollywood premier is on Shabbos, but to us, it’s not even a question of whether or not to go,” said Blinkoff.
Blinkoff closed his talk with a thought. “It’s not easy to figure out how you’re going to live as a Jew, but it’s really the best kind of work,” he said. If the round of earth-shattering applause he received from students is any kind of indication, his message—amid the cool anecdotes from a veritable Hollywood insider—hit close to home.
“It was pretty cool how he made his dream job come true,” said Michal Karben, a junior, “but it was even cooler to learn that he was able to take the Jewish beliefs that he eventually found and combine it with his dream job. I know people worry about how to pursue certain professional areas given the fact that they are religious Jews, and to see someone who made it work, like Saul Blinkoff, is very inspiring.”
Following his talk, the student body and faculty had an inspiring kumzits and then enjoyed a dessert with Frisch’s unique spin on a sweet new year: chocolate fondue stations with a selection of fruit and candies.
“Frisch is thrilled to have hosted Saul Blinkoff as part of its annual Teshuva Program,” said Rabbi Eli Ciner, Frisch’s principal. “As we head into Yom Kippur, I am confident that Saul’s message—the importance of seeking one’s place in the world and growing spiritually—will linger in the minds and hearts of our students.”