February 28, 2020

Hollywood Writer Aron Eli Coleite on Writing From Jewish Values

Aron Eli Coleite

After the apocalypse wipes out the world’s adult population — turning some into zombies and obliterating the rest — it’s up to the teens of Glendale to rescue their friends from feral gangs trying to survive in the new world order. 

In the Netflix series “Daybreak,” (which was canceled in December) these teens protect themselves by wielding swords, golf clubs and all manner of weapons: except guns. This omission is deliberate, creator Aron Eli Coleite told the Journal, because the series was greenlit after the Feb. 14, 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and because it’s an expression of his Jewish values.

“If kids were reinventing the world … they wouldn’t be hung up on guns and LGBTQ issues the way adults are. They’d approach it through their own lens,” Coleite said. “My Jewish identity is wrapped up in ideals of social justice, community and what it means to be an extended family, [in] who you surround yourself with and [how you] fight for a world that’s better. The kids of “Daybreak” are fighting for that… This is how we change the world. The Jewish soul of the show is the liberal Jewish agenda. I’m not apologizing for it.”

There are some inherent Jewish moments in “Daybreak,” including a techno “Havah Nagilah” that plays over a frenetic segment. One character, Mona Lisa, criticizes another for “giving us grief like a Jewish bubbe” and another issues a sharp, somewhat random “Shabbat shalom, bitches” to a group of apocalypse survivors. 

When Netflix canceled “Daybreak,” it also scuttled Coleite’s Season Two plan to explore Mona Lisa’s identity as a young Jewish woman of color, adopted by two gay dads. Coleite said he wanted to tell the story of someone who felt “like an insider and an outsider” in her Jewish community.

“In a world where there are so many shows, it’s really hard to make sure you have honest voices for the diversity of our world,” he said. “My hope is that we get to tell our unique and original stories that speak to an audience that makes it feel universal to everyone, even if it’s a Jewish story.” 

“My hope is that we get to tell our unique and original stories that speak to an audience that makes it feel universal to everyone, even if it’s a Jewish story.” — Aron Eli Coleite

Coleite’s Jewish connections run deep. He grew up attending Valley Beth Shalom, went to and staffed camp at Hilltop and Hess Kramer and met his wife through various Jewish involvements including Ramah Israel Seminar. The family lives in Los Feliz and belongs to IKAR, which “reminded us of our experience at summer camp and with powerful rabbis.” he said, mentioning the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, and IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous. Those camps, he said, were “based around social justice and community involvement. The people there were scrappy and welcoming and wanted to change the world.” 

He always knew he wanted to be a writer. But over the years, his family — among them rabbis and psychologists — had some concerns about his professional future. “My overnight success took 25 years,” he said, “so it was a constant question at the seder table or Shabbat dinners. They would ask this in the way only a Jewish parent can, both passive aggressive and aggressive at the same time, [saying] ‘It’s time to give up on your dream and be realistic’ and at the same time say ‘I believe in you.’ ” 

He even considered an industry executive job but “I searched my heart and said, ‘I don’t want to give up on this.’ ” He recommitted to “consistently pushing myself to continue writing no matter what. Writing is an art that I truly believe anybody can do. A lot of this is talent and luck but I believe talent can be learned. If you work at anything hard enough you can become a master. I’m still working.” 

After serving as a writer’s assistant on “Party of Five,” he got his first staffing job on “Crossing Jordan,” then worked on “Heroes” among other shows, en route to showrunning “Daybreak.” 

People who want to be writers can always find time to write, he said. “To direct, you need actors, money and a camera, other people to help you. Acting, same thing. You need to get a role. But the only person stopping you from writing is yourself.”

Coleite said he relies on his children ages 14, 12 and 5 for inspiration. “I want to write something they can watch, laugh and cry at a coming-of-age story, and find resonance in the work that I do. Coming-of-age stories are timeless. It’s one of the most important times in your life, when you’re trying to find out who you are.” 

“Locke and Key,” a supernatural horror drama Coleite co-developed based on Joe Hill’s comic book of the same name, currently is streaming on Netflix. Coleite also wrote the show’s first episode about a family that discovers a series of keys that unlock magical abilities. 

“The whole journey as a writer is about different amounts of failure, picking myself up and doing it again, trying to do it different and better the next time,” he said. “If it has anything to do with my Judaism, it’s knowing that you can find hope in any of our Jewish stories. A lot of my steadfastness in overcoming adversity has a little bit of a Jewish soul.”