May 12, 2005
Israeli artists flock to Los Angeles to fulfill their dreams.
Call it the new gold rush.
While Israelis have long flocked to Los Angeles to escape economic and political difficulties back home, artists and performers are increasingly coming to mine gold from the hills -- especially the Hollywood Hills -- in this arts and entertainment capital. They perceive the city as ripe with possibilities that do not exist back home; as a megalopolis where residents have money and time to patronize the arts; as a show business mecca with more job opportunities than anywhere else in the world. They come, as painter Simon Sananas put it, because they "want to make it big, not small." The Journal recently spoke to Israeli-born Angelenos about why they moved here, how they did it, and if they really did find that artistic Golden Land in the Golden State.
Noa Tishby. Photo by Eyal Nevo
Several years ago, a producer suggested that Israeli celebrity Noa Tishby pack her bags for California.
"'If you make wine, you live in France. If you make watches, you live in Switzerland. And if you're in show business, you live in Los Angeles,'" the producer told Tishby.
At the time, the glamorous performer was a household name in Israel, an actress and singer who first earned national attention playing what she calls "the bitch" on "Ramat Aviv," the Israeli TV equivalent of "Melrose Place." Her sultry image adorned billboards, gossip columns and fashion magazine covers.
Even so, she listened to that producer, and immediately canceled her Israeli TV show and her album in the making. So, a few years ago she arrived in Los Angeles with just two suitcases and a green card she'd obtained for having demonstrated extraordinary ability in her field. Within several months, she had an apartment on Doheny, a Chrysler convertible and a manager she had met through her producer friend.
"I wasn't scared at all," the 20-something beauty said of leaving superstardom for the unknown. "I want to create the most interesting roles in the biggest movies ever. I don't want to wake up one day at 40 and say, 'I wish I had tried.' Plus, my Israeli military training gives me a thick skin."
Not that Hollywood was easy.
"You come over and you have a background of being already established in your country and nobody cares," she said. "I had this huge press kit and a show reel but it was unusable, because it was in Hebrew. I had to start again from scratch."
It helped that Tishby has long been able to speak unaccented English in various dialects; more challenging was learning the new cultural language.
"Israelis are very direct and up front, and here, that can come off as rude," she said of her own behavior. Tishby was also surprised by the circumspect, "We'll call you" response from some in the industry.
"In Israel, it's, 'You got the job,' or 'You didn't get the job,'" she said. "Moreover, you can get anyone on the phone, eventually, in Israel. Here you have to go through three secretaries, 10 assistants and three weeks of waiting. That was a big shock for me."
Back home, Tishby never had to wait long for that callback. By age 16, she was already a "name" in Israel, having played the female lead in the cult hit musical, "David." Screaming fans surrounded her after Ramat Aviv premiered, while she was completing her army service. Her debut album, "Nona," hit No. 1 on the country's charts. Tishby also portrayed Anita in the national theater's production of "West Side Story," along with numerous film and TV roles.
"I did the 'glam' stuff, but I always backed it up with work," she said of her serious roles.
Tishby continued to work hard in Los Angeles, earning one break playing the Hollywood wannabe, Carrie, in the 2003 indie film, "Connecting Dots." Guest spots followed on TV shows such as "Nip/Tuck," "CSI: Miami," "The Drew Carrey Show" and "Las Vegas," which allowed Tishby " to play with guns and explosives with James Caan for three weeks," she said.
The actress recently wrapped the political thriller, "Fatwa," in which she portrays a leading role opposite Lauren Holly, and Michael Bay's futuristic "The Island, in which she plays a community announcer whose image is beamed across the city.
"Knowing that I'm going to be all over the world in a $130 million Michael Bay movie, that's a huge break," she said. "That doesn't usually happen in Israel."
"Of course, fame, to me, is an outcome of doing what I love. But on the set, I went back to being this little girl from Tel Aviv. I couldn't believe it was me and Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. I was going, 'That's why I'm here. That's why I'm in L.A.'"
Simon Sananas knows how to mix art and commerce.
