They hiked Masada during a heat wave, elbowed their way through the crowd at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stormed the stage at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine club, chowed down on maqluba with herb expert Moshe Basson and partied with Aki Avni and friends in Tel Aviv. One of them even got engaged here.
They’re a group of actors visiting from Los Angeles with America’s Voices in Israel, a division of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Three of the actors — Guillermo Diaz, Bellamy Young and Katie Lowes — star in TV’s presidential drama, “Scandal,” while Lana Parrilla, recently named one of the 50 sexiest Latina actresses, stars as The Evil Queen/Regina Mills in the adventure fantasy television series, “Once Upon A Time.”
All four — some of whom brought their significant others to Israel (Lowes was with her husband, actor Adam Shapiro, while Parrilla traveled with her now-fiance, Fred Di Blasio, who popped the question while the pair were vacationing in the Negev) — found the six-day tour inspiring, edifying and “transcendental,” said Young, who plays First Lady Mellie Grant on “Scandal.”
“It’s so Western, so metropolitan,” commented Lowes, who said Israel had always been on her travel laundry list, particularly after marrying her husband, Shapiro, who had been to Israel when he was 16.
All four remarked on the warmth of the Israelis they met, the way “every person is insanely passionate about they do,” added Lowes.
“There is all this conflict and political stuff, and people are fully living their lives because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Diaz, an amateur painter who “felt like there was art everywhere,” and much of it “so creative.”
“There’s a scope of history,” said Young. “So many stories from everyone.”
Some 50 actors have been brought to Israel in the last two years, said Irwin Katsof, the America’s Voices director who travels with the group. For the actors, it’s usually an opportunity to visit a place they’ve never seen before, sometimes dispelling the myths about Israel as an intense, violent war zone. The trips have been so successful, said Katsof, that there is talk about doing an America’s Voices walk or bike trip along the Israel Trail, inviting Israeli and American actors to participate.
“I want to camp out,” said Parrilla, who was particularly taken with what she saw as Israelis’ “love and respect for the land.”
Shabbat was another highlight for the group, including Friday evening services at the Western Wall and then Friday night dinner at local Jerusalem hosts, with “the biggest challah I’ve ever seen in my life,” exclaimed Young.
They also joked about being careful to stay silent after ritually washing their hands before saying the blessing on said challah, despite the conversational gambits by other guests who clearly hadn’t been prepped about Shabbat table etiquette.
“The congressman was asking me about the trip, and I kept gesturing that I couldn’t talk,” Young related.
“At the end of dinner, I wished I was Jewish,” said half-Italian, half-Hispanic Parrilla, who was raised in Brooklyn.
They didn’t escape fans, either, although it seemed no one asked for autographs and photos since the actors were spotted at the Western Wall on Friday night, when Shabbat had already begun. Diaz, or “G,” as his colleagues called him, was identified while praying at the Kotel, said Young, by a fan who was “literally crying” about seeing the actor. He plays Huck on “Scandal” and also had a recurring role on “Weeds” as drug dealer Guillermo García Gómez.
But they were all fine with the fan recognition, said Lowes, commenting that “we’re all still new with fame.”
Diaz commented that his family and friends were “completely excited for us to come,” he said. “Shonda (Rhimes, the “Scandal” creator) was so excited, everyone saw it as a chance of a lifetime.”
As for Parrilla, who felt “so celebrated” by everyone who heard about her recent engagement, she’s thinking about returning to Israel each year to celebrate.