If this were any other crowd, the speaker wouldn’t dare dish so freely about Steven Spielberg.
But in the odd cabinlike setting at Morrie’s Fireplace, the private AISH outpost on Pico Boulevard, film director Brad Silberling is among — well, if not friends — fellow Jews. Which is exactly how the Jewish Entertainment Network (JenLA) likes it: This is a members-only club for members of the tribe. Tonight’s topic: Emotional Survival.
Hollywood is not for the faint of heart, Silberling tells a group of 40 or so young Jews who work in entertainment. Create a family, have a spiritual life, Silberling urges. “You have to find a way to shore yourself up.” No matter how successful you become, you will have doubts. You will have trials. You will one day feel stale.
To make it, “There’s a human resource that’s required,” Silberling says.
Although the director deprecated his “profoundly unsexy” topic, it is just the sort of deep and candid conversation that often takes place at JenLA, a salon-style gathering that brings the industry’s neophytes into proximity with its leading lights. Call it the Jewish version of Soho House, a gathering hole for the creative, where they can eat, drink, get close to the stars, maybe even collaborate, and all for the bargain price of $10.
Created by the Australian-born, Israeli-raised film composer Aaron Symonds, who lives in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, JenLA was designed to connect Jews in entertainment with ... other Jews in entertainment. If it sounds like a redundancy of greater Hollywood, that’s because it is. But rather than downplay the stereotype about Jewish power in Hollywood, JenLA happily exploits it.
“We don’t accept everybody — you have to be a Jew,” Symonds told me over coffee one recent morning. “How do you define a Jew? That’s up to you. I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.”
Although it sounds tribal, it’s an astonishingly open statement for someone who has spent the better part of his 32 years living in Israel’s Mea Shearim — an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Jerusalem, where, he said, “If you had a TV, that was grounds for expulsion.” A self-described outsider in that insular world (Symonds’ mother was a convert, and his father, a ba’al teshuvah who embraced Orthodoxy later in life), Symonds was exposed by this parents to some of the normalcies of secular culture. When he was 10, he saw his first Shakespeare play; at 13, his first film. Cinema inspired a far different revelation than the one he was accustomed to; once he realized he could parlay his musical skill into a job in movies, it wasn’t long before “the siren song of Hollywood” seduced him.
But a black hat in Hollywood can be an ill-fitting costume.
“When you come to L.A. and you don’t know anyone and you don’t have anything lined up, it can be a very impersonal, cold, tough industry,” Symonds recalled. He was fortunate enough to connect with other observant Hollywood Jews, like the writer-producer David Sacks, who had worked on “The Simpsons” and “3rd Rock From the Sun,” as well as the television writer Brian Ross, who offered guidance and support. “I wanted to find a way to give a lot of that back to other people.”
In 2009, he founded JenLA, which he hoped could address the challenges of being a religious Jew in Hollywood. “If you’re Jewish and working in entertainment, you have to deal with things that non-Jews don’t, practical things, like having a business meeting in a non-kosher restaurant. How do you manage? How do you deal with that?”
He hosted the first salon, with Sacks as the speaker, in his own apartment, and 40 people showed up. Over the next three years, he grew the project, investing $3,000 of his own money, and began to attract an impressive list of speakers, including reality TV guru Gil Goldschein, president of Bunim/Murray Productions; the young writer Adam Perlman, recently hired for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”; former William Morris agent David Lonner; and the producer David Kirschner, best known for “An American Tale” and the “Child’s Play” films. Topics range from the religious particular (“Becoming Observant in Hollywood”) to the creative universal (“The Importance of Story”) to community values (“Hollywood and Israel”).
Symonds estimates that roughly 30 to 40 percent of JenLA’s several hundred devotees maintain some level of Jewish observance. But depending on the speaker, the average meeting tends to focus on more practical aspects of the business, like how to get an agent, how to sell a script and how to make connections.
Of that, Symonds has done a decent job, relying on word of mouth to attract accomplished speakers, who tend to be unusually generous with their time and unusually forthcoming about their experiences. Silberling, for instance, talked for more than two hours, then hung around for questions; Kirschner, Symonds said, gave attendees his home phone number.
Where else, in the space of a single evening, can strangers become intimates and movie moguls, mentors? It’s enough to make you wonder whether that ancient connection at Sinai really does have an impact.
How deep does Hollywood’s Jewish blood run? Symonds will soon find out, as he tries to knock names off his wish list: Will Sherry Lansing, Ron Meyer, Howard Gordon or Natalie Portman come round?
According to Silberling, the days of Jewish shame and stigma are over. Hollywood’s Jewish character is “a given,” so let’s get on with it.
“What matters most,” Silberling told the group, “even after you have a hit opening weekend, is the living in between.”