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Confessions of a Hollywood Marrano

by Brian Ross

Several years ago, I arrived on location for a film shoot in North Carolina. As I settled into my office, there was a knock at the door and I looked up to see a long-haired, tattooed, tough looking young man who introduced himself as McCluskie. "I hear you have some special diet," he said.

"Yes," I said, wondering what his interest could be in the matter. He held out his hand.

"I'm the caterer."

Silenced, all I could do was take his hand and think, "Boy, this is going to be good..." I kept kosher and though he'd heard the term, he said he wasn't familiar with its details, and invited me to his catering truck to show him what I could and couldn't eat. In the truck, he took out a note pad and scribbled as I went through his inventory, showing him certification symbols and explaining my preparation needs. He didn't say much that day, other than registering surprise that fully one-half to two-thirds of the products he regularly used were kosher without his ever knowing it.

A few days later, he approached me on the set and asked if we could talk. We stepped aside, and as we sat down outside his truck I prepared for what I was sure was going to be a grievance about the difficulties of kashrut.

"What's the difference," McCluskie began, "between the kosher symbols O-U and O-K?"

I was caught off guard by the question, and explained what I knew about the two agencies. McCluskie listened intently, then continued a battery of other questions. I quickly regretted my initial opinion of him. He had a keen and thoughtful mind, and as we spoke a lot over the next month, our conversations migrated from kashrut to more general considerations of Judaism...

McCluskie taught me a lot. As a writer working alone, the complications of keeping mitzvot do not generally rear their head until a project goes into production. While writing, your hours are your own and nobody cares or even has to know what days you did or didn't work, as long as the script comes in as ordered.

Your ardent hope during this time is that the project will go into production (it's rarely guaranteed), but when that "green light" finally comes, it brings with it a new, and often daunting, set of work conditions. You no longer sit alone in a room with a computer. You now interact constantly with a director, producers, prop people, costumers and the myriad others it takes to make a movie, all of whom usually work long hours, seven days a week to make it happen. Like it or not, as an observant Jew, you are about to be "outed."

My own experience, and the experience of most of my colleagues, has been to postpone this inevitable exposure as long as possible, to exist as a type of Hollywood Marrano -- tzitzit under t-shirt, making baseball-capped brachot, and mysterious disappearances for Minchah. The entertainment industry is competitive enough without offering extra cannon fire to the arsenal of potential rejecters. "We like him, but he can't work on Saturdays" are not words you want your agent to hear.

On my first movie ordered for production, I was summoned to Vancouver, British Columbia, during the intermediate days of Sukkot. A lengthy set of revisions helped me finesse the final two days of Yom Tov (I worked round the clock both before and after), but the first Friday of the actual shooting