Jewish Journal

Hollywood’s visit to the Holy Land proves curtain raiser

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Dec. 13, 2007 at 7:00 pm

(From left) Nina Jacobson, George Freeman, David Lonner, Brad Silberling, Amy Pascal, Bernie Weinraub, Donald De Line and Davis Guggenheim

(From left) Nina Jacobson, George Freeman, David Lonner, Brad Silberling, Amy Pascal, Bernie Weinraub, Donald De Line and Davis Guggenheim

Davis Guggenheim wasn't raised Jewish, and he has long had trouble understanding what Israel means to him. But when he traveled there last month with a delegation of fellow entertainment decision makers, the director-producer realized instantly the centrality of Israel not just to his own life but to all humanity.

"It happens the minute you step off the plane: You just start to feel the history that has taken place there; the sense of time and history and the scale of human events is so huge, and it is easier to see your place in it," said Guggenheim, who was an executive producer of "Training Day" and director and executive producer of "An Inconvenient Truth." "In L.A., the scale of history is so short and miniscule and confusing because you don't have any references of time and place. [Israel] feels like the nexus of history and the nexus of everything that is good about the future and everything that is potentially cataclysmic."

Guggenheim was joined by former Paramount Pictures president Donald DeLine; George Freeman of the William Morris Agency; Nina Jacobson, former president of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group; Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and her husband, former New York Times writer Bernard Weinraub; and Brad Silberling, director of "Lemony Snicket's: A Series of Unfortunate Events." Sponsored by talent agent David Lonner and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the delegation of Hollywood heavy hitters landed in Tel Aviv the Friday before Thanksgiving, on the eve of the Annapolis peace conference, which added a bit of salience to their helicopter tour of the tiny slice of Mediterranean desert.

But the visit was no vacation. Five days. Four cities. Meetings with educators and entertainers, politicians and defensemen.

"The itinerary that they put together for us included so many expansive and thought-provoking conversations and experiences, from visiting the [Rogozin] School in Tel Aviv that is mostly for foreign workers, all of whom want nothing more than to be Israeli and serve in the military and be part of the citizenry and culture of Israel, and yet are from all around the world; meeting Rabbi Michael Melchior [who is a member of the Knesset and leads the left-wing religious party, Meimad]; studying Talmud at the Pardes Institute -- any one of these experiences would have been amazing to have," said Jacobson, now an independent producer for Dreamworks SKG. "Having them day after day was something I will never forget."

The group also visited an Israel Defense Forces school for counterterrorism, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, in addition to Jerusalem's holy sites and Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of kidnapped soldier, Ehud. On the final evening of the trip at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a coed nondenominational center for studying classic Jewish texts, movie producers and directors paired with mostly American students for a beit midrash study.

Their discussion centered on the story of a rabbi who had been separated for a while from his wife. She disguised herself as a prostitute, and he slept with her. Did he sin by sleeping with a woman he could not have known was his wife, and how would they move forward from this?

"We took talmudic narratives that dealt with sexual temptations, internal struggles, integrity. They were spot-on right away," said Rabbi Daniel Landes, the institute's director. "Here's people who know how to tell a story."

For years, Hollywood has had a tenuous relationship with Israel. Despite the prominent role of Jews in the entertainment industry, the Jewish state had been long kept at arms' length by the collective Hollywood consciousness. In the past few years, however, actors and directors, writers and producers have taken public positions of support for Israel -- notably in August, 2006, when 84 of the biggest names in town signed a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times supporting Israel in its fight against Hezbollah.

Through its Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, The Federation has organized minimaster classes here and in Israel so that the country's burgeoning entertainment industry can learn from Tinseltown. And last year in the wake of Israel's war in Lebanon, Lonner joined with The Federation to take influential people from Hollywood to the Holy Land.

"It was like a Birthright adult trip," said Lonner, co-head of the motion picture department at William Morris. "I'm trying to take a community that has been apathetic and engage them. And what better way to do that then taking them there?"

Lonner, whose mother was Israeli, plans to make this a yearly event, a focal point of his philanthropy. And The Federation couldn't be more grateful for the combination of his pull, passion and pocketbook.

"David's passion is unique; it's rare, and it is something we completely relish," said Meredith Weiss, director of The Federation's entertainment division.

For Guggenheim, Lonner's love for Israel was as curious as it was inspiring.

"I saw something that he had that I didn't understand," Guggenheim said. "I didn't have that with Israel. And it seemed to me like there was this mystery with Israel that he had sort of cracked."

He hadn't been to Israel since 1972, when his father was producing a documentary for the Israel government titled "May Peace Begin With Me."

"You could still very much feel the after-burn of a big war. And you expect Israel to feel that way. I felt like I would be scared every time I saw a bus or was near a cafe, because you always see that on TV," Guggenheim said. "But I never felt scared."

Jacobson was equally surprised by the two Israels -- the one she had seen on TV and the one she felt under her feet, the one portrayed as a war zone and the one that feels like home -- and was pleased to find Israelis comfortable talking about the place in between.

"As an American Jew and a liberal person, I had more mixed feelings about Israel before I went. If you follow the images in the news, what you tend to see is a lot of images of armed Israelis and wounded Palestinians," she said. "If you are a liberal person, it is hard to make peace with that. And frequently when you talk to a lot of American Jews, they are so defensive of Israel, and you can't have a sophisticated discussion. What I found amazing in Israel is people are having that discussion every day, and they are not defensive of the complexity of their daily lives."Jacobson had been to Israel once before, when she was 10 and therefor her brother's become bar mitzvah. This trip, though, was more memorable, and since returning last month, Jacobson has been telling many of her friends they shouldn't wait to visit Israel.

"It is a very effective mission to get people to come back and spread the gospel. As far as a viral marketing effort for Israel, it could not have worked better," Jacobson said. "I couldn't have come back feeling more educated and engaged and wanting to go back."

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