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Jewish Journal

Hollywood Jews don’t profit from religious practice

by Danielle Berrin

March 3, 2010 | 4:59 pm

It’s tough to be religious in Hollywood.

How could it be otherwise, since the industry itself demands absolute devotion? Ask anyone how they got their start, and they’ll tell you amusing stories about early bosses who treated them like indentured servants.

They’ll tell you about the egos, the interminable hours, the impossible errands, the inadequate pay.

Back when I first moved to Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of working for a so-called billion-dollar producer. And the measure of my success in that position depended on only one thing: Could I single-handedly return an enormous Persian rug to Pottery Barn?

The exciting part was figuring out how to fit the rug — which I’m certain was delivered by a truck — into my 4-door sedan (at least that required more creativity than ordering lunch). Imagine my parents’ pride at their brave daughter driving through Santa Monica with 4 feet of woolen rug hanging out both sides of her car.

The first time I asked one of my many superiors — and superior in Hollywood means a far more evolved and elevated human being — if I could leave work a few hours early on a Friday, she replied, “If you want to do Shabbat, this isn’t the place for you.” Obviously, she was Jewish.

But she was right. There really is no Shabbat in Hollywood. Creation happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Which is actually nice proof that the lords of the movie business are not God. Even God took a break.

Success in Hollywood is consuming, and it demands all of you. There’s barely enough room for family, let alone commitment to a Jewish community.

There are always exceptions — the handful of rare souls who somehow manage to balance the rigors of Hollywood with the rigors of halachah. But, for the most part, Hollywood is anti-religious — unless you consider devotion to box office and fame a spiritual pursuit.

And why begrudge Hollywood Jews for being secular? That’s how they’ve always been — assimilated since the days of the industry’s Jewish founders. Secularism allows them to share the cultural values of Judaism and still eat treif at the commissary. That little trade-off has blessed us with the gifts of everyone from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks to Jon Stewart and Judd Apatow.

Because, secular or not, being Jewish means something in Hollywood.

“If you have that cultural background, you have an advantage without knowing why or without being able to name it specifically,” Sharon Waxman, founder and editor of the entertainment Web site The Wrap, told me during an interview last fall. Hollywood’s Jewish characteristic may be inexplicable, but it’s real, and it has in-house benefits. “It may not be fair, but I think that it’s true,” Waxman, who is Jewish, added.

The Jewish influence of Hollywood, while obvious on screen, is hardly limited to the movies. Let’s not forget the endless agents, executives, managers and lawyers who fuel the economy of the industry.

Take for instance, Ari Emanuel, the intemperate, bullying agent who is known to curse, threaten and cajole to get what he wants. What do you expect from a guy whose father was a member of the Irgun, an Israeli militant group that operated in British-mandated Palestine? Emanuel’s alter ego, Ari Gold, on the HBO series “Entourage,” is a lesson in Jewish ruthlessness and power. Maybe Gold is not the guy you want to marry, but he is definitely the tough, smart Jew you’d want negotiating your contract.

Emanuel’s covert merger-cum-takeover of the William Morris Agency last year cemented his status as one of the industry’s most feared and powerful figureheads. And as long as brother Rahm holds the highest office in the White House cabinet, the Jews are in able hands.

When it comes to articulating Jewish identity, Hollywood has the biggest pulpit. And the past year at the movies offered an eclectic take on Jewish themes and characters: There was the charming but devious male lead in “An Education,” whose seductive wiles sparked complaints of anti-Semitism; the Coen brothers’ Book of Job-inspired “A Serious Man,” which used the milieu of a Midwestern Jewish community to challenge ideas about faith; and who hasn’t heard of “Inglourious Basterds,” the stylish Tarantino film that indulged long-held Jewish lust for revenge against the Nazis?

Movies like these offer Jews the chance to do their favorite things: argue, analyze, challenge and argue some more. And even movies that don’t seem Jewish at all, like Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” or Nancy Meyers’

“It’s Complicated,” give Jews a good reason to scratch their heads and wonder why these smart Jewish women, who write with an urbane, sharp-tongued Jewish sensibility, insist on disguising their very Jewish characters by casting shiksa goddesses.

Aren’t there any middle-aged Jewish actresses out there?

Guess we’ll have to wait for Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz to sport a few wrinkles.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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