October 18, 2018

Justin Bieber’s Jewish father figure, Scooter Braun

Just before his sold-out Madison Square Garden concert in the new 3D documentary “Justin Bieber:  Never Say Never,” the munificently-coiffed teen crooner does something unexpected of the object of millions of girl-crushes around the globe:  He recites the “Shema.”

Bieber says the prayer with his Jewish manager, Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, the 29-year-old music business maven who discovered the singer on YouTube four years ago and has scheduled Bieber’s first concert in Israel on April 14.  The show at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, which is expected to draw at least 60,000 viewers, will take place several days before Passover; while other artists have declined to perform in Israel for political and/or security reasons, Bieber and his mother, Pattie Mallette, a born-again Christian, are excited about visiting the Holy Land.  “Justin [even] told me he wanted to rearrange his touring schedule because he wants to do seder in Israel,” Braun said in a phone interview.

In the film, Braun – a Camp Ramah alumnus —figures prominently as a crucial father figure in Bieber’s life.  A marketing genius previously known for discovering rapper Asher Roth, Braun comes off as the patriarch of the “functional dysfunctional family” surrounding Bieber:  protecting him from screaming fans, making sure he recovers from a case of strep throat, ordering him to stop talking so much, as teenagers are wont to do, when his vocal chords remain inflamed.

Braun doesn’t discuss his Jewish background in the film, but he does describe how his expert nudging made Bieber a star.  Braun was browsing the Internet one evening when he came across one of Bieber’s homemade YouTube videos:  “I’ve got to find this kid,” he decided on the spot.  “I became obsessed.”

Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, who at the time was living with her son in Stratford, Ontario, was at first distrustful of this pushy outsider.  But Braun won her over during a three-hour conversation in which he described his values, his emphasis on family and stories about how Braun himself was raised.  “My father would tell me that if no one in the room is being a man, you must stand up and be a man,” he said by way of example.

Braun also had a question for Mallette:  “I had seen a video of Justin singing some Christian songs and I found stuff online about how Christian Pattie was, so I said, ‘Look I just want to bring up something right off the bat:  I’m a Jew, does that make you uncomfortable?’” It did not, and Braun went on to use the Internet in a unique marketing strategy that made Bieber, in a relatively short 18 months, the most popular teenager in the world.

“With Justin,”  Braun told me, “I find myself sounding like my father a lot….The only way I’m going to have Justin transcend into an adult artist and continue the career he wants is if he understands the responsibilities he has.  If I don’t teach him how to be a man, he’s not going to be able to handle any of the pressure, or to take any accountability for his own actions, and he’s going to grow up to be exactly what everybody is expecting him to be, which is the teen star who then gets into drugs and alcohol and blows it all away. And I’m not going to let that happen to him.  I tell him, ‘Let me make this clear to you, Justin. You are not normal, you are extraordinary, so you will be held to extraordinary standards, which is the way I was raised.’”

How does one discipline a teen idol?  “You take away his phone, you take away his computer, you cancel something in his career so he can understand that we don’t just care about that,” Braun said.  “He’s got a curfew, he can’t just go spend his money, he can’t just do anything he wants, he has responsibilities, and he also has to show respect to people.”  Example:  When Bieber’s interview for a Vanity Fair cover story made him run late for a book signing, Braun had the teen apologize to the waiting journalists whose interviews would have to be rescheduled. 

The Vanity Fair cover shows Bieber covered with red lipstick kiss marks, and his tie, which is askew, appearing to be grabbed by the hand of a woman just out of frame.  How does Braun reconcile that image with the fact that his protégé is just 16?  “It’s a boy with kiss marks on his face, and I don’t think people should read that much into it,” Braun replied.  “It’s saying that Justin is loved and adored by girls….I didn’t have him with his shirt off, or in his underwear.”

How does Braun talk to Bieber about being the object of so much sexuality?  “It’s the same way I [deal with] everything else; we have to live within modern times and we have to be responsible for our actions,” he said.  “And the way Justin carries himself— he’s a role model—and I think he’s carrying himself as that role model; I don’t think he’s crossed any line at all.  There are parents, or older people who have been shocked to see him running around with his shirt off in a water fight in the movie.  But I don’t think that means he’s trying to be a sex symbol. I think if people are looking at it as ‘Oh my gosh, what is he doing,’ then maybe they should ask themselves why they’re looking at him like that.”

At this point in the interview, Braun, who hasn’t eaten all day, puts his father, Dr. Ervin Braun, on the phone, while assuring me he will “scarf” his In-N-Out burger so that we can continue our discussion.  Ervin Braun, a dentist, describes how his father survived Dachau and Mauthausen, and how his mother, who entered Auschwitz at 14, was the sole survivor of her family.  The dentist is named for one of his uncles who died of an infection shortly after liberation.  He was born in Budapest, where his parents met after the war:  “And then in 1956, when the Hungarian revolution broke out, my father orchestrated a spectacular escape through the night, literally on a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside until we got to the Austrian border,” he said.

Ervin Braun describes his family story as similar to Steven Spielberg’s animated Jewish immigrant saga, “An American Tail.”  “There was no persecution in America – that’s what we came here for,” he said.  “And my own son is a shining example of what opportunities one can find here.”

Apparently the young Scooter Braun was just as precocious a tween as Bieber.  One day he came home from Middle School in Greenwich, CT and announced big plans for winning a National History Day contest.  He made a 10-minute film, “The Hungarian Conflict,” “about my family, the Hungarian Jews and what they went through during the Holocaust.”  Braun won third place, even though he had had to primitively edit his video between two VCRs.  His grandmother sent the video to Steven Spielberg, who forwarded it to the United States Holocaust Museum, where it is still shown.  And Braun still has the letter Spielberg sent him praising the video; it’s framed in his Atlanta office.

The conversation steers back to how Bieber came to recite the “Shema” in the documentary, which opens on Feb. 11.  Apparently Bieber and his crew began forming “prayer circles” before each show, led by Mallette.  “I felt like if we were going to say a prayer ‘in Jesus’ name, amen,’ that Dan Kanter [the show’s music director] and I, who are Jewish, should be represented as well,” Braun said.  “We’d do the same if we had someone Muslim or Hindu in the group – we’re all-inclusive.  So Dan and I would say the ‘Shema,’ and after the third show, as we were about to say it, Justin chimed in.  I asked him, ‘What the heck was that?’ and he goes, ‘I memorized it.’  He was like, ‘This is something Jesus would have said, right?’ and I said, ‘yes,’ and he’s like, ‘Then I want to say it with you guys.’  I explained that it’s one of our holiest prayers, and that it means the Lord is one and he thought that was cool.  He knows it’s in ancient Hebrew; he knows that Jesus would have said it and since Dan and I are every close to him, he wanted us to feel included as well.  He’s a very special kid.”