When he’s doing stand-up comedy, puppet shows, juggling or voicing characters on “Dora the Explorer,” Marc Weiner’s only goal is to entertain. If he had to ask people to ponder their emotional state while he’s performing, that would mean he’s not doing his job well.
But lately Weiner is engaging audiences in a different way, at schools, synagogues and other settings: asking them to reach into the depths of their hearts and souls to discover what they’re feeling and how it influences their actions.
Inspired by the writings of Marshal B. Rosenberg of the Center for Non-Violence in San Francisco, Weiner has developed a program he hopes will eventually find its way into Israeli and Arab schools and build bridges.
All too often, he says, people can’t cope with their feelings because they don’t know what they are.
Using a large, game-show style wheel of emotions that he places in the center of a room, Weiner asks participants to find their “outer jackal” by identifying harmful emotions likely to emerge in a given situation, then to explore their possible repercussions. Identifying habitual judgments and assumptions helps eliminate them. Preventing violence is one goal, but another is the simple need for understanding and anger management.
He calls it the Empathy Labyrinth (www.theempathylabyrinth.com ).
During, or after a conflict, he says, “You need to reconnect to what you value, such as kindness, compassion and love. This gives you the space you need to do that.”
What turned the funnyman so serious?
“I was searching for skills to connect, communication skills, after my wife told me she needed a divorce,” about four years ago, says Weiner.
The most common refrain to emerge in counseling sessions was “you don’t hear me,” he recalls, noting that in a highly emotional state people become defensive and tend to shut themselves off.
In what seems like the set-up of a joke, he says he found inspiration, of all places, from a car salesman. “He had a way about him, he was using certain jargon from self-help books that he had been reading. He suggested I read ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle.” Weiner also studied Rosenberg’s book, “A Language of Life,” and became fascinated.
(And yes, he also bought the car, a Dodge Durango.)
Although better communication didn’t save his marriage to his wife of 23 years, Sandy, it did help ease the divorce proceedings, and the impact on their two daughters.
“There’s no way to get around the pain of divorce, but there is a way that you can limit the suffering of children and suffering between each other, keep communication open, keep connecting and not hate each other.”
Weiner credits Rosenberg’s teachings with helping him cope with the lingering pain from the loss of his son, Avi, after a long illness in 1991. “It’s about how to reconnect to God and how to reconnect to life. It took me all these years to do that.”
Born and raised in Queens, Weiner, 55, made a name for himself doing stand-up at some of the city’s top venues in the ‘80s and in a string of appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” His puppet boxing matches led to a coveted spot on the show’s cast alongside Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Then the producer was fired, and after the replacement kept him, a writers’ strike put the kibosh on the entire season. He didn’t make the next cut of performers.
Around that time, a search for spiritual meaning led him to the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he gradually became religiously observant, at the same time gathering material for a well-polished act on the experience of being baal teshuva, or newly Orthodox, which has been performed at Hillels, hotels and banquet rooms all over the country.
He had his own kids’ show, “Weinerville” for three seasons on Nickelodeon, from 1993 to 1996, and now voices Swiper the fox and the talking map on “Dora the Explorer,” also on Nickelodeon. He lives in Stamford, Conn., still touring the comedy circuit and teaching puppetry to kids, while also studying the Tanya, the chasidic teachings of Rabbi Schner Zalman of Liadi, and other texts at the local Chabad Lubavitch center.
After developing the Empathy Labyrinth, Weiner reached out to Ronnie Weinberger, an instructor of non-violent communication programs in the Israeli army. “He loved the idea and helped me translate it into Hebrew,” says Weiner.
Weiner visited Israel twice in 2007 to arrange and facilitate several sessions for Arab and Jewish lower-school teachers in Afula and Gilboa and later in Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
“I’m impressed with Marc’s creativity in producing this lovely EL tool,” writes Weinberger in an e-mail from Israel. “I appreciate his ability to push things forward and get them done and his attention to details.”
The feedback from Weiner’s early trips, says Weinberger, led to “many people experiencing unique connections and interactions.” While it may be too soon to attempt the Program with Palestinian kids, he’s now having the Labyrinth translated to Arabic and raising money to have it implemented in more Jewish and Arab public schools inside Israel.
Meanwhile, he’s traveling around the U.S. with his labyrinth wheel and has done the program at more than 10 synagogues as well as Binghamton University upstate and Adelphi University on Long Island.
Although his presentation doesn’t include any overt religious messages, Weiner believes it’s doing God’s work.
“A Jew’s purpose is to spread the message of a oneness with God,” he says. “When you get into the center of the Labyrinth, you realize you are one with the divine power.”