by Dena Feingold | PUBLISHED Aug 28, 2013 | Los Angeles
For the past eight years, the Chai Center has been holding High Holy Days services at the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Theater in Beverly Hills. This year, however, just weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz received a call from the WGA indicating that, because of construction, the theater space would not be available.
Scrambling for a space large enough to hold all the attendees, Schwartz enlisted help. “I had three people making multiple calls for weeks — we came up with nothing,” he said. “Finally, in the final hour, I ‘bumped’ into a location just two blocks from my home.”
Hi Point Studios, a sound stage on Pico near Fairfax, is an 18,000-square-foot facility that will become The Chai Center’s new locale for High Holy Days services. “My solution was not to give up, lest our … members not have a location to pray this year,” he said. “The benefit is that we are still in the heart of the city with plenty of space in their large studio room, which can seat 700 people.”
Transforming the venue requires renting a stage, seats and a white top tent and table to hold the center’s annual free New Year’s Eve Singles Party following services. “Many people just show up for the party,” Schwartz said. “Got to love our Jews.”
As it turned out, rental of the new location costs less than the WGA, and half of the center’s holiday budget is underwritten by Stanley Black, a former Chai Center honoree. “Our friend and supporter was happy to hear that we found a location for this year,” Schwartz said. “He was optimistic about our new location and has continued to underwrite half our High Holy Days budget — the rest comes from individual donors and the attendees that mail in a donation.”
The Chasidic Reform services—all the prayers are in English with traditional Chasidic songs—will be led by Schwartz, and the post-service party will offer up 10 cases of wine, 700 apples with honey and seven sheet cakes.
“With, thank God, 16,000 Chai Center subscribers, our staff is busy, at full throttle during the holiday season.” Schwartz said. “It’s like Christmas for Santa Claus right now—mucho busy now.”
When I was asked by The Jewish Journal whether I’d like to write something funny about the WGA strike, I thought — hey, there’s nothing funny about this:
corporate bullies refusing to pay writers for their work. This is serious.
But as my friend Rob Lotterstein, creator and executive producer of Fox’s “The War at Home” says, “Just because we’re not writing doesn’t mean we’ve lost our sense of humor.”
I see Rob at Friday’s rally in Fox Plaza, and he says: “This is like Yom Kippur for writers. We run into many of the people we would prefer not to see; I thought we hated each other but on a day like today … all is forgiven. We smile a too-broad smile, ask how they’re doing and wish them well.”
I can’t help but notice that we’re standing next to a table piled high with bagel halves spread with cream cheese schmears. It’s no secret that the Writer’s Guild has a greater-than-the-general-population proportion of Jews in its membership. Did the grocery store workers or the janitors union have bagels when they went out on strike?
I bet they had doughnuts. We have doughnuts, too — Krispy Kreme — and gourmet churros — but they’re being passed out by assistants, not rank and file. We know they’re assistants because they’re wearing baseball caps with agency names embroidered on them. They’re here to lend support, sent by the people who really stand to lose money in this strike: the agents. The cute 20-somethings from United Talent Agency proffer jumbo-size plastic trash bags filled with Power Bars. On the picket line two days ago at Sony, I watched a frail young man balance a cardboard tray of Starbucks cups offering, in a distinctive lilt: “Mocha? Anyone want a mocha? I’ve got one mocha left.” This is Hollywood; the privileges don’t die easy.
We have welcome support from SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild). The actors’ contracts come up in June, and they will have the same issue on the table: payment for work sold to new media. We know who they are, because they look so much better than we do. Writers tend to be dough-y and out of shape — all that compulsive eating to stem the anxiety of the blank page — we generally wear ill-fitting, faded T-shirts and “relaxed fit” jeans. Actors have to maintain a better body image. It’s their job. They work out and dress in clothes that show off their toned muscles. Anyway, we’re glad they’re here. More bodies — especially beautiful ones — on the line are a good thing.
