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TV journalist Meredith Vieira chats about family, TV news, and the balancing act

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TV journalist Meredith Vieira photo

Photo credit: Andrew Eccles

We all know that sometimes TV personalities are different in real life than they appear on television, but that's not the case with TV journalist Meredith Vieira. In a recent phone interview with Oy!Chicago, she acted exactly as she did when she co-anchored the Today show—personable, sharp, self-deprecating, and easy to laugh. In advance of her upcoming speaking engagement for JUF, I spoke with the famous reporter over the phone, who expresses a kinship with the Jewish community. Married to Jewish journalist Richard Cohen for 26 years, Vieira, who is Catholic, knows a lot about Judaism and celebrates the Jewish holidays with her husband and three grown kids.

Until last summer, Vieira co-anchored NBC News' Today show for five years. Currently, she serves as a special correspondent for NBC News and hosts the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Previously, she co-hosted ABC's The View for nine years. Vieira spent a decade at CBS News, where she worked as a correspondent on the newsmagazines 60 Minutes and West 57th. She joined CBS News a reporter in the Chicago Bureau in 1982, but first honed her skills as a cub reporter at local TV affiliates around the country.

Oy!Chicago: You recently announced that you're hosting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in London with the Today show. Are you excited for that opportunity? 
Meredith Vieira: I'm going to be hosting the opening ceremonies with Bob Costas and Matt [Lauer], which is very exciting. And it's being produced by Danny Boyle, who directed Slum Dog Millionaire…From the time I was little, we watched every Olympics as a family. I would pick my sport—it was always gymnastics—and I would become one of the performers and presume I was getting a gold medal…There's something about the energy during the Olympics and seeing the athletes who have dedicated their lives. They're so impressive and often they have incredible personal stories.

What do you and don't you miss about hosting Today? 
I miss [hosting] the 7-9 o'clock period, I miss the doing of the job, and my friends. I do not miss the time. Everybody will say that. I found it extremely difficult to work those hours. I'm a night person and I never got my clock to work properly. I got up at 2:30 a.m. but I didn't go to bed until 11. The irony was once every two months we'd do a piece with an expert about the health risks attributed to sleep deprivation. I was sitting there like 'hello, we are sleep deprived. Why aren't we learning anything from this?'

Who was your favorite interview in your long career so far? 
It goes back a long way to a boy named Anthony who I met doing a story [on hunger] in Chicago years ago when I was at CBS News. I was interviewing [kids] about a school lunch program that was going to be canceled. I said I would buy them pizza and they invited their friend Anthony to come…This beautiful little boy with a dirty face and dirty clothes opened the door for me to the pizza parlor… He lived in the projects. I went back to New York and I said I wanted to profile this boy…He was an amazing kid. The father had left the mother and the mother was an alcoholic. But he was a survivor… He had this will to live and get out of the situation. When we left him, I grew so attached to him, I told him to call CBS collect and I would talk to him…He ended up being the first kid in his family to graduate from high school and he went on to work in city government. I know you're not supposed to get involved in people's lives [as journalists] but he had such an impact on me. When I would feel upset about this or that, I would think of Anthony and what his life was like…and how he handled [his life] with such bravery.

You've been public about your husband Richard's battle with Multiple Sclerosis. How is he feeling these days? 
He's doing fantastic. Health wise, he's holding his own. He just wrote a book—a history of our family pets. Each pet is a bigger disaster than the one before. It's called I Want to Kill the Dog, and it's very funny. It's coming out in the fall.

How has coping with your husband's illness changed your perspective on life? 
It's sobering because you realize how precious life is. Any time you have a chronic illness, it's part of who you are and it becomes a family disease. You appreciate the moments where your health is strong…We're a family that really is based in humor and that comes from Richard. That's the way we've dealt with a lot of adversity.

How did the two of you meet? 
I was working in the Midwest bureau for CBS News back in 1983. It's called the "crash and burn" bureau, which means they're constantly sending you out on stories that have to air that night…Richard came through the newsroom. He was a producer with CBS…He took one look at me [tired from reporting on a story] and made some snide comment. I truly thought 'A—this is a jerk and B—I'm going to marry this guy'…He took me for a walk down to the Staten Island ferry, which I realized was a very cheap date. We got married in 1986.

What role does Richard being Jewish play in your family's life? 
He's more of a cultural Jew…. [and] we observe the holidays. It doesn't define the kids necessarily but they understand it from a cultural point of view…I love Passover. It's my favorite outside of Thanksgiving. I love it—I love the reading, I love Manischewitz. Give me my gefilte fish and Manischewitz and I'm happy.

Did you face challenges as an interfaith family? 
No, not really…I went to a Quaker school growing up, but I was raised Catholic. I've always embraced the notion of exploring all different religions—they all have something positive to add to your life.

With Mother's Day approaching, and you preparing to speak for JUF's Women's Division, what advice do you have to women trying to juggle a career and family? 
You have to accept the fact that you're going to drop the ball—or one of the balls—occasionally and that's okay. Women are so tough on themselves and they think everything has to be perfect and it doesn't have to be. You can go and buy the store-bought cake. You don't have to bake it yourself. You can lean on friends. You can accept the fact that you're not super human and you should accept that fact. Again, I always go back to humor—keep a perspective, don't take yourself so seriously, and try to face life with a smile as much as you can.

Jason Alexander talks Judaism, Israel, and—of course—George Costanza

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Jason Alexander photo

You might call Jason Alexander a modern-day Renaissance Man.

