A Talk With Tiffany Shlain, Founder of Character Day
Tiffany Shlain had never heard of the discipline of mussar when she made Science of Character, a short film that explored the neuro- and social science behind character development, focusing on universal virtues that people across different cultures agree would lead to a good life. The film premiered on March 14, 2014, at 1,500 schools and organizations in 31 countries around the world, part of a one-day event Shlain dubbed “Character Day.”
“When I’m very excited about something, I want to share it far and wide,” says Shlain, 46, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, public speaker and digital innovator. “So, I thought, let’s start a global conversation around this topic.”
Two Jewish educators approached Shlain after seeing the film and suggested she make a Jewish version of it, using the lens of mussar. The result was 2015’s Making of a Mensch, in which she wonders out loud about the ancient Jewish practice: “How did I not know about this?” Footage of a moose appears when she says, “moos-what?” and then whispers, “I felt like such a bad Jew.” The 10-minute film, which Shlain narrates against a backdrop of short clips and images, delves into character and also outlines the history of mussar. Alan Morinis, dean of The Mussar Institute, advised Shlain on the script. Mensch premiered with another Shlain film, The Adaptable Mind, about the skills needed in contemporary society, at the second Character Day on September 22, 2015.
Character Day has now become an annual event. Over 90,000 venues in 124 countries have shown Shlain’s trio of character-based short films and hosted post-film discussions and events. Recently, the John Templeton Foundation gave Shlain’s film company, Let It Ripple, a $1.5-million grant to continue the program.
Shlain, who lives in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, co-founded Let it Ripple Film Studios in 2013 to help develop and distribute her short films—she calls them “cinematic essays”—many of which she created with her husband, Ken Goldberg.
“I’m trying to figure out something and want viewers to figure it out with me,” says Shlain. That’s why these films in particular come with educational materials, she adds. There are posters—The Periodic Table of Being a Mensch, for example, with a chart of traits connected to historical figures—and decks of “conversation cards” with questions and discussion guides.
“We’re living in a day where everyone is looking for a roadmap on how to be a better person while navigating their messy emotions inside,” Shlain told an audience at the September 2016 Character Day event at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “I got really excited about the fact that there was something about this in Jewish tradition, that there is a Jewish version of developing who you are.”
Alix Wall is a freelance writer, personal chef and writer-producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child. She lives in Oakland, Calif.