Confessions of a Hollywood Marrano

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29 Jul 2005

From the pages of Jewish Action – Spring 2002

“I hear you have some special diet,” he said.Several years ago, I arrived on location for a film shoot in North Carolina. As I settled into my office, there was a knock at the door and I looked up to see a long-haired, tattooed, tough-looking young man who introduced himself as McCluskie.*

“Yes,” I said, wondering what his interest could be in the matter. He held out his hand.

“I’m the caterer.”

Silenced, all I could do was take his hand and think, “Boy, this is going to be good…

I told McCluskie that I kept kosher and though he’d heard the term, he said he wasn’t familiar with its details and invited me to his catering truck to show him what I could and couldn’t eat. In the truck, he took out a notepad and scribbled as I went through his inventory, showing him certification symbols and explaining my preparation needs. He didn’t say much that day, other than registering surprise that fully one-half to two-thirds of the products he regularly used were kosher without his ever knowing it.

A few days later, he approached me on the set and asked if we could talk. We stepped aside, and as we sat down outside his truck I prepared for what I was sure was going to be a grievance about the difficulties of kashrut.

“What’s the difference,” McCluskie began, “between an O-U, and an O-K?”

I was caught off guard by the question, and explained what I knew about the two agencies. McCluskie listened intently, then continued with a battery of other questions, and I quickly regretted my early misjudgment of him. He had a keen and thoughtful mind, and as we spoke a
lot over the next month, our conversations migrated from kashrut to more general considerations of Judaism. McCluskie said his own religion (which he didn’t practice) had never made any sense to him, and he was intrigued by the consistency and meaning in what I had told him about Judaism. He wasn’t interested in converting, but did go so far as to pick up some books from a local store and return with increasingly perceptive questions and insights.

On the last night of the shoot, we ran particularly late, but at about 3:00 AM, McCluskie was intent on serving the celebration he had prepared. As the crew flooded into the food tent, I sat packing up my things and McCluskie came over. “Come on,” he said. “You’re going to miss the party.”

I told him thanks, but I just wanted to get to bed.

“There’s great food, stuff you can eat, too…”

“Really, I’m wiped…”

Just then a teamster walked by, stuffing his face from a dessert plate.

“McCluskie,” he called, “Awesome cheesecake!”

McCluskie smiled and waved his thanks, then turned to me. “Star-K,” he winked, “Rabbi Heinemann.”

McCluskie taught me a lot. As a writer working alone, the complications of keeping mitzvot do not generally rear their head until a project goes into production. While writing, your hours are your own, and nobody cares or even has to know what days you did or didn’t work, as long as the script comes in as ordered. Your ardent hope during this time is that the project will go into production (it’s rarely guaranteed), but when that “green light” finally comes, it brings with it a new, and often daunting, set of work conditions. You no longer sit alone in a room with a computer. You now interact constantly with a director, producers, prop people, costumers and the myriad others it takes to make a movie, all of whom usually work long hours, seven days a week to make it happen. Like it or not, as an observant Jew, you are about to be “outed.”

My own experience, and the experience of most of my colleagues, has been to postpone this inevitable exposure as long as possible, to exist as a type of Hollywood Marrano, tzitzit under t-shirt, making baseball-capped brachot and mysterious disappearances for Mincha. The entertainment industry is competitive enough without offering extra cannon fire to the arsenal of potential rejecters. “We like him, but he can’t work on Saturdays” are not words you want your agent to hear.

He saw I wasn’t joking, and was quickly adamant that my renting a car to leave the set early was absolutely out of the question. As I stared at him in disbelief and braced for combat, he countered that if anyone was going to rent me a car, it would be the company. He calculated, in fact, that my situation would actually help him. He had business to take care of in the city, and could now come out later in the morning in the rental car, which I could then drive back before Shabbat. Needless to say, I was both surprised and overwhelmed by the support, and even more so at two o’clock that afternoon when, an hour before I expected to leave myself, the producer started agitating to get me off the barge and back to the city in time for candle lighting. I can’t say he showed the same interest in Judaism as McCluskie did, but he was intrigued by the concept of someone other than his late grandfather keeping Shabbat. On several occasions afterward, he avowed how “healthy” he thought Shabbat sounded, and how much he admired anyone who “had it in him” to keep it.On my first movie ordered for production, I was summoned to Vancouver, British Columbia, during Chol HaMoed Sukkot. A lengthy set of revisions helped me finesse Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah during pre-production (I worked round the clock both before and after), but the first erev Shabbat of actual shooting was scheduled to take place on a barge off a remote stretch of coast an hour north of the city. The weather was terrible – water scenes are always difficult – and the director said he categorically needed me there for on-the-spot script revisions. The shoot wouldn’t end until an hour after candle lighting and I was informed that the only transportation back to the city was the single run of the crew bus. This was my first shoot and so far everything had been going magnificently. I didn’t want to upset that, so I simply avoided the issue until the last possible moment. At five o’clock Friday morning, as we were all loading onto the bus to head to the location, I said to the one Jewish producer as nonchalantly as I could, “Now how’s this going to work? I need to be back for Shabbat.” He looked at me as if I were joking. “It’s at four-thirty,” I said. “Maybe I should rent a car.”

On a different project, so deferential was another producer that when I was repeatedly trying to get hold of her for several days in a row and began to think she was avoiding my calls, she explained “Well, I know you won’t talk on the phone or do business after sundown. That’s difficult for us to work around, but I want you to know I think that’s really beautiful.”

