A few days before I sit down to chat with Disney-star-turned-sexy-mensch Raviv Ullman, I turn on the TV. It’s important for journalists to do their homework, and for me, this obviously means rewatching a few episodes of the underrated gem that was “Phil of the Future.”
At the start of episode one, we’re introduced to Phil’s parents, who are woken up in the middle of the night by strange sounds coming from downstairs. They go to investigate and are joined by Phil and his sister, Pim, when they enter the kitchen. Raviv — known as “Ricky” at the time — looks just how I remembered: boyish, expressive, and entirely believable as a teen stranded in the 21st century with his family after a time machine breakdown.
While Raviv Ullman might not actually be from the future, he’s since been taking an active role in shaping it.
Since his time on “Phil,” Raviv has touched all corners of the entertainment industry: He’s appeared in several TV series and independent films. He returned to his love of theater and starred in some off-Broadway and regional theater productions. He directed a documentary about the Dakota Access Pipeline. He’s leant his drum and guitar talents to several bands, even helping form the band Lolawolf with actress Zoë Kravitz. Currently, he’s directing a first-of-its-kind opera miniseries. He’s also leaned into his Jewishness. And I mean, really leaned.
Born in Israel in 1986, Raviv’s family relocated to Connecticut when he was just a toddler. After being raised in a Jewish home and attending Orthodox day school, Raviv’s focus shifted to show business, getting cast as the lead in “Phil of the Future” when he was 18. But it’s been in the years since that life-changing role that the 35-year-old has embraced Judaism in all avenues of self-exploration, purpose and connection to the world around him. Most recently, he started a podcast called “The Study,” where he and his guests “study, question, and apply the weekly Torah portion to better understand our world.”
When we finally speak on Zoom, me in New York City and Raviv in L.A., it’s a Friday. He’s surrounded by the aroma of fresh challah baking for Shabbat, a holiday he cherishes and engages in weekly. With Judaism as a guide, Raviv has dove head-first into the world of activism, whether it’s fighting for the environment or fighting against racism. Ullman knows it’s our job to build a better world — and that includes redefining what Judaism can mean.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I think most of our audience knows you from “Phil of the Future.” But you’ve done a lot since then. Can you give us a rundown of what you’ve been up to since “Phil” went off the air, and what you’re currently working on?
I just got back from the desert out in Palm Springs, both acting and directing this wild project for Boston Lyric Opera. They brought together this team of talented artists and wrote an eight-part miniseries that is an opera, but made for television. It’s definitely not a world I’m familiar with, but everything looks so amazing as far as I an tell.
But the first project I did after “Phil” was a play out here in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre called “Dead,” and it reminded me that the reason I got into the arts in the first place was theater; theater was absolutely my first love. I started doing theater at an acting camp, Polka Dot Playhouse, when I was 8 years old. I eventually moved back to New York [after “Phil”] and spent 10 years doing a lot of theater, and doing regional theater all across the country. And that’s still definitely a big part of my life.
The latest project that I’m really excited to talk about is this podcast that was born out of the pandemic. I hosted a lot of Shabbat dinners in normal life — or BC — and we went to Zoom with our Shabbat dinners or gatherings. I was doing dvar Torahs for my friends; Torah portions gave us a window through which we could start a conversation. Sometimes, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, it was really exhausting to talk about it over and over and over again. We found that the Torah portion gave us this kernel of an idea. We were able to unpack that against the backdrop of what was happening in a world full of the pandemic, and what was happening economically and socially and through Black Lives Matter.
That birthed this idea of, well, what if this was a podcast, and we actually got to go through the entire Torah through an entire year, and bring in different experts and guests and find how to study Torah through a progressive lens? It’s something that I haven’t done since I was a kid. I went to Hillel Academy, which was an Orthodox day school in Fairfield, Connecticut. Since then, I hadn’t really truly properly studied Torah.
So that’s been the other project that’s been keeping me busy over the past year. And it’s been a really exciting way to engage with Judaism and my own faith and the questions that I have, and be able to talk about and process what we’re all going through.
Was Judaism always something you were passionate and vocal about? Or has this been more of a recent thing?
I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from the fact that I’m Jewish. I imagine, like most people our age, our connection to faith and religion is an ever-evolving thing. Something that Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who is our first co-host [on the podcast], was really adamant about reminding me and our audience was the word “Israel,” the name Israel, means to wrestle with God. Part of our journey through faith and learning about our connection to God, or something larger than ourselves, is to wrestle with it, not to just accept blindly. That means that your relationship is going to change over time. And it should.
So my journey through Judaism has been all over the place since I was a kid. When I left home and lived on my own, I definitely took a step away from Judaism. I wasn’t as observant as I was growing up. And then I realized that I was seeking something: spirituality, or faith, or meditation, or a connection to, like I say, something larger than myself. A lot of the answers — or the questions that helped me think about those things — were inherent in Judaism, and were inherent in the kind of studying and the kind of practice and rituals that I had grown up with.
