The authenticity of anonymity, the absurdity of fame


It starts with that moon. That haunting, mystical full moon that rises over erev Passover, the brightest of the year. The same moon that accompanied our ancestors as they committed the most courageous, terrifying, faithful act of our history. This was their light. It is our light.

I look at that moon and I feel a sense of fear and awe — a memory encoded in my DNA — and I wonder: What did it feel like, that night, to flee the only place you’ve ever known, to run for your life? I imagine unimaginable terror — no GPS, no knowledge of where you’re going or how you will survive once you get there.

I look at that moon and wonder: Who were my ancestors who had the courage to leave? It’s a stunning fact: I share blood with this person from so many hundreds of years ago, so many generations ago. How old was he or she? What did he or she look like? Questions about this hero flood my mind, starting with the most basic one: What was his or her name?

On erev Shavuot, 50 days later, while immersed in the study of Torah as a remembrance of when the Jewish people received our holiest of holy instructions, I imagine my ancestors, of whom I know no details, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and hearing the voice of God, experiencing the most profound revelation in the existence of mankind.

The energy of this night makes it real for me, the story we tell about our Exodus from bondage to freedom, our days of wandering, wondering, remembering and receiving the Torah.

And it’s this relative of mine who I can’t stop thinking about.  As I imagine Jews all over the world celebrating Shavuot, I’m deeply moved that each one of us has ancestors whose acts of courage and faith contributed to the making of the Jewish people, and because of them, we are Jews today.  

But mostly I am struck by the collective anonymity of those who created the Jewish people. 

As a life coach in the entertainment industry, I am keenly aware of the belief that anonymity in Hollywood is a fate worse than death. People today, and not just entertainers, desperately want to be famous. As the fame and celebrity culture has mushroomed and as the media continues to feed us the belief that, to really count in this world, you have to be famous, it’s no wonder studies show that teenagers don’t want to be doctors, lawyers or the president as in years past. Today, they want to be famous. Not for anything in particular, not for any accomplishment, simply famous.

When actors tell me how much they want to win an Academy Award, or musicians tell me how much they want to win a Grammy, as we dissect their desires, it always comes down to this: They want to matter. They want to make a difference in the world. Entertainers are not alone in thinking that public acknowledgment, awards and celebrity status will prove they count. This seems to be our new cultural “is.”

As Americans immersed in popular culture, we can name thousands of actors, musicians, scientists, engineers, politicians, activists and so on who have “made a difference” based on this faulty definition of success.

But as Jews, Shavuot offers us a moment to re-valuate: There’s no Nobel Prize, no CNN heroes profile, no 9/11-esque memorial recounting the name of every person who braved breaking free from Pharaoh’s wrath, whose every step from that night until entering the land of Israel was full of faith and courage. Shavuot allows us a night to take pause: Who has really made more of a difference in our lives than the anonymous thousands who fled Egypt and created the Jewish people? And how can we apply that understanding to our own lives?

Here’s how, in four parts. 

Part 1: Fame, celebrity, awards (even if the award show is broadcast around the world) or public acknowledgment have no impact on how your words or deeds will impact anyone today, next week or generations from now. Mitzvot — acts of good deeds — are unquantifiable, their true hidden value unknowable. Awards and public glorification are nonsense. Know this, and listen to the sound of your soul. What’s speaking to you is your divine mission. Follow it — that’s what matters.

Part 2: We all count. We all matter. The Jewish belief of tikkun olam teaches us we all have a part to play in healing the world. There’s no competition. Choose to see beauty and value in each person and you will be released from the need to be elevated above others and recognized publicly.

Part 3: Ask yourself, “Where in my life do I want to take one step forward, but fear and uncertainty are holding me back?  I want to remind you of this: If you’re Jewish and alive today, you share blood with people of immeasurable courage. If your ancestor can tie a sheep (the idols of the Egyptians) to his bedpost for three days, slaughter it with his bare hands and smear its blood over his door post, I promise you, you can take one step in the comforts of 2015 toward doing anything.

Part 4: Love more, love deeper, and be kind at every opportunity. The effects of love and kindness are what last forever.

May the energy of Shavuot, and the anonymity of our ancestors, inspire you to reconnect with your truest selves and live lives of true freedom.