The actors also draw the media. Here in Fox Plaza there are 4,000 writers, and yet all the cameras are trained on the two actors from “Reno 911” who’ve shown up in their sheriff’s costumes. Have you watched the show? They wear official-looking shirts and hats, but micro-mini shorts — at least the guys do. Well, I have to say, he does have great legs and an adorable butt. I can only imagine that casting call. Then there’s a gorgeous young actress, dressed in a diaphanous black cocktail dress appropriate only for an awards show. She’s floating through the crowd carrying a large sign, trimmed in ostrich feathers, that reads “DAY 5.”
The rally does what it’s supposed to: Make a lot of noise, buoy spirits, solidify determination and get us more coverage in the press and on the Web. Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine sing us a couple of “fight songs” — OK, not exactly Pete Seeger singing to coal miners, but I take a picture with my cell phone and call my daughter Molly at college to tell her. She gets off to call her boyfriend because apparently he’s a major R.A.T.M. fan. Later that night she sends me an e-mail of support telling me the O Bar in West Hollywood is offering Strike Specials. Solidarity!
The R.A.T.M. guys finish and Jesse Jackson speaks. I call my son, whose name is also Jesse, to tell him. “What’s Jesse Jackson doing there?” my Jesse asks, with his natural-born instinct to cut to the chase. The only answer I come up with is, “It’s win/win. Everybody gets a picture in the paper.”
Then the speeches from our leadership — our Executive Director David Young recalls how the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has made the identical disingenuous claims, over and over, every time there is a new development in entertainment: videocassettes, DVDs, cable and reality TV. They whine, “We don’t have a business model yet…. We aren’t making any money.” The crowd spontaneously erupts in a chant of, “Bulls–t! Bulls–t!”
Our chief negotiator, John Bowman shouts, “Come back to the table, baby! We can work it out.”
Seth McFarlane (creator, executive producer of “Family Guy” and the voice of Stewie) speaks with humor but decided strength when he tells us that on the third day of the strike all “Family Guy” assistants were fired by Fox. “Instead of negotiating, they lashed out at the little guy. What a classy move.”
Then he urges all show runners (executive producers like himself) to personally continue to pay their assistants while we’re out on strike. A truly classy move.
The best speaker is, no surprise, an actor! Alan Rosenberg, president of SAG (and Jewish, if you’re keeping score) pulls in cheers with lines like: “They worry about profit margins and we worry about paying our bills!”
I wonder, is the White House in his future? Or at least the California governor’s mansion? You may remember, Ronald Reagan started out as president of SAG. Of course, Reagan sold out the actors on residuals, while Rosenberg is fighting for them. A nice Jewish boy. Last, we hear from the much-venerated Norman Lear who buttons up the speeches with a laugh when he says, “I was here when we struck against the Pharaoh.” So I guess there is a Jewish influence on this strike line.
That’s my personal report from the ground. If you’d like a simple explanation of the real issues this strike is about, I recommend this YouTube video:
How do I know that? Because everyone is saying it’s not. The writers who are demanding a larger share of DVD rights and residuals for their work and the producers who refuse to give it to them both say, repeatedly, that despite the fact that so many of them happen to be Jewish, the strike is not — as Jewish writers and producers told our senior reporter Brad Greenberg last week — a Jewish issue.
To paraphrase a Clinton-era favorite, you can be sure that when everyone is saying it’s not about being Jewish, it’s about being Jewish.
Strip away the brand-name products and gossipy inside Hollywood milieu of this strike, and what you have is a question of fair compensation and just treatment of labor.
It is a question our sages wrestled with, beginning with a law laid down in Leviticus 25:14: “And when you sell something to your fellow, or buy from the hand of your fellow, don’t oppress each other.”
How shallow has our Jewish life become and how silent have our pulpits fallen when we blithely accept the idea that a 4,000-year-old ethical tradition has nothing to say about how we do business?