It made me reevaluate: Instead of trying to find a new form of meditation or a new form of ritual, what if I went back to what I grew up with? If I need a break, if I need to take a deep breath, well, that’s Shabbat, right? That’s a form of taking stock of everything. For the pandemic, marking time was and continues to be such a weird thing. And I’m like, oh, okay, instead of having to figure out a new way to engage with my calendar, what if I just practice Shabbat, turn off my phone once a week, tune into my family and my friends and my community, and set the dinner table and light candles once a week? That ritual became really healing and continues to be.
Did you ever feel like you had to hide your Jewishness at Disney? Was there ever any pressure around it?
That was a confusing time in my life. I went from living at home with my parents and being in a public high school, to living basically on my own in Los Angeles and going to work at 6 a.m. every morning and being on a television show.
It wasn’t that the network made me feel separated from my faith, it was just that my whole life was different. And so I went through every day differently and was exploring new ways to create and to be myself. You know, I’d grown up in one very specific lifestyle and all of a sudden was kind of free to do whatever I wanted.
A lot of people have told me how angry they are at Disney for “making me” change my name to Ricky. I went by the stage name Ricky back then, but that was a decision that was made before that, because as a young American-looking boy named Raviv, I wasn’t able to get auditions for American boys because casting directors were like, “No, sounds too ethnic.” And so that followed me into the Disney world — that wasn’t something that they made me change. But even then, that wasn’t something that felt antisemitic or prejudiced as much as the unfortunate nature of the industry at that time, and I think the industry is really different now.
I did change my name professionally back to Raviv. That’s something I wanted to own. The ownership over my own faith, and my own connection to Judaism itself, has been an ever-evolving thing. And the more that I dig deeper into it, and into my practice, and into my ancestry and connections to all of that, the louder and prouder I get.
One thing you’ve mentioned before was that Judaism has also connected you to your activism. I know you filmed the documentary about the Dakota Access Pipeline, but what role does activism now play in your life?
I’m not sure how not to engage in activism. My mom is an activist, my grandfather, my great-grandfather … I come from a long line of people who fought for unions. My grandfather marched with MLK in D.C., and my mom leads marches in our hometown. And so it feels less like a conscious decision to go and find something to be active in. Rather, it feels like what I’ve been taught to do, which I’m really grateful for.
My practice in Judaism is very supportive of that; they feel one and the same. We are to question our place in the universe, and wrestle with what God means, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The core of what the Torah teaches is to be an activist, right? I think the term activist is really interesting, because it sounds radical. But all of these things that we’ve been fighting for, whether it’s clean air, clean water, rights for Native Americans, the fact that Black lives matter — those aren’t progressive ideas. Those are simple human rights.
And just like faith, I think our relationship to how active we are in that fight will forever be changing. We have to figure out how to balance ourselves and be able to take a deep breath every once in a while. But that work is never over. I don’t see a world in which these battles ever stop.
I love hearing about how that’s all connected for you.
I’ve never known them not to be. For me, some of the places that I’ve had the most constructive conversations about these movements, and about the work that needs to be done, is sitting around a Shabbat dinner table. We are granted the space to take a breath and have a glass of wine and engage with each other. And engagement takes all different forms, right? Sometimes it is marching through the streets, sometimes it is writing an article, sometimes it’s calling your friends, sometimes it’s voting. And sometimes it’s sitting around and breaking bread and trying to be compassionate and empathetic and learn different people’s backgrounds and histories and stories, and see how we as a group can be most powerful together.
One thing I wanted to touch on was an article that said you’re trying to “dismantle toxic masculinity.” Another called you a “gender fluid heartthrob.” If you’re comfortable talking about it, could you tell me a bit about your relationship to your gender?
I want to be really thoughtful about what I say here. I mean, I identify as a cisgender, straight man. I do believe that gender is a construct. And I do have interest in exploring what that means for myself. I love what would be considered, I guess, female-identifying clothing, dresses and long jackets, and looking fabulous. I am very, very excited about exploring that and always have. Any of my friends know that if I’m at a party, I will look for the most wild women’s coat and put it on and dance around in that. It’s something that I am still learning about.
I’m so grateful for the work that is done by the trans and queer community; we all rest on their shoulders and the work that they have done to educate. Because if gender is a construct, then I’m not sure what that means in terms of my own fluidity. I believe that we can explore all of those things while being respectful of the fact that I take a few pictures in a dress and get written about how I’m a gender fluid heartthrob, and yet, there are people that are murdered for doing the same or are bullied to the point of committing suicide. That’s not right. And I don’t know what my place is in that. As someone who doesn’t identify as queer, I don’t want to be a spokesperson for it, and I get really worried about being celebrated for anything.
That being said, I do wear clothing that wouldn’t be recognized as men’s clothing all the time, and I have hot pink nail polish on right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gender fluidity as much as it is fluidity more broadly. If gender is a construct, then I feel empowered to explore what that means for myself.