Sherri Ziff is an entertainment industry-focused life coach, speaker, TV writer and author of the upcoming “Hollywood Epidemic: Fame, Celebrity & Other Illusions. How to Live a Life That Really Matters.”  She can be reached at sherri@rockyourlifecoaching.com.

Celebrity Schadenfreude: Hating on the stars


On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.”  Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.

And reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew.

Time to come down from ‘The Hills’


We live in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world and the city where everybody can feel like a celebrity. Everyone loves the glitz, luxury and the lifestyle of the city. It seems so effortless.

“The Hills,” MTV’s top-rated reality show, makes the spotlight seem so attainable. Welcome to the world of Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag. They are reality TV stars. They have minimal talent and lead very fancy lives. Montag works for SBE Entertainment Group and Bolthouse Productions, which looks like the easiest job on earth (other than Paula Abdul’s on “American Idol”). At night, she hits Los Angeles’ most glamorous hotspots.

Everyone now knows these hotspots, homes of expensive sushi, perfect-looking people, and the feeling of being a celebrity upon walking in. Maybe it is the paparazzi on Robertson Boulevard in front of The Ivy or the bright lights of Hollywood at Katsuya — everyone wants to live like a “Hills” character.

But especially living where we do, as viewers, we can be victims of the illusion that fame is so effortless. We see that lifestyle as so accessible, but it is not. That is where the teenagers of Los Angeles falter. Fame is not easily attainable, and the Heidis and Laurens of this world should not be our role models.

The Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, says, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.” As Jews, we should learn not to make ourselves miserable because some people have more possessions than us. On “The Hills,” all of the characters have everything — nice cars and designer clothes — yet appear only to desire more. They never act like they are happy with their lives and sometimes cause controversy just to make others jealous and unhappy.

The show may not be scripted, but the characters’ lives are just as unrealistic as if it were. Two characters, Spencer Pratt and Brody Jenner, have never been shown holding a job on the show. Yet they easily can afford to live in nice apartments, eat at the hottest restaurants and party at the finest nightclubs.

In reality, the show is just a 30-minute commercial. Its camerawork is amazing, and it makes Hollywood look like heaven — go party at Area and you do not need to worry about anything. But Hollywood is not heaven. People give up their lives to move to Hollywood and try to make it big, and 99 percent of them fail. Yes, the Walk of Fame exists, but what about the homeless people who sleep nearby and the parts of Hollywood that have not benefited from urban renewal?

Enter Lauren and Heidi: We do not have any talent, yet we make $75,000 an episode for being followed around on tape.

“The Hills” is a scam, an illusion of what Hollywood really is. If you really want to know what Hollywood is all about, take a drive down to Sunset and Gower and look at the poverty. And then, we all need to ask ourselves: Why do we tune in to this show every week?

You don’t have to stop watching “The Hills,” but realize that just because you live in Los Angeles, you are not automatically a celebrity. Pay attention to the not-so-dreamy side of Hollywood, because plenty of talented people miss their breaks. Take the rappers who hand out mix-tapes in front of the Virgin Megastore in Hollywood — they might be very talented rappers, but they will not sell.

Brody, Heidi, Lauren and Spencer sell because they satisfy everyone’s definition of a celebrity. We might live in Los Angeles, but we need to recognize that not everyone in this city is famous and wealthy. As teens, we should be able to see past “The Hills” and realize that we are not characters in a TV show. We live in a realistic world, and we need real role models so we can learn and grow.

Jeremy Lowe is a junior at Shalhevet and community editor of The Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15; deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Starving the murderers


I was at a Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house in Orange County, sitting next to a woman who couldn’t take her eyes off her BlackBerry®. The woman wasn’t being rude; she was texting back and forth with her friend Peggi Sturm, who was holed up in one of the hotels under siege in Mumbai.

The woman showed me one of Sturm’s nervous texts — the word “scary” was in all caps (Sturm eventually made it out alive) — and she seemed dumbfounded. Here we were in the middle of a warm and joyous Thanksgiving celebration, even as she was in such close contact with the human carnage unfolding in Mumbai, and she simply couldn’t fathom where all this evil was coming from, or what anyone could do about it.

