The Hollywood treatment
“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.
“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added.
It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories.
“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”
This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.
“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.”
In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.
But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”
Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.
Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein.
“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”
“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.”
Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ”
Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”
It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.
But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.
Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes.
“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”
Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.
“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”
And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.
“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”
For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”