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Saul Blinkoff thought he’d entered a magic kingdom… until he discovered the enchantment of Torah
Thursday, April 20, 2017
S aul Blinkoff lay in a hotel pool, floating on an artificial current, a cool piña colada in hand. As he gazed up at the warm Florida sun, he was convinced life couldn’t get any better.
He’d landed his dream job as an animator for the Walt Disney Studio in Orlando. He had a great apartment, a snazzy sports car, and just about anything else he could wish for. When he wasn’t working, he had access to every one of 15 themed hotels in Disney World. What more could a guy want?
As the water streamed smoothly around him, his mind wandered to a vacation he’d taken with his parents a year earlier in Israel. They’d walked around the Old City, then sat down at a caf? for bagels and drinks. While there, he struck up a conversation with a young American, at 23, the same age as Saul. “I’m here learning in a yeshivah,” the young man told him.
“A yeshivah?” Saul said. The stranger seemed like a regular guy — no peyos, no funny religious garb. “What would you want to do that for?”
“I want to figure out where I fit in to the Jewish people,” he replied. “I need to find out what Judaism means to me.”
At the time, Saul regarded him with a mixture of admiration and envy. Did Saul know where he fit into his religion?
Now, lying in the pool, it occurred to him that despite his fabulous lifestyle, there was still a piece missing in his life: He didn’t know where he fit into the vast interlocking puzzle of Jewish existence. He thought he’d completed his bucket list, but here was one item he hadn’t gotten a handle on. It niggled him. In fact, it niggled him so much that he took the next few weeks of his vacation to follow that stranger’s lead and find a yeshivah where he could discover where he fit in.
Today, 23 years later and a card-carrying shomer mitzvos Jew, Saul still marvels that his pintele Yid refused to remain satisfied with the glitz and glory of the entertainment world. After all, it had taken a considerable amount of Cinderella-style drudgery and just a pinch of pixie dust to be able to pass through those palace doors.
Saul Blinkoff has spent his professional life creating entertainment for people, so it’s not surprising that he is entertaining himself. Tall and voluble, with a lively sense of humor, he now entrances audiences all over the world with the story of how a Disney cartoonist became a joyously religious Jew.
But Saul the Inspired Jew was not created from nothing, as he is happy to point out. His New York-based family were proud traditional Jews who lit Shabbos candles, went to shul, and sent him to Sunday schools and Camp Ramah. His grandfather was a chazzan, his mother a “chazzanit,” and his father and mother both highly educated in Yiddishkeit. They imparted a love of Eretz Yisrael and strong family values to Saul and his twin sister, Reena, and older brother, Jason.
But they were also a regular American family, and Saul grew up bathed in cartoons and movies, in addition to spending hours indulging his love of drawing and art. After seeing a film about a space creature who falls to Earth, as an impressionable 11-year-old, he announced to his mother, “That’s what I want to be!”
“You want to be an alien?” his mother responded.
“No!” he said. “I want to be a film director.”
He began taking books out of the library about directing and filmmaking, and started making amateur films with a video camera.
Inspiration next struck when he saw a screening of a film about a mermaid. “Again I said, ‘That’s what I want to be!’ ” he remembers. “My mother said, ‘What, you want to be a mermaid?’ And I said, ‘No, I want to go into animation.’ ”
He credits his mother with doing the legwork to help him realize his dream. She schlepped him across the country, checking out the eight animation schools that serve as feeder schools for Disney animators. Saul ultimately enrolled in the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD).
A wholesome kid from the suburbs, Saul wasn’t sure how he’d fit in with the school’s arty, black-lipstick-and-Mohawk crowd. His first roommate wore deliberately unlaced red boots and hung his senior project — a life-sized papier mach? cross, complete with its occupant — on the wall; another dorm-mate had Mickey Mouse icons on every conceivable item of clothing, bedding, and knickknack. Saul finally found a friend in Andy, the uber talented, hardworking kid who sat on the side at parties with a sketchbook.
Saul quickly assessed that he was way out of his league at Columbus, and if that wasn’t intimidating enough, shortly afterward a rep from Disney came to campus, speaking to an assembly of 750 students. “Who wants to work for Disney?” he asked.
Every hand went up. “Well, only maybe four of you will be chosen for an internship,” the rep warned. He advised the students to focus on figure drawing and anatomy. Saul made sure to pour his energies in that direction.
He sent in a portfolio his sophomore year, not expecting much. So he wasn’t too disappointed when a rejection letter appeared a few months later. “I didn’t care. I was happy just to see my name on Disney stationary,” he says.
He just threw himself into the work. He and Andy became known as the guys who never put down their sketchbooks. They’d go to the zoo to draw animals, render basketball players during breaks. At the end of the school year they sent in their portfolios again, and waited in suspense. A few months into winter vacation, Andy called Saul, exclaiming, “I got in!”
But Saul hadn’t heard anything, and a call to Disney confirmed that he’d been rejected. When he returned to school, disappointed, it was perhaps hashgachah pratis that led him to attend a free showing of the film, “Rudy,” based on a true story about a young man who had a dream to play college football for Notre Dame, despite significant obstacles. There was only one problem with this aspiration: the guy was only five feet tall.
But he refused to let low grades, no funds, and insufficient physical stature deter him. In the end, his dream came true.
“I realized at that point that the only thing we control in life is how hard we work on ourselves, how much we invest,” Saul says. “But the final outcome is not in our hands.”
Inspired by the football player’s refusal to take no for an answer, Saul decided to call Disney to find out how close he had come to being accepted.
“It turns out I missed the cut by only three slots, three out of thousands of applicants,” he recounts. “Then I asked them what I could improve, because I believe you always have to work on your weak spots.”
The following year’s Disney rep on campus was 70-year-old animator Bill Matthews, who’d worked on Sleeping Beauty in the late 1950s. Matthews liked Saul’s work, and urged him to send his portfolio to Disney again. But Saul decided that he wanted to wait a couple of weeks to make it even better. “What can I do to improve my portfolio?” he asked.
Matthews suggested adding more special effects to his drawings, so Saul spent the next two weeks drawing smoke, ripples, and fire, and then sent his work to Disney.
Then he sat back and waited breathlessly. Not a word. Weeks went by. Then, out of the blue, he got an excited call from Andy, now working at Disney Studios in Orlando. “Saul, they built a whole new wing for interns,” he said. “They put up a list of all the people accepted on the next internship, and your name is on the list!” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 656)
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