The notion of this pleasant and polite Orange County mother confronted by the ugly face of cold-blooded jihadist terrorism halfway around the world left me speechless, too. What could I tell her? That I’m from Morocco, so I understand this kind of stuff? That I felt like strangling the murderers?

Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackSo I suggested she read a recent essay from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem written by its senior fellow, Martin Kramer, the world-renowned historian, author and biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. Although the essay isn’t connected to the Mumbai massacre, it touches on the broader issue of dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.

Kramer’s essay, titled, “What Do the Present Financial Crisis and U.S. Middle East Policy Have in Common?” draws an analogy between the headlong rush toward disaster in our financial markets and what he sees as a similar fate for our foreign policy. Behind both, he explains, is “a well-practiced mechanism for concealing risk.”

“The risk was there,” he writes of the financial crisis, “and it was constantly growing, but it could be disguised, repackaged and renamed, so that in the end it seemed to have disappeared. Much of the debate about foreign policy in the United States is conducted in the same manner: Policymakers and pundits, to get what they want, conceal the risks.”

By far the biggest danger Kramer sees today lies in how we conceal the risks associated with Islamic fundamentalism (or radical Islam, or jihadism, or Islamism, take your pick), which the West does in two ways:

First, it ignores the “deep-down dimension of Islamism,” which he describes as follows: “The enemies of Islam enjoy much more power than the believing Muslims do. But if we Muslims return to the faith, we can restore to ourselves the vast power we exercised in the past, when Islam dominated the world as the West dominates today.”

The second concealment relates to concessions: “We are told that the demands of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran are finite. If we give them a concession here, or a foothold there, we will have somehow diminished their demands for more concessions and footholds. But if their purpose is the reversal of history, then our gestures of accommodation, far from enticing them to give up their grand vision, only persuade them to press on.”

He explains that no amount of “engagement” can change that dynamic. In the Middle East, Kramer says, “there is harm in talking, if your talking legitimates your enemies, and persuades them and those on the sidelines that you have done so from weakness.”

He concludes that the least risky path for the United States is to “show the resolve and grit to wear and grind down adversaries, with soft power, hard power and will power.”

What Kramer is saying, in essence, is that it’s very risky to negotiate with evil forces that have a destructive and religious agenda, because they’re not motivated by grievances that can be accommodated.

Just like the moderate David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, wrote after the Mumbai attacks: “Much of the international community clings to the self-evidently risible notion that there are specific, legitimate grievances motivating the murders, and that these grievances can be sated and normal service resumed.”

In discussing the premeditated nature of the attacks, Horovitz added: “This is only the latest bloody declaration of war by the death-cult Islamists, seeking now to destabilize India, but ultimately threatening all of our freedoms.”

To our sophisticated Western minds, these are bitter and inconvenient truths that must be concealed. We much prefer making loud and grand gestures to create the illusion of forward movement. So we set up toothless U.N. commissions, or orchestrate fanciful peace-seeking spectacles like the one at Annapolis, and then we wonder why the only things that really move forward are violence and cynicism.

And when violence does strike, we get angry and bang on the table and make all this noise about our “Global War on Terror,” which only feeds into the jihadists’ pathology and apocalyptic visions — and helps them recruit even more jihadists.

Maybe it’s time we take a deep breath.

As we mourn and pray silently for the victims of Mumbai, maybe we ought to consider a quieter, more lethal approach to fighting the multi-headed serpent of Islamic terrorism, one that doesn’t play to the movement’s craving for high drama and worldwide media exposure.

Our goal should be to starve the murderers — of money, attention and prestige. We should fight them with every tool and weapon at our disposal and with maximum worldwide collaboration — but do it without fanfare, without honoring them with a loud war. We should target their training camps and “take them out” with commando raids — but do it without telling CNN. As we freeze their assets, we should also freeze their egos.

The only loud noise we should insist on is for moderate Muslims and their religious leaders to rise up in anger against their violent brethren who are desecrating the name of their God and their religion.

In short, we should treat Islamic terrorists like the losers and cowards that they are, and do everything we can to diminish their unearned status and prestige.

This is what I wanted to say to that mom from Orange County on Thanksgiving Day, but there were too many kids around.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.