One last question, and it’s something I want to touch on *just* to torture you a little bit: The Weebee Boys. I’d just like to know … what that was. And I’m gonna include the YouTube video so everybody else can see it.
[laughing] OK, Jesus. Look, I think back in 2004 we were not yet aware the power and audience that a YouTube video could reach. It was in the beginning of the YouTube days, which is crazy to think about. It was before Instagram, it was before Twitter, it was before any social media. And I was a 17-year-old idiot. I was a 17-year-old kid making silly videos with my friends. It’s something that I have no interest in ever watching again. But I don’t feel the need to defend because I was 17 years old.
And yet, at the same time, it still exists out there in the world. I can’t say it’s my proudest moment. And I could have also been more thoughtful about the fact that I was on a Disney Channel show, but like literally, at 17 years old, I just didn’t connect those dots.
Well, it might not have been your proudest moment, but it was the thing I was most delighted to find.
As long as it brings you joy. Look, at the end of the day, I am very grateful to be a part of any entertainment that reaches anybody and brings them joy. Whether it’s “Phil of the Future” and somebody came home at the end of the day from school and laughs, I’m so grateful to have been able to be a part of something. At the end of the day, if that’s what Weebee Boys did for some people, then I can allow myself to be proud of that.
All right, let’s close this out with some rapid fire questions. We’ll start off easy. What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
I’m a huge fan of Sukkot. Like, getting to build a fort! I have so many good memories. And I love eating outside.
Favorite Jewish food?
Oh, great one. Who is someone that you admire?
My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who passed away a few years ago, was definitely a hero and continues to be.
Do you have a favorite “Phil of the Future” memory that sticks out to you?
I remember auditioning with Craig Anton, who played my father; we were matched up. And he made me laugh so hard that I was certain I didn’t get it because I couldn’t keep a straight face. Then we were both cast and I have this very, very, very intense memory of being in a room and just not being able to keep a straight face with him.
What was your bar mitzvah theme? And if you didn’t have one, what theme would you have now if you could?
My mother looked at me straight in the eye, without me asking, and said, “Raviv, your theme is God.”
Oh my God.
That speaks a lot of my mother and how I was raised as a Jew but I … still don’t think I understand themes or what the point is. It seems to detract a little bit from the point of the day? Like the point is we’re going to become adults. And so in becoming an adult and taking on the responsibility of being an adult, we’re going to theme this party “under the sea”? I’m … not sure I understand that connection. There’s a bit of a disconnect for me, though, you know, to each their own.
Concert or play?
Oh my God, that’s so hard. I’m going to … I’ll be burned at the stake for this. But right now concert. In this moment, concert.
Glockenspiel, drums or trombone?
Drums. I feel like it’s time to get some anxiety out.
What’s your favorite Broadway musical or play?
[takes a very deep breath] Wow. “Les Mis.” I grew up and “Les Mis” was my absolute favorite musical in the world. The operatic nature of it still blows me away. And it’s a story of revolution, and that’s really exciting. So it’s a little bit of an oldie but definitely for me a goodie.
Of course I’ve done some Instagram stalking, and I’ve noticed you photograph some really beautiful places. Do you have a favorite place you’ve ever been?
Recently, I can’t stop thinking about New Orleans. It’s one of my favorite places. I’ve spent a lot of time there. And it’s definitely my favorite city in this country.
But you keep kosher, right? So no crawfish boils?
I would never! Yeah, I keep a kosher home. But my own version of it: It doesn’t necessarily mean I have two dishwashers and two sets of plates, but it does mean I don’t cook bacon.
OK, last question for real: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
I’m inspired by our generation’s Jews. It’s something that Rabbi Matt Green and I were just talking about, how we are different from our parent’s generation, and the world we live in is different from our parent’s generation, and the world looks different. And it means figuring out what our connection to faith and community generally looks like. And it means that some of us are not going to belong to shuls. We have a new Judaism. And I think that there is a really exciting space that is happening right now, that Alma is definitely a huge part of, that I hope to be contributing to with the podcast that celebrates Judaism, the things that we take from Judaism and what we are able to therefore contribute. Being able to have these conversations is a big part of that.
For me, I don’t think there’s ever been a more explorative, open, freeing time to explore your Judaism and connect with it.
Right, and it means that we get to build what this new version looks like, right? We have thousands of years of wisdom to build upon; it’s not like we have to start from scratch. It also means that we don’t have to do it the same way that previous generations did. There’s so much wisdom and beautiful rituals and practices to draw from. And we get to decide how to apply that for ourselves.
When it comes to economic justice and human rights and all the things that we were talking about before, it’s like, how do we take what we’ve been given and apply it to building a better world? Humor is a part of that. Activism is a part of that. Art is a part of that. And social media is a part of that. What I hope to be doing is to just contribute to the community that is interested in figuring out how to connect all those dots.