Whether it is television, the big screen, or the live stage, he has tackled it. In addition to acting, Alexander has also taught, produced, and directed. Oh, and along the years, he has managed to nab a Tony Award, as well as a handful of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

Alexander is also one of the lucky, as well as gifted, actors to play a character so memorable, so outrageous, that viewers around the globe recognize him on a first-name basis – George. Few characters are as engrained in television comedy history as the neurotic, often nauseating but somehow still lovable, “Lord of the Idiots,” George Costanza on “Seinfeld.”

Oy!Chicago recently conducted an email interview with the actor.

Oy!Chicago: You've been in movies, on television, and on Broadway. Are there any other professional pursuits you have wanted to explore?
Jason Alexander: I am very actively trying to develop two other aspects of my professional life—directing and teaching. . . They are both completely engaging when you are doing it. They are all-consuming. . .

I have come to adore teaching. That moment of epiphany in a student's mind when they suddenly are able to de-mystify their own process and understand how their imagination and emotions and intellect and artistry all come together—it is absolutely thrilling. It's as big a rush as performing.

Despite the variety of work that you have done, most people will always remember you as George Costanza on “Seinfeld.” How do you feel about that? Has playing such a memorable character had any impact on your career post-“Seinfeld”?
Well, it is an indelible impression. George is on TVs all over the world, every minute of every day. So most of the world knows me primarily as that persona. Having made such a strong impression as an actor in a singular way can and has affected my industry's willingness to look and consider me for totally different types of roles. But that is not particular of me.

That has been true for most actors who have a break out role. Type casting is still a real thing and I try very hard not to allow myself to be cast as another variation of George.

However, I love George and I love the ongoing impact that “Seinfeld” seems to have had in people's lives… over the years, I have met or heard from people who have told me how my work has gotten them through terrible times and tremendous loss and how I seemed to be a near constant source of laughter or levity during their dark times…or how now it has become like an old and reliable friend that they love to revisit.

How do you think your Jewish background and Judaism have inspired your work, if it all?
I don't know that I can point to Judaism specifically as inspirational or directional to my work. I think much of my comedic instincts are informed by the urban and Jewish rhythms that I was surrounded with as a child… Jews come from pretty remarkable backgrounds and tend to be pretty colorful people. . . living and growing up in a largely Jewish community helped me create and appreciate the canvass of characters that I draw upon in my work. But Judaism specifically has not colored either my choices or performances terribly much.

You recently traveled to Israel to promote peace in the region. Can you tell me about that experience, and what it meant for you?
I adore Israel and Israelis. And I have to say that I have also been honored to have been invited into many Arab homes and businesses in both Israel and Palestine…. I see so clearly that Israelis and Palestinians could actually be tremendous neighbors and partners. They are so similar in so many ways… People are people. They want normalcy. They want decency and respect. They want purpose. They want happiness and stability and the possibility that tomorrow will be better than today. Israel and Palestine could have this and they could be a beacon to the rest of the world. This trip and all my trips confirm that truth to me. It will take courage and conviction to achieve, but it is there.  

Announcing iDays: Jewish United Fund’s 2012 Israel Solidarity Days

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Announcing iDays photo

For more than 30 years, JUF has hosted Israel Solidarity Day, Chicago's largest community-wide event celebrating Yom HaAtzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day. This year, the annual festivities are being transformed into iDays—more than a dozen different events, geared to a variety of interests and geographic areas, from April 26 through May 14. The change gives more people more ways to celebrate Israel.

"JUF's iDays is Chicago's celebration of Israel@64. From bar nights to lectures to events specifically for teens and families with young children, iDays brings together Jews from across the Chicago area to stand with our community and support Israel, our Jewish homeland." David Sherman, Chair, 2012 Israel Solidarity Days

To learn more, download JUF's iDays app on your mobile phone for calendar of events, up-to-date information and iDays discounts!

How will you celebrate Israel@64?

Your gift on Israel's 64th birthday will provide Israeli children with the supplies they need to enrich learning and literacy.

Spend a day of Israel-themed family fun in one of six communities across Chicagoland at Israfest on Sunday, May 6! This program is best suited for children ages 12 and under.

Teens can mark Israel@64 on May 6 with a journey through Jewish history-"Look Back, Walk Forward: Teen Walk with Israel," a 2012 J-Serve Project. The day begins at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie with a heartfelt program with Holocaust survivors, followed by a Walk with Israel from the museum to the Mayer Kaplan JCC and culminates with a joyful Israel Solidarity event. This program is offered to teens in 8th-12th grade only.

Grab your Israeli flag, don your blue and white, and join us for a Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration in Daley Plaza on Thursday, April 26, featuring Re-Vital Israel Theatre Dance Group, one of Israel's most renowned dance companies. 

The party continues on April 26 at Joe's Bar for JUF's Young Leadership Division's Blue & White Bar night: A Night in Tel Aviv.

Several lectures featuring Israeli academics and authors and movie screenings will take place during the three-week celebration.

Spend an evening networking and hear from American diplomat and author Dennis Ross at the Trades, Industries & Professions Educators and Medical Professionals Divisions Dinner on Thursday, May 3.

JUF needs volunteers on Sunday, May 6 for both IsraFest and the Teen Walk With Israel! Volunteers are needed for a variety of important positions to make the event run smoothly. All iDays volunteers will receive a complimentary TOV t-shirt.

For more information, visit www.juf.org/iDays or download the JUF iDays app from your phone at http://idays.juf.org/

Happy Passover, Oy!sters!

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Hope you all have a wonderful Passover full of friends, family and yummy food! Check out this Passover website from JUF for great recipes, videos, (kid-friendly) traditions and more. To get you in the mood for all that matzo, check out these two adorable videos as kids retell the story of Passover and look for the world’s largest afikomen. And while you’re at it, consider making a donation to help those in need this Passover.

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