For an animator, a job at Disney is the ultimate achievement, and for Saul Blinkoff it was no different. He landed his dream job in his twenties, after years of working towards that goal, made a few movies, and then at a moment when he literally had “the whole package” – he did something unexpected. He took a trip to Israel to discover an observant Jewish life.
Raised in a culturally Jewish household, where he attended Hebrew school once a week and Jewish camp every summer, Blinkoff never imagined that someday he would be that guy at the airport wearing tefillin and a tallis, praying before take-off. It all began on a family trip to Israel during his early days at Disney.
There, he met a man at one of the many bagel shops that line the streets of Jerusalem. What surprised Blinkoff was that the man was “normal,” but religious. Just a Jew in Israel trying to figure out where he fit into the grand tapestry of the Jewish people. Blinkoff returned to his job in Florida where he began work on “Mulan.” There was a gap between that project and the beginning of “Tarzan.” “I had everything I could have wanted, a dream job, a good living, good friends, a girlfriend,” he recalls. Despite this, he still remembered the guy in the bagel shop trying to find his place. So instead of spending his downtime in the Disney theme parks (as an employee, he could go to the parks for free in between movies!) Blinkoff was on a plane for a ten day yeshiva program in Israel.
That program introduced him to the meanings behind mitzvot such as mezuzot. He spent time with rabbis who connected with him on a level he had not encountered in his years at summer camps. He wanted to learn more, but was not ready to make the jump into complete observance yet. Blinkoff was offered a job at MTV Studios and moved from Florida to New York.
While looking for an apartment on the Upper West Side, he walked into a building that had no vacancies. While in the lobby, he noticed a man putting up a sign that he was looking for a roommate. “I told him “I’m going to be your roommate.” Blinkoff laughs, “But the guy said, ‘Hold on… Are you Shomer Shabbos?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’” The man explained and Blinkoff’s initial reaction was that it was absolutely not for him. But when he walked out into the cold he realized, “I needed a place to live! I walked back into the lobby, and I found the guy and said, ‘Hey, I’m Shomer Shabbos.’” He laughs again, “He looked at me like I [was] crazy. Sometimes in life when you try something, and you’re not sure if it’s you, you might be surprised. I fell in love with Shabbos, how could you not?”
Blinkoff learned to keep a kosher kitchen and went from wearing a kippah only on Shabbos to every day. Today, he is an active member of his Jewish community and teaches a weekly Torah class. He passes the lessons he learned about balancing a career in the entertainment to his two talented children. His daughter Meira voices a werewolf in the film “Hotel Transylvania” as well as Melissa and Sally on the show “Phineas and Ferb.” His son Asher voices Dennis in “Hotel Transylvania 2” and also a character in “The Jungle Book.”
“We like when she does voiceovers,” Blinkoff says of Meira’s roles, “We’re a little more hesitant to let her go on set.” An opportunity popped up for the budding actress to have a chance at a lead role on a show. Meira made it to the final audition round, even getting approval for filming to accommodate Shabbos. However, upon discovering that it was not merely Shabbos but also Yomim Tovim that she would be unable to work, the studio chose another actress. “We were a little bummed, but it was not a hard choice for us. We had already decided that we were keeping Shabbos because that’s who we are. There was no, ‘Oh, what should we do.’” At his son’s audition for “Hotel Transylvania 2,” he asked ‘Dad, should I take my kippah off?’ I said, ‘No! Why would you take your kippah off? You’re a Jew, go do it as a Jew!’”
As an animator, Blinkoff has the ability to influence films being created for children worldwide. “There will be times when I’m reading a script and I’ll see something that is a little off. I was directing a Winnie the Pooh movie and there was a scene where one of the characters was being a little selfish and he was the main character. I [preferred] him [to] be a little more sensitive to another character who is feeling down, and we changed the script.” In the same film, Blinkoff was able to put his own hidden animations into the scenery. In one scene, on Winnie the Pooh’s door, he placed a mezuzah, and on a book in the opening scene, he put the Hebrew letters ש ,ה and מ, spelling out ‘Hashem.’ Showcasing one’s personality within a film project is not uncommon, but Blinkoff’s decision to put his Jewish identity on display is a big reason why he was chosen to be one of Jew in the City’s Orthodox Jewish All-Stars in 2014. Recently, Blinkoff made a deal with Netflix to co-create a series based on the beloved “Llama, Llama” books. We can’t wait to see what this All Star does next, and how he continues to add Judaism into the picture.
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Kit is an intern for Jew in the City. She earned her BFA from Chatham University in 2015. She has been published in Minor Bird Literary Magazine, and has worked as a staff writer on the Communique newspaper. She also has articles published in The Odyssey, and was a featured reader at Rae Coffeehouse Reading Series. Her undergraduate research focus was on adolescents with disabilities, and their representation in Young Adult literature.