In my fantasy Jewish community, the writers strike would spur synagogues and other Jewish institutions to swing wide their doors and invite in Hollywood writers and producers to meet with rabbis and Jewish ethicists to discuss and debate their roles as ethical beings in society. The discussions wouldn’t be binding –just illuminating, thought-provoking and, perhaps, mind-changing.
“Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race that often comprises the marketplace,” writes Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School. “It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity. It is business ethics, one could posit, above all, that shows God co-exists in the world rather than God and godliness being separate and apart.”
In other words, rabbis aren’t there just to marry and bury us, and shuls don’t exist just to provide a backdrop for the bar mitzvah video.
The producers who kvell when their little girl or boy comes home from Hebrew school and recites the blessing over the challah might benefit from learning a little about the Hamotzi as well: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, you bring forth bread from the earth,” we recite.
But what is the Hamotzi but an affirmation that, as the sages said, “A blessing does not exist except through human hands.”
God makes wheat; humans, His partners in creation, make bread. The recognition that labor is intrinsic to realizing God’s gifts is foundational to Judaism: How we honor and reward it, how we show gratitude for what Rabbi Steven Z. Leder calls “the manna of work,” is worth discussion and debate — but I don’t see those kind of talks taking place amid the talks of this strike.
In some ways, it is like any other strike. I drive past Fox Studios on the way to work and see the writers walking their oval, wearing V-neck sweaters over solid T-shirts, holding their signs, cell phones and Starbucks. There are hardship committees and stories of guys this close to going into production on their very first show who suddenly find their career on the sidewalk. There are millions of dollars in lost revenues for the production support industries, from the people who make snacks on the set to the people who make the set.
In other ways, a Hollywood writers strike is — sorry — strikingly different. The 12,000 member Writers Guild is perhaps one-third Jewish. We’re not talking a line of longshoremen — the early morning sun, does not exactly, as Marx once wrote of French socialist workers, “shine upon us from their work-hardened bodies.”
E-mail notices about picketing locations include information on where to get parking validated. At stake for the consumer is not airline safety or garbage collection or medical care, but whether we can get our daily fix of “The Daily Show.”
So the writers, if they can’t rely on threats to public health or safety or outrage, have only two arrows in their quiver: the economic argument and the moral one.
As to the first, good luck. The Hollywood producers have a history of holding out and pleading poverty. During the Great Depression, the studios decided to peremptorily cut the salaries of actors and writers by 50 percent, Neal Gabler relates in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “Weary and moist-eyed,” Louis B. Mayer explained the grave situation of his studio’s financial health to his MGM “family.” Most of them offered their whole-hearted support, stepping up to help poor Mr. Mayer out by accepting the cut. When it was over, Mayer, on the way back to his office, turned to his associate Ben Thau and asked, “How did I do?”
A few weeks after that meeting, Hollywood writers formed the Screen Writers Guild to represent them.
“Louis B. Mayer,” quipped screenwriter Alfred Hackett, “created more communists than Karl Marx.”
But of course it is not commies on the picket lines I see; it is card-carrying, Prius-driving, private-school-tuition-paying capitalists. All they want is a somewhat larger share of the fortune that new technologies like DVDs and the Internet are bringing into studios.
For some reason lost on simple outsiders like me, the sides can’t split the difference. Perhaps writers think this time will be different. Perhaps studios think the Internet and reality TV has made pesky creative types superfluous. At a restaurant last week, our Senior Editor Adam Wills overheard a producer at the next table boast that he could do a reality TV version of “The Office” just by putting a camera in … an office.
So if the economics are at an impasse, even more reason to engage the sides over the respective morality of their positions. It is here rabbis and ethicists can at least be reaching out — God knows the writers have time to attend some lunch-and-learn sessions, and their fellow congregants, the producers, would make the time, if the rabbi dared ask.
Oren Kaplan, the director of ‘Miram and Shoshana’ and writer (and Journal contributor) Seth Menachem are the brains and brains behind this new video ‘WGA Strike Gets Violent’. They add this note:Studios: Please do what’s fair before things get too bloody on the streets of Los Angeles.