Painter-sculptor Simon Sananas knows how to mix art with commerce. Outside his sunny studio upstairs at Shalhevet High School, a large banner proclaims, "Sananas' Art: High on Quality, Affordable on Price." Star-shaped stickers announce special offers for regular patrons. A stunning mixed-media painting from his abstract "Sky and Earth" series compares the retail fee, $9,100, to the discount, $5,005. A Washington, D.C., gallery has offered to show the series, which Sananas considers his best work so far.
"But there are other things I do mainly for parnassah, to make money," he said, pausing beside a beautifully rendered watercolor of an iris.
The ebullient 41-year-old explained that finances were one reason he knew he had to come to the United States.
"In Israel, you say you're an artist and people stare at you," he said. "There's nothing like 'artist' as a title for a job; you have to do something else to earn a living."
Back in the late 1990s, Sananas was doing something else -- working as a security guard -- and painting in a bomb shelter the Israeli government had allowed him to use free as a studio near Tel Aviv. Although he had won two national prizes, "I was chasing after art galleries and museums," he said. "People were too busy with war, with intifada, with the bad economy to think about art."
Sananas felt extra pressure to succeed because his father had been a famous furniture designer whose work still stands in the Jordanian king's palace.
"Then one day in 1999, I was sitting in my bomb shelter and there was a song of Shlomo Artzi screaming on the radio about trying 'one last time,'" he recalled.
I screamed his words and I knew I had to try to come to America, because here I could become a better artist; I could find the emotional space and opportunity to produce."
That summer, Sananas landed a teaching job at Camp Ramah, where he persuaded his bosses to allow him to create a giant mezuzah sculpture with the children. The resulting "Tree of Aleph-Bet" is 40 tons, 50 feet tall and possibly "the largest mezuzah in the world," he said. "I had been here just two months and already I had completed the biggest project of my life so far."
On his days off, Sananas drove his Rent-a-Wreck jalopy to galleries all over Los Angeles; while no one accepted his portfolio, his Camp Ramah contacts helped him secure a youth activities job at the Sephardic Educational Center and free housing owned by Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. Because the apartment provided no room for his studio, Sananas painted in a tent in the yard for six months, braving summer heat, winter wind, and dust that regularly settled in his oil paintings. "Had [headmaster] Jerry Friedman not called from Shalhevet, I don't know that I would have survived that tent," he said.
Friedman, who is also an art collector, hired Sananas as Shalhevet's artist-in-residence, helped him obtain a religious worker's visa and provided him with a three-room studio. Today, he earns a salary that allows him to support his family and spends every free minute in the studio, often painting until 11 p.m.
His diligence has paid off. Sananas was accepted to the 2005 New York Art Expo, where he sold 14 pieces and earned the equivalent of half his annual salary in four days. He also met curators of a Washington, D.C., gallery that will show his "Sky and Earth" series and representatives of a company that may reproduce his more commercial work for sale at stores such as Target and Ross. The Jewish Center for Culture and Creativity has proved supportive, helping him enter a San Diego Jewish art show, among other assistance.
Although his sales are improving, Sananas will continue living in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and two sons until savings allow him to safely upgrade.
But he has no complaints about life in Los Angeles.
"In the six years I've been here, I've produced more art than in all my 36 years in Israel," he said.
"One reason I'm here, honestly, is adventure," said 23-year-old actress Netta Most. "While a lot of my friends went traveling after the army, I went to pursue acting, my passion, in the United States."
Her adventure led her first to New York, where she was born and lived until age 5, to study at the prestigious Circle in the Square school. Afterward, practical reasons brought her to Los Angeles: "My goal isn't necessarily to become the biggest star, but to become a working actor and to make a decent living from my art," the upbeat actress said. "In Israel, only the biggest stars make a good income, but in Hollywood, unknown actors can earn good salaries by landing commercials or modest TV and film roles."
In late 2004, Most settled in a shared West Hollywood apartment furnished with hand-me-downs and good buys from Ikea. A bookshelf she put together is now filled with dramas by playwrights such as Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams. She secured representation "through an Israeli friend who knew the cousin of the father of the agent," and on her very first audition, she landed a guest-starring role as "an 18-year-old Jewish neo-hippie" on HBO's "Six Feet Under." "It was the most exciting experience I've had as a working actor," she said.
