And Get Thee Out: Jews and Hollywood

Rob Eshman, whom I admire a lot, and who argued strenuously — even pleaded — for his name not to be mentioned in this (but clearly lost), was nice enough to ask if
I would write something for this special issue of The Journal (which I admire — and read — a lot), and I was very flattered.

He suggested, as a general topic, Jews in Hollywood. Being a Jew in Hollywood myself, this sounded dandy to me.

Since life in general (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) is more or less constantly ironic, it made me shake my head to think how odd it is that every single person around the world, from Europe to Africa to the remotest parts of Asia, even to places there has never been electricity, let alone movies, would feel instantly and unshakably certain the words “Hollywood” and “Jews” were not only synonymous, but interchangeable.

You could find a tribe of 30 short, naked, isolated people near the Amazon (the river, not the bookseller), who don’t speak English and have never even seen another human for 700 years, and who are pretty sure the entire world actually ends at the edge of their forest; and if you parachuted into their village in the middle of the night, woke them up and screamed, “Quick! Who runs Hollywood?” every confused one of them would look at each other, shrug, and say, “Why, the Jews, of course. Everyone knows that.”

You could probably do the same thing on Mars.

Only we Jews would say, “Actually, that’s not true.”

Ah, well. Not the first time, eh?

I remember when the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” came out. Now, there wasn’t one element of this movie that involved Jews. The book (a beautiful story, by the way, by Nikos Kazantzakis) and the screenplay were not written by Jews, the stars were not Jews, the director (Martin Scorsese) was not a Jew, the producer was not a Jew, the cinematographer was not a Jew — well, you get the idea. But the head of Universal at the time, Lew Wasserman (who has since passed on), was Jewish, and that was enough to get lots of folks saying, “Aha! The Jews in Hollywood have done it again.”

Done what? I don’t know. I guess we just did it again.

I’ll bet if you went to the bar Mel Gibson got drunk at that night and looked hard enough, you could find a guy — three landlords and two owners and seven property managers ago — whose daughter’s old freshman roommate took an adult education pottery course in the ’70s from a Jew. Close enough. “The Jews did it to Mel!”

The only thing I know about being a Jew in Hollywood is that, to me, they are two completely separate and distinct things. Whatever the word “Hollywood” actually means, I’m an actor, a writer and a comic, and I love it all. I love show business. I’d be a hand model if anyone ever asked. (No one has, so far, but then again it’s only Monday morning.)

Being a Jew is different, and that’s why I titled this column, “And Get Thee Out.” As many of you know, we just read Lech Lecha this past Shabbos. (I still pronounce it “Shabbos,” because it reminds me of my parents.) This part of the Torah, with Vayerah coming right after, is some of the most shatteringly powerful Jewishness in my life, year in, year out. The Torah, and the Psalms, and so much else in the liturgy is often so moving to me I have to put it down and take a breath. It seems so real, so clearly “of God.”

I’m bringing that up because it was still so strongly with me this morning, I really wanted to talk about it with someone, even for just a couple of minutes; someone in my work, my world, the creative life. The Business. Someone I deal with all the time. Someone who would get it, who feels the same way I do, who hears the same music.

Well, my agents are Jews, and my manager is a Jew, and my entertainment lawyer is a Jew, and my publicist is a Jew, and the agent in New York who negotiated my book deal with Regan for “Spoiled Rotten America” is a Jew (Come on, folks, you didn’t expect me to go a whole article without getting a plug in, did you?) and the producer, director, stars and writers of a movie I’m in that screened Saturday night are Jews, and I really, really like them all, and respect them all, and admire their work and their families and their hearts very, very much.

But I couldn’t talk to them about Lech Lecha. They would have politely listened if I insisted, but have had no idea what I was so lit up about.

So I called my friend Jonathan Last in Washington, a great writer. He’s Catholic and religious, but I can talk to him about God and Jewishness in the greatest depth, and he always gets it. There are folks I could call around here, of course, and they’re Jews. Like my rabbi. But they’re not in show business.

This morning, I dropped my kids off at school but had to miss the minyan, because one of them had a thing in class he was doing. It’s a Jewish school, so I had my tallis and tefillin with me and figured I’d daven in the chapel alone. This happens a lot.

As I was going in, Cantor Judy Aronoff was coming out, someone I admire immensely, whose Jewishness and knowledge and kavanah shine like a sun. We talked for a moment, and then I went in and stood before the ark and davened. Then I got a cup of coffee at the cart Crystal runs out front every day, and drove to Universal.

So if someone asks me what it’s like to be a Jew in Hollywood, I swear I don’t know. I know what it’s like to be a Jew, and how far I’d like to go. I know what it’s like to be in “Hollywood,” and how far I’d like to go. But I don’t have the slightest idea of how the twain shall meet; unless, as Lou Costello once said, it’s “the twain on twack twee.”

So every day, as long as God gives me life, I’ll listen to His order, and “Get thee up, and get thee out.” Like today: I davened and came to work.

And decided to write this and tell you about it.

Actor, writer and comedian Larry Miller, whose next movie, “For Your Consideration,” opens Nov. 17, is the author of the new book, “Spoiled Rotten America” (Regan Books), but I guess you already know that.