“Sundown Friday,” I had to explain.

The three encounters were as instructive as they were surprising. Together, they turned out to be highlights in a series of events culminating in the humbling recognition that I had, in fact, been placed on that North Carolina film set specifically for McCluskie, and on that barge in Vancouver, and at every other milepost of my career, for others like him.

As Jews, like it or not, we are all born into a specific profession, one primary job that we share with equal and awesome responsibility: that of kiddush Hashem of sanctifying God’s name. I am indebted to Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Los Angeles for pointing out, in the name of the father
of Chief Rabbi Lau, the special universality of this mitzvah: it is the only place in the entire Mishneh Torah where the Rambam uses the language kol beit Yisrael, “the entire house of Israel” for whom the mitzvah applies to. The unique language is taken to refer to the conduct of every Jewish man, woman and child, twenty- four/seven.

Within the Orthodox community, misperceptions about the entertainment industry abound. One is that the industry in general and television in particular have a specific agenda to promulgate values that are anti-Torah. When I was in film school in the mid-1980s, the then-head of programming at one of the networks came to guest-lecture to us. His first words were that he didn’t want us to be under any misapprehensions: “Commercial television,” he said, “is about filling the blanks between commercials so that viewers will stay to watch
those commercials.” Like any other business, television has no agenda other than making money. It operates on the simple principle of supply and demand, and the networks and advertisers have extremely sophisticated research departments that monitor, with frightening accuracy, what viewers want at every half-hour of every day. At the moment, that determination includes a great deal of violence, sex and broad humor. Next year, if by some miracle it is found to include dramatizations of the Chidushei HaRitva, believe me, that is what we will see.

Observant Jews who work in entertainment are often asked why we can’t do better stories, more uplifting stories that espouse Torah values. The current reality is simply that the audience for them is limited. The problem is on the demand end, not the supply, and the implications of that are particularly sobering for Jews. We must ask if those of us who proudly and publicly (and easily) rid our homes of the supplier are not turning our backs on our more difficult responsibilities with the demander. If Klal Yisrael were effectively doing its job as mekadshei Hashem,
as the true or l’goyim we are intended to be, then it is axiomatic that we could expect the sea change we would like in the demand for programming.

The response, however, to television, the Internet and most other things secular has been a growing insularity, an us-and-them mentality that reflects a tacit insecurity that what we have (i.e., the life of Torah) might not be as attractive to our children as what they have. Beyond an obvious failure at education, this breeds, at its worst, a homogenization that stifles the very tools Hashem has given us to sanctify Him. With Jacob’s blessings of the tribes in Parshat Vayechi, the Torah goes out of its way to delineate the diversity of the Jewish People. Each tribe has a unique character and set of skills that defines it. Later, in Parshat Naso, it is precisely by capitalizing on these different traits that the princes of each tribe arrive at offerings of exactly equal content and value to celebrate the sanctification of the Mishkan. The message is clearly that it is the very expression of these differences that makes us equally valid and integral parts of a united whole.

No one serious about Judaism can downplay the importance of a constant and rigorous learning schedule, but it is absurd to think that we are all suited to be Torah scholars any more than we are all suited to be carpenters or brain surgeons or fishermen. The lesson from Naso is,
in fact, the opposite: that the truest and most effective means of completing our mission of kiddush Hashem is through identifying and using the specific talents and characteristics that Hashem has given us.

Some of us are Torah scholars; others are brain surgeons and fishermen, and it is much more likely that the great kiddush Hashem of the fisherman will be done on the ocean rather than in the operating room or beit midrash. That is, after all, what the fisherman is there for.

So too is it with art. If not biologically, then at least spiritually, the Jewish artist is the descendant of Betzalel, whose talent was explicitly given to him for the ultimate artistic kiddush Hashem, the design of the Mishkan. Today, the Jewish artist is not necessarily the creator of Jewish-themed art, but simply a Jew who creates art and is therefore most likely to find his or her greatest responsibilities and opportunities for kiddush Hashem somewhere in that world. My encounters with McCluskie and the others in entertainment showed, if anything, as
desperate a need there as anywhere else for exposure to the beauty of Torah life. Ironically, it would, I believe, be the waste of a powerful opportunity to avoid supplying that.

This is in no way to suggest that the spiritual perils of the entertainment business are no greater than in any other profession. They are. Cliches about Hollywood are cliches because they’re true. Temptations abound, and constant consultation with a halachic authority
is absolutely necessary for survival. Religious Hollywood hopefuls in search of what Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein calls “fame, fortune
and frumkeit all wrapped up in one” will be disappointed. History shows the over-whelming likelihood of losing the latter in search of the former two. I can by no stretch of the imagination hold myself out as a model of Torah observance, and I don’t know what’s become of McCluskie since I last saw him, but I do know three things – 1) his first real encounter with Judaism was a positive one 2) somewhere down the line what he and I shared will be put to some greater use that I will probably never know about, and 3) I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to shake his hand.

* Not his real name, but in the spirit.

Brian Ross received an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor, and completed an M.F.A. in Screenwriting at the UCLA film school. He has written for all the major networks, as well as basic cable and first-run syndication. His credits span genres from period docu-drama to contemporary thriller, and include the acclaimed CBS miniseries “Gone in the Night” and Lifetime’s “Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story.” Brian lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Susan and new  daughter Cohava.

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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.