Jewish kid plays questioning Catholic in San Jose play

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These days, 13-year-old Joey Zimmerman doesn't have time for Sunday school or even a bar mitzvah.

Even so, the busy child-actor is learning a lot about religion — including traditions, values and the role they play in shaping one's identity — through his work.

A seasoned veteran of stage and screen who has been acting professionally since the age of 5, Joey will play the lead role in "Over the Tavern" at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. The work previews Saturday, Sept. 11 and runs from Friday, Sept. 17 through Oct. 10.

Tom Dudrick's play is a comedy with serious undertones. It's a coming-of-age story about a Catholic boy growing up in the 1950s who causes family chaos after announcing to his parents and his teacher, a nun, that he does not want to be confirmed in the Catholic faith. He would rather work on his Ed Sullivan impressions.

"It's interesting — all these questions he has about being Catholic," Joey said of his character. In a way, such probing parallels Joey's own fleeting thoughts about Judaism.

Joey said he works "pretty much all the time," which puts religious involvement on the back burner for the time being. "I'm really busy all the time. [Religion is] kind of something I don't worry a lot about."

Moving from San Diego to L.A. several years ago to be closer to the entertainment industry, Joey already has an impressive resumé. He has appeared on TV in "Frasier" and "Caroline in the City," snagged a recurring role on "Felicity" and was a series regular on "Earth 2."

He's also had lead and principal roles in five feature films — one of the most recent being Peter Berg's black comedy "Very Bad Things" — and has appeared in commercials and stage productions.

Joey travels for work frequently. Though now enrolled in a private school mostly for young actors and athletes, for the past two years Joey was home-schooled by his mother and traveling companion, Kat Zimmerman.

When he was 8, his religious-school education at a San Diego synagogue was aborted before it ever really got started. Offered a role in a series, he and his mom relocated to Santa Fe, N.M. Joey does, however, usually attend High Holy Day services with his father, Harry Zimmerman, an actor in L.A. His parents are divorced.

Joey has given thought to having a bar mitzvah. "I talked it over with my parents. It's something I would like to do, but I just need the time."

Ironically, Joey learned quite a bit about what is entailed in bar mitzvah training, as well as the family expectations about this rite of passage, through a play he did at the venerable Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Titled "The Legacy," the play focuses on a Jewish boy growing up in rural town in Texas. The boy's family wants him to become a bar mitzvah. Yet with no rabbi or temple within a hundred miles, the boy must basically learn on his own. Family issues come heavily into play.

"One evening after the performance, there was a symposium with prominent Jews from the community," Kat recalled. "People were asking Joey about his commitment to his religion."

Even though her son was "raised with Jewish traditions," she said, being put on the spot about his level of commitment was difficult for Joey. He needed to draw the distinction between Joey Zimmerman the individual and Joey Zimmerman the actor.

Kat called "The Legacy" an "intense, serious piece of work."

In contrast, "'Over the Tavern' approaches these religious commitment issues in hilarious ways," she said. "It's very different."

Meanwhile, as he looks to the future, Joey sees himself "still in the business, but not so much acting as directing and writing. I write a lot of screenplays."

He's got several in the works, has already registered with the Screenwriters Guild, and recently submitted one screenplay to his agent. Now, he said, "I need to do some rewrites."

His dream, though, is "to own my own production company."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.