Perhaps the blonde haired, blue-eyed performer earned the Jewish role because of the Israeli credits on her resume, although they have also worked against her.
"My agent often tells me he has to promise people that I don't have an accent, but I won't remove those credits because I'm proud of who I am," said Most, who speaks perfect English. "The downside is that people assume you're not what they're looking for in an American role."
Another downside is that the "Six Feet Under" gig is the only job she's secured since arriving in Los Angeles.
"It sucks at times, the fact that I'm not a working actor," she said. "The hardest part is feeling that I don't get enough auditions. For the time you don't go out a lot it becomes frustrating, and sometimes it's easy to forget why you're here and why shouldn't I just go back to Israel and try this where I have friends and family. But I've been able to pick myself up, hang in there and enjoy the journey."
Most focuses on her craft, which she relishes even when performing in acting class or on auditions. She also enjoys being 23 and living in a fun city. Her hostessing job at an upscale restaurant frequented by celebrities, for example, feels like "having a party." Along with a part time office job, the restaurant gig allows her the flexibility to attend acting classes and auditions during the day.
And then Los Angeles has proven to be far more invigorating than she initially expected.
"People say L.A. is so fake, so driven, but there's something to be said about a city that's filled with people trying to fulfill their dreams," she said. "I had expected it might be discouraging to be surrounded by so many people doing exactly what I'm trying to do, but it's been a great energy.
"The bottom line is that this is a wonderful experience and I'm lucky enough to go for my dreams," she added. " I have jobs, I'm living in Hollywood and I'm young. For now, I'm just trying to do my thing in L.A."
When one critic called the independent film, "Mean Creek," "an impressive and promise-filled big screen debut," he was talking about writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes and his film about a boy's retribution against a grade school bully. But he also could have been describing producer Hagai Shaham, 36, who brought his Israeli-style tenacity to financing the film and to braving Hollywood in general.
Between fielding calls on his cell phone, the blunt, direct Shaham said he had been fascinated by movies as a child, although filmmaking wasn't considered an acceptable career in the Haifa neighborhood of scientists in which he grew up near the Technion.
Shaham was accepted to the Technion's electrical engineering department, but he found the atmosphere so depressing that he persuaded his father to let him study cinema at Tel Aviv University for three years. He dropped out to work in the Israeli film industry, eventually as a line producer, but ultimately found the business to be a dead end. "I knew I wanted to produce, because I'm good at getting things done and working with people, but I couldn't find any [producing] role models I could look up to," he said. The Israeli industry is very auteurish, even more writer-director driven than here, he said.
"And the industry is very small, with only about 11 features made per year, all in Hebrew, which limits you in terms of budget and the kind of talent you can have. But if you make a film in English your audience is the whole world."
In September 1998, Shaham moved to Hollywood to attend the American Film Institute's (AFI) producing program, but again dropped out of school, this time after a year, because he felt the curriculum covered ground he had already learned in the Israeli industry.
"Then it was a lot of struggle, financially and in terms of difficulties of the business," he said.
Shaham worked security jobs until he opened an online business with an AFI classmate, producing English language content for Israeli Internet companies. Through his partner's music industry contacts, Shaham and other AFI alumni eventually began producing electronic press kits for major labels, establishing a reputation for doing good work inexpensively. Eventually Shaham graduated to creating music videos for groups such as Duran Duran and Good Charlotte.
He got the "Mean Creek" job the same way he has secured most work in this country, through his AFI contacts. He hadn't known Estes well at school, but he knew the filmmaker had won a prestigious AFI fellowship, so when the opportunity arose to produce Estes' debut, he enthusiastically signed on. Thereafter, the filmmakers approached "every independent production company in town, at least 100 of them, but everybody passed," he said.
Shaham knew that obtaining financing would be tricky, since the film featured a first-time writer-director and a cast of mostly unknown child actors. The solution was to cut the proposed $3 million budget to $500,000 and to defer some salaries for cast and crew.
