November 15, 2007
Come, let us reason
How do I know that? Because everyone is saying it's not. The writers who are demanding a larger share of DVD rights and residuals for their work and the producers who refuse to give it to them both say, repeatedly, that despite the fact that so many of them happen to be Jewish, the strike is not -- as Jewish writers and producers told our senior reporter Brad Greenberg last week -- a Jewish issue.
To paraphrase a Clinton-era favorite, you can be sure that when everyone is saying it's not about being Jewish, it's about being Jewish.
Strip away the brand-name products and gossipy inside Hollywood milieu of this strike, and what you have is a question of fair compensation and just treatment of labor.
It is a question our sages wrestled with, beginning with a law laid down in Leviticus 25:14: "And when you sell something to your fellow, or buy from the hand of your fellow, don't oppress each other."
How shallow has our Jewish life become and how silent have our pulpits fallen when we blithely accept the idea that a 4,000-year-old ethical tradition has nothing to say about how we do business?
In my fantasy Jewish community, the writers strike would spur synagogues and other Jewish institutions to swing wide their doors and invite in Hollywood writers and producers to meet with rabbis and Jewish ethicists to discuss and debate their roles as ethical beings in society. The discussions wouldn't be binding --just illuminating, thought-provoking and, perhaps, mind-changing.
"Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race that often comprises the marketplace," writes Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School. "It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity. It is business ethics, one could posit, above all, that shows God co-exists in the world rather than God and godliness being separate and apart."
In other words, rabbis aren't there just to marry and bury us, and shuls don't exist just to provide a backdrop for the bar mitzvah video.
The producers who kvell when their little girl or boy comes home from Hebrew school and recites the blessing over the challah might benefit from learning a little about the Hamotzi as well: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, you bring forth bread from the earth," we recite.
But what is the Hamotzi but an affirmation that, as the sages said, "A blessing does not exist except through human hands."
God makes wheat; humans, His partners in creation, make bread. The recognition that labor is intrinsic to realizing God's gifts is foundational to Judaism: How we honor and reward it, how we show gratitude for what Rabbi Steven Z. Leder calls "the manna of work," is worth discussion and debate -- but I don't see those kind of talks taking place amid the talks of this strike.
In some ways, it is like any other strike. I drive past Fox Studios on the way to work and see the writers walking their oval, wearing V-neck sweaters over solid T-shirts, holding their signs, cell phones and Starbucks. There are hardship committees and stories of guys this close to going into production on their very first show who suddenly find their career on the sidewalk. There are millions of dollars in lost revenues for the production support industries, from the people who make snacks on the set to the people who make the set.
In other ways, a Hollywood writers strike is -- sorry -- strikingly different. The 12,000 member Writers Guild is perhaps one-third Jewish. We're not talking a line of longshoremen -- the early morning sun, does not exactly, as Marx once wrote of French socialist workers, "shine upon us from their work-hardened bodies."
E-mail notices about picketing locations include information on where to get parking validated. At stake for the consumer is not airline safety or garbage collection or medical care, but whether we can get our daily fix of "The Daily Show."
So the writers, if they can't rely on threats to public health or safety or outrage, have only two arrows in their quiver: the economic argument and the moral one.
As to the first, good luck. The Hollywood producers have a history of holding out and pleading poverty. During the Great Depression, the studios decided to peremptorily cut the salaries of actors and writers by 50 percent, Neal Gabler relates in "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." "Weary and moist-eyed," Louis B. Mayer explained the grave situation of his studio's financial health to his MGM "family." Most of them offered their whole-hearted support, stepping up to help poor Mr. Mayer out by accepting the cut. When it was over, Mayer, on the way back to his office, turned to his associate Ben Thau and asked, "How did I do?"
A few weeks after that meeting, Hollywood writers formed the Screen Writers Guild to represent them.
"Louis B. Mayer," quipped screenwriter Alfred Hackett, "created more communists than Karl Marx."
But of course it is not commies on the picket lines I see; it is card-carrying, Prius-driving, private-school-tuition-paying capitalists. All they want is a somewhat larger share of the fortune that new technologies like DVDs and the Internet are bringing into studios.
For some reason lost on simple outsiders like me, the sides can't split the difference. Perhaps writers think this time will be different. Perhaps studios think the Internet and reality TV has made pesky creative types superfluous. At a restaurant last week, our Senior Editor Adam Wills overheard a producer at the next table boast that he could do a reality TV version of "The Office" just by putting a camera in ... an office.
So if the economics are at an impasse, even more reason to engage the sides over the respective morality of their positions. It is here rabbis and ethicists can at least be reaching out -- God knows the writers have time to attend some lunch-and-learn sessions, and their fellow congregants, the producers, would make the time, if the rabbi dared ask.
Oren Kaplan, the director of 'Miram and Shoshana' and writer (and Journal contributor) Seth Menachem are the brains and brains behind this new video 'WGA Strike Gets Violent'. They add this note: Studios: Please do what's fair before things get too bloody on the streets of Los Angeles.