With some discomfort, I asked that question repeatedly of the 300-plus picketers in front of CBS Studio Center in Studio City on
Monday, the first day of the strike by the Writers Guild of America.
It was an awkward query not because I feared dismissal -- after accounting for noses and facial hair and eyeglasses, I was able to reduce uncertainty to about 20 percent -- but because I knew these TV and film writers did not see a connection between Yiddishkayt and the failed contract negotiations that spurred some 12,000 members of the WGA to go on strike at 9:01 p.m. Sunday.
"What's the Jewish angle?" Andrew Jacobson, a co-writer of "Not Another Teen Movie," asked me. "I don't see one except in the most stereotypical sense. This is an issue that affects people regardless of religion or race or gender. It's writers united."
Indeed, "Hollywood writer" is among the most Jewish job descriptions anywhere, which is why, as this long-anticipated strike approached, my editors asked me to report the news through a Jewish lens. The difficulty, however, is that this really isn't a Jewish story. It's a business story that just happens to deal with an industry built largely by Jewish immigrants and sustained by their successors.
Both sides of this fight count many Jews among their fold, and both claim the moral high ground -- the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers accuses "irresponsible" writers of endangering the entertainment industry and the L.A. economy; writers say they simply want their fair share of a hugely profitable business, as well as a the livelihood for middle-class scribes who spend most years out of work.
"The Jews have such a history of fighting for the worker, and there is certainly some beautiful text material for one to draw on in fighting a fight like this," said David N. Weiss, an observant Jew and WGA vice president. "But I would hate to have it characterized as a Jewish struggle. That would be just off the mark."
In the end, this story is about money.
"There is an ethical component, but this is business," said Robert J. Avrech, an Orthodox Jew who wrote "The Devil's Arithmetic." "I don't understand why people need to bring in a moral, ethical argument. This is about business, about our share of the profits. Why is anything more needed?"
The last writers strike, in 1988, was a 22-week affair that cut deep into the pocketbooks of Hollywood scribes, and many felt it ended with few gains. Observers expect this strike to be long and bitter, with the WGA pushing for increased payment on DVD sales and for residuals for original and recycled content played on the Internet.
"We live off the residuals, and if people are watching reruns on the Internet, it's going to change retirement plans for a lot of writers," said Eric Lapidus, a consultant on "Two and a Half Men."
Lapidus, who was picketing Monday in front of the main gate at the CBS lot, also has a lot to worry about right now. His journalist wife recently left the editorship at Angeleno magazine to give birth to their daughter and is now freelance reporting; he could be out of work for a long time. Fortunately, he said, the strike was anticipated, and he and his wife did what they could to prepare.
"Hopefully this will end soon," Lapidus said, rejoining the picket line after a brief break. "And if not, I'm going to get in good shape."
The writers marched in a circle. Young and old, successful writers and laboring grinders, wearing either blood-red union shirts or sweaters or cheap Ts with blue jeans and sneakers -- always sneakers -- picketed alongside each other. During the afternoon shift, children joined their parents on the line. Aiden Lewis, the 11-month-old son of TV writer Meghan McCarthy, sat smiling in his stroller, on which had been taped a sheet of paper that stated, "My mom's not greedy, she just wants to feed me."
This scene was repeated in four-hour shifts at 14 locations in Los Angeles and others in New York. This week, guild members were expected to spend 20 hours participating in the strike, either by picketing or volunteering at headquarters for WGA, West, at 7000 W. Third St.
"There are more Jews here than at my Hebrew school," said Alan Marc Levy, who wrote the TV movie, "Searching for David's Heart." "It's just that is who is swimming in the writing pool."