The Walking Dead's Tovah Feldshuh on Leadership & Legacy

Tovah Feldshuh

Leadership matters more than ever now. And in our current atmosphere of national divisiveness, it's tempting to search elsewhere for leaders, until we're reminded that we must first find the champion within ourselves.

Tovah Feldshuh is one of those leaders that inspires us to look inward. An intellectual, activist, and award-winning performing artist, she defiantly states "Live While Living." Among her many honors and accolades, she has received the Israel Peace Medal, an Honorary Doctorate from Yeshiva, the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award and, this past year, the Algemeiner's Voice for Humanity Award. Her prolific career and numerous accomplishments led to her having dinner with Margaret Thatcher and even a meeting with the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Most people know Tovah Feldshuh from her portrayal of congresswoman Deanna Monroe on AMC's top-rated show The Walking Dead, who faced down complacency in the form of a zombie apocalypse, but what some people may not know is that she based portions of her character Deanna Monroe on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She describes Hillary as a "very skilled, capable stateswoman" with remarkable "acumen under fire."

Yet, now that the smoke has cleared, both for Hillary Clinton post-election and for Tovah's character Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead (her character died courageously last season,) what's next for her? And what does Tovah believe is next for other artists and activists in our current political climate?

In the show, Deanna went out admirably in a blaze of bullets and glory, taking down a horde of bloodthirsty zombies ("walkers") to save her community and choosing to die as a hero. First, Tovah addresses mortality before addressing complacency:

"Everybody comes on The Walking Dead to die. And the reason the show is number one is because we all have one common end; human beings know one day they will face having to leave their body. It will not be a choice that they make; it will be made for them unless you commit suicide, and that is totally not my thing - life is a gift." Tovah continues: "since we all know we are going to die, The Walking Dead looks at how we want to live. Are we going to be a mensch or are we going to be Madoff? Are we going to be a thief or Mother Theresa?"

This outlook is similar to that of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who believed that we must contemplate mortality in order to begin to truly live -a fire that translates to Tovah's life after The Walking Dead in her latest one-woman show titled Aging is Optional ('cause G-d I hope it is!), self-described as an age-defying romp. "I like to deal with aging in terms of quantum time. In other words, I'm not a big fan of linear time. You're as old as you feel."

This perspective has fueled the creation of very full life where she swims a half-mile each day, takes a bike wherever she can, takes Pilates classes and Yoga classes. Tovah is a mountain climber and a glacier climber and refuses to take "'no life' for an answer."

However, when thinking about leadership in an age of complacency, Tovah goes back to the flesh-eating zombies of The Walking Dead as a metaphorical starting point: "Under huge pressures, you're outnumbered by a thousand to one, or thousands to one by walkers, and people who need to eat you in order for them to feel alive - they're an embodied force without a soul and they feed on the living - they're moving death that feed on living things."

This numbness has become a metaphor for Tovah in the real world in terms of citizen apathy and cynicism. "It is much easier to get up in the morning, hold an AK-47, and be tutored to kill Americans and Jews in the Middle East. It's much easier to do that than to found a postal system, a health system - that's the grown-up stuff that doesn't have short-term heroic illusion attached to it. So, it's much much easier for the dull mind to attack another person. It's much easier to say, 'She is a liar. She's a cheat. I'd put her in jail.'"

However, leadership requires vision and, in our current age, solutions are just as important as criticality. Like Hillary Clinton, the real-life inspiration for her character Deanna Monroe, Tovah says that it is important for us to remain people "not only with political dreams, but political plans, political programs. You may want to shoot it down, but it's a program - it's not a criticism." We cannot spend our lives "trying to tear down someone else. It reminds me of an endophyte."

The ability to "walk the walk" is a topic that Deanna feels very passionate about, especially in our current political climate. "So, we're going to look back on our country, at a time when fascism was a temptation and was introduced to the United States in a fervent, formal way. When I say fascism, I mean fascistic tendencies and the underbelly of mankind, what Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, in his day, would have called the devil. He was a friend of mine. I said, 'Sir, do you believe in the devil?' He said, 'Absolutely. There's an underbelly of man, Ms. Feldshuh.' We're seeing it right in our face and its mushrooming, and it's a very scary time and it's time to stand up straight and remember who you are, and give to the earth all the goodness that you've got because they need it."

Moving to the topic of legacy, Tovah continues "as you get older, what you leave behind for the generations to come becomes extremely important - your moral code, your ability to walk the walk."

Present national events have left many citizens angry and confused. Amid protests and hate crimes, the echoes of our recent election will be felt for months, if not years. Therefore, in addition to Tovah's mantra "Live While Living," she adds "and be generous. The quickest path to happiness is gratitude. If only anger worked, but it doesn't. If only that worked, we could then only spew forth our venom release for momentary release - yet, you know what the Japanese say, 'He who gets angry loses.' If you lose your chi, if you lose your balance, you lose - that's how they judge character."

But to Tovah, balance does not mean that you cease activism. In fact, we should do the exact opposite. The positive thing about our current political climate is that "it is engaging the minds of the entire country." Then, as activists we need to work together in what she terms "education of mind."

We must remain steadfast to our values and principles, because "in terms of legacy, it's all that's left in life as you start to exit. That's all you got is what you're leaving behind for the generations to come."

Speaking of future generations, her two children are also incredibly accomplished: her son Garson Brandon is an economist who studied at Harvard and Oxford, and is presently a founding member of Bluegrass Capital Partners; her daughter, Amanda Claire went to MIT and majored in physics. Her children clearly inspire her as she inspires them. "They were the people whose survival came before my own, their welfare was of the most paramount importance in my life - not because I'm a heroine, because that's how nature works. You will give your left kidney, or even one of your lungs, or maybe even your life so that they could live - it's just a natural thing that a mother does. No heroics, a mother would die for their children, whether it's a duck, a goose or a human being. So, that was a great gift that they gave me. They were more important than my work. They were more important than anything in the world."

One of the most inspiring things Tovah has done recently is climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with her son this past year, after her 62nd birthday. "We got up there one step at a time, by not having goal orientation, by watching the feet in front of us. There was no rugged individualism, no competition, there was no going to 10, what I call going to maximum effort - you'd never make it. You had to be moderate, patient - you had to delay immediate pleasure to get the long-term enjoyment of summiting."
And this experience could serve as a metaphor for leadership when looking at our current political climate and the "ravenous appetite to tear apart another person," that has dominated the political landscape, as opposed to a long-term view for the "betterment of the United States."

Yes, vision is an essential component of leadership - as is the ability to lift others and help them (and yourself) find the enjoyment in each and every day. We must find the champion within ourselves, so that we can be champions for each other. Tovah concludes by asking us to first engage in deep contemplation, before diving into activism and living: "What are your policies? What are your specifics? Well, what are the specifics of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro? One step in front of another. Look at the feet of the person in front of you. Do not rush. Breath deeply. And, enjoy the moment-to-moment journey - which is endless."


Go see Tovah Feldshuh in her award-winning role in Golda's Balcony at the Skirball Center at Temple Emanu-El in New York City on Sunday, December 11th. You can also catch Tovah as Naomi Bunch, mother of the title character, Rebecca, on The CW's newest Golden Globe-winning series, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND.

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