So how did he raise money?
"You have to be smart about making the first call, because the easy and natural response in this town is rejection," he said. "It's how not to get rejected, which is tricky. It has to do with networking, with bringing the right project to the right person at the right time in the right way."
The producer was rewarded when the film won a prize at the Independent Spirit Awards and screenings at Cannes and Sundance. While Shaham said he earned "barely any salary" from the movie, the attention has opened doors for him in Hollywood, which helps as he is looking for another film project.
Meanwhile, he continues to earn his living through music videos, and is working on obtaining his green card.
"I was not illegal [for a single day] in this country, but it's been a huge hassle," he said of visas in general. "It costs a lot of money and it's always worrisome when you go in and out of the country. By the time I get my green card, I estimate I will have paid $20,000 in attorney's fees."
Shaham's Israeli tenacity helps, as it does in his producing career. "It has to do with a relentlessness, a determination Israelis have, which has to do with our existence," he said.
Noa Dori aspires to pop stardom.
On a recent Tuesday, Noa Dori was zipping around town in the 1993 Volvo she had owned for one week, attending a morning studio session in Garden Grove, a noon meeting with a potential producer in Marina del Rey and a dinner meeting with a possible investor in Beverly Hills.
"In my two months in Los Angeles, I've discovered that the keywords are 'let's do lunch,' so I'm putting myself out there," said the intense, 24-year-old opera singer turned aspiring pop diva. "I go to lots of events, parties and film festivals, where I am introduced to people as a singer. This city is all about mingling and making contacts, so I try to meet as many people as I can."
At first glance, it's surprising to imagine the acclaimed soprano coloratura "doing lunch" and pop music in Los Angeles. By age 14, Dori was performing leading roles with the Israeli opera in Israel and Europe; she sang with the Israel Philharmonic and the Red Army Orchestra in Moscow, among other achievements.
Dori explained that she began singing pop as well as opera "because I wanted to create my own music, pop tinged with Israeli and classical influences. I wanted to sing work that speaks to me, that is personal, rather than just Mozart's 'Queen of the Night.'"
She moved to the United States, she said, "because if I want to make it big, I should be here. My dream is to have a successful album and to win the Grammy Award for best new artist."
Dori was still emphasizing classical music when she arrived in this country a couple years ago, studying classical music on scholarship with teachers from the Metropolitan Opera. In New York, she scraped by financially by performing at charity events, sometimes subsisting for several days in a row on bagels and water.
After a year of such struggle, she sought refuge with cousins in Toronto for several months, visiting Los Angeles a few times to see if she could establish a base from which to break into pop music.
While sitting in a cafe during one such trip, a manager spotted Dori and suggested she appear in concert on a Beverly Hills cable channel. It wasn't like the Hollywood legend of Lana Turner getting discovered at Schwab's drugstore, but it was a start -- an appearance that earned Dori jobs performing classical and pop music at Beverly Hills city events.
By spring 2005, she was living in a partially furnished apartment in Sherman Oaks, teaching voice lessons and singing at events for groups such as Magbit and the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble.
"It's a bit scary being alone again, not having family around, and making sure I have enough money to support myself," she said. "Right now I feel I'm right on the line. It still worries me, because when you're unstable in you're life, it's harder to fully commit to your goals."
Nevertheless, Dori's talent and networking is moving her closer to those goals; she said she recently received a private grant to help pay for accent reduction classes and producers are subsidizing her daily work in the studio, where she's fine-tuning a demo of her original pop music. She continues to write and practice on her keyboard at least two hours a day.
"I have my own deadline," she said. "By the end of next month, I will have my demo ready. One month after that, I will perform a showcase concert [for music executives]."
Her hope is that she will then sign a record deal with a major label, make an album and go on tour with her own show.
Of course, Hollywood is a difficult town, so does Dori have a backup plan if the studios don't come calling?
"There is no backup; I'm going to do it," she said, firmly. "I haven't thought about not getting signed because I have so many established people from the business who believe in me.
As for striving to make it in Los Angeles, she said, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Frank Sinatra sang that about New York, but I'm going to do it in L.A."