Leave it to a fickle pooch to spark a memory that would propel Ione Skye from actress to children’s author.
As Skye (whose first name is pronounced “Eye-oh-nee”) tells it, her dog could not decide whether to stay in or out of the house: Put him out, he’d beg to come back inside. Bring him in, and there he was, whining at the back door to go out again.
A friend called the dog a lobus, a Yiddish term for “wise guy” and a word the 43-year-old mother of two and star of 1989’s “Say Anything…” associates with a particular time during her girlhood.
“It struck me as funny, and I don’t even know how the thought process went, but I wanted to write that word into a story,” said Skye, whose mother is Jewish. “When I start thinking about those words, I associate them with my grandparents.”
Such vocabulary went hand in hand with special trips that Skye and older brother Donovan Leitch would take to Florida — often parents-free — to spend a week with their maternal grandparents, Matilda and Ben Stulberger. The Yiddishisms would flow freely during those vacations, and Skye learned at least a couple of new words or phrases with each visit.
They provided the inspiration for her recently released book “My Yiddish Vacation,” with illustrations by Scott Menchin. Her lobus of a dog made it in; so did an array of machers, alter kackers and yentas.
The book, which explains that Yiddish is a combination of German and Hebrew, focuses on Skye’s alter ego, a 7-year-old named Ruth who was always on shpilkes (pins and needles) with excitement the night before she and older brother Sammy boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Florida. An index defines all 18 of the Yiddish words used in the work, the first draft of which Skye wrote in a single sitting.
In addition to being a fun introduction to Yiddish, Skye’s book is also a love letter to her family. Although her Grandma Tillie and Grandpa Benny passed away several years ago, Skye said she has enjoyed revisiting them through “My Yiddish Vacation.”
“I’ve been thinking about them a lot more since I have been working on the book,” the Laurel Canyon resident said.
Since the 2009 birth of daughter Goldie Priya Lee, with her husband, musician Ben Lee, Skye has balanced motherhood, a film career, writing and — of late — reconnecting with her Jewish roots.
“For some reason, I’ve been exploring that side of myself,” said Skye, who was formerly married to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. “My husband and I practice our own version of spiritual life, but, for me, this is more about the Yiddish from my grandparents’ generation and getting to explore a language that’s so expressive and so meaningful.”
The book tour for “My Yiddish Vacation” will include a stop in Australia where her husband’s family is plugged into the Jewish community of Sydney. Skye, whose older daughter Kate Netto, from a previous relationship, will soon become a bat mitzvah, also has written a screenplay set in the Borscht Belt.
“My screenplay started out as a comedy, but it turned more dramatic,” she said. “I guess it’s an exploration of being Jewish and of the lack of spirituality that some Jews of a certain generation feel. Living in Los Angeles and having roots in the East Coast, I guess I appreciate [the Jewish traditions] more.”
Christy Ottaviano, who published “My Yiddish Vacation” under Henry Holt & Co., contends that the book’s vocabulary has a wider appeal than just Jewish readers.
“Some of those words have just moved into the greater context of the American language, and people don’t necessarily know where they originated,” she said.
In the book, young Ruth introduces herself with the phrase “I like to daydream.” That description perfectly fits the adolescent Skye, who maintains that she was always inside her own head as a young girl.
Born Ione Skye Leitch, the daughter of the American model Enid Karl and Scottish folksinger Donovan, Skye wrote fantasy stories and poems. Her teen years left her restless, and Skye found herself tracking the progress of her older brother, Donovan Leitch, who, during the 1980s parlayed his success as a break dancer into an acting career. Skye had done some modeling, and a casting director happened to see her headshot and wanted her to come in and audition for the independent 1986 crime drama “River’s Edge.”
Already a film buff, Skye remembers being intrigued by the film’s dark premise — a teen who kills his girlfriend and proceeds to show off the body. The introverted Skye won the role, sharing the screen with a then-unknown Canadian actor named Keanu Reeves. In order to work full adult hours, Skye needed to become legally emancipated from her parents.
“My situation at Hollywood High School wasn’t terrible, but I was floundering, and I saw this as a way out,” she said. “It would have been nice to do school and work at the same time, and I thought the movie might just be a one-off, but I got an agent and started working.”
A couple of years later, she won the role of Diane Court, the beautiful class valedictorian, object of adoration of Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack) in “Say Anything…,” the directorial debut of Cameron Crowe. Connoisseurs of ’80s films will remember “Say Anything…” as the film that finds Dobler standing in the rain and holding a boom box above his head, serenading Court to the strains of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
Nearly 25 years later, Skye reports that friends still call or text when “In Your Eyes” comes on the radio. But her “Say Anything…” memories are bittersweet.
“I had a lot of fun, and I loved working with John and Cameron, but I was at the height of my insecurity,” she said. “I had my first serious boyfriend, and I was more concerned with being chubby.”
Skye has continued acting steadily into adulthood. Recent projects include the horror film “Haunt” and the upcoming “Dear Eleanor” directed by “Entourage’s” Kevin Connolly.
She has also branched out into other artistic arenas, taking a cinematography class and a screenplay writing class through UCLA Extension. For the latter, Skye penned the script for the Borscht Belt-set “Hallelujah” that her instructor encouraged her to enter into a competition.
And she’s not done with Ruth and Sammy.
“My aunt lived in Spain for 30 years, so I have already written a follow-up. I’ll take these same characters and have them learn Spanish slang,” she said. “I have lot of funny similar memories from Spain — embarrassing, weird and sad things.”
Illustrator Scott Menchin
“They asked if I was Jewish, and I said, ‘Of course. How Jewish do you want me to be?’ ” Menchin recalled.
As it happened, the project’s editor had seen an offbeat personal project of Menchin’s that was never published. Menchin and author Larry Beinhart (“American Hero”) had tried to launch a comic strip with graphic novel potential about an old man in an assisted-living facility who is exposed to toxic waste and develops superpowers.
Cue the trumpets and make way for … “Alter Kocker!”
“It was quite bizarre and even slightly offensive to some people,” Menchin said of “Alter Kocker.” “The editor had seen the ‘Alter Kocker’ proposal. In some strange way, these two projects are connected.”
Menchin, who also heard plenty of Yiddish growing up, said he had a blast bringing Skye’s tale to life. He dedicates the book to Nana Rose, “who always thought I was a little meshugge.”[t]