Comedian O’Neal McKnight met his future wife, L.A.-based stylist Miriam Sternoff, in an elevator on his way to P.Diddy’s office ten years ago—but it wasn’t quite love at first sight.
“What immediately went through my brain was, Oh, he’s definitely batting for the other team,” admits Sternoff.
Years later—and now deeply in love—the two are married and starring in Kosher Soul, a show that chronicles their interracial, interfaith relationship and eventual nuptials. The road to marriage for Sternoff, a Jew, and McKnight, her southern-bred husband, is wildly entertaining and full of love and affection. Here, the couple talks about overcoming cultural barriers and McKnight’s conversion to Judaism.
What inspired you to start filming?
O’Neal: When I was living in New York, I was living on the Upper East Side and we were just watching an array of reality shows—Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Jersey Shore—and it was cool, but I thought, Where’s that story that we can identify and relate to that resembles us? I remember mentioning to Miriam, “You know what? We should do a show—Kosher Soul! You’re the Kosher part and I’m the Soul part and they should follow our journey, follow our life and follow me potentially converting to Judaism.” At the time, me converting was still very early on in our relationship, but it was something I wanted to do and Miriam encouraged me.
Speaking of converting to Judaism, what was that process like for you?
O’Neal: I grew up in South Carolina and it was Bible-ville. I’m from a place where there’s a lot of “Hallelujah. Thank you, Jesus.” After moving to New York City, I was in a cultural pot of just different things and different cultures and people and I started to migrate towards Judaism at a very early age. After moving, it was definitely something I started to lean towards even more, and the process for me has been therapy. It has been a spiritual awakening for me. I really feel like I’m finally in the skin I want to be in so to speak. I feel like I finally found a suit that is tailor made just for me within Judaism and the process has just been truly amazing. Some moments watching the show, you’ll see me get very emotional and even start crying because my connection to Judaism is really beyond myself.
Miriam: It was about a yearlong process so he went into such depths about learning about Judaism and obviously going through with the conversion, but it’s a really long process. He has really stuck to his guns.
O’Neal: It was an emotional roller coaster because, like I said, I’m from Bible-ville. I’m from the south. My family is Christian and they know nothing about Judaism. We didn’t grow up around Jews. There wasn’t a huge Jewish community where I’m from, so it was very foreign for my family. For them to see my transformation, I think it was a huge concern whether I was going to become something that they didn’t recognize.
What do you want others to learn from your relationship?
O’Neal: I want people to realize while watching this show that two people from two totally different worlds can come together, fall in love and at first glance you would think that we had nothing in common. It’s our differences that make us very similar, and yet we have so much in common. We live in L.A. and we have a lot of very diverse group of friends. A lot of people have been brought up or raised through religion or even raised to think that their significant other or the love of their life should be like them. Our show and our relationship is a testament that when girls say, “Oh my god, it is so hard to find a guy in New York City” or “It is so hard to find a guy in Los Angeles” —well maybe you should step out of your comfort zone and maybe he’s not white, maybe he’s not Jewish, maybe he’s not Asian, maybe he’s something totally different. That’s what this show is about, opening your eyes and embracing the beauty in difference.
What can viewers expect this season?
Miriam: Obviously we’re talking about the cultural clashes of being in an interracial relationship. They’re also going to learn something along the way, especially about Judaism and what it’s like to be in an interfaith relationship, but not in a preachy way.
What are you most looking forward to in the future?
O’Neal: Yes, yes! We are looking forward to some little interracial hybrid versions of ourselves running around. I cannot wait to have a little girl run up to me with Miriam’s face saying she wants some candy, and I’m saying she shouldn’t but she just looks at me with that look and I’m feeding her M&Ms.
Miriam: And you want to go get mani’s and pedi’s as well.
O’Neal: Yeah. My biggest fear is that we’re going to have a bunch of boys, and I’m so not the man’s man. I don’t care about sports; I care more about fashion and getting a manicure and pedicure and a good facial. You know it’s always good to exfoliate. I’m just afraid that the Gods are going to say, “Ok, you know what, we’re going to give you two athletic boys who want to play baseball and football,” and I’m going to be sitting there like, Oh my gosh. I much rather be at the mall with my daughter.
Main photograph shot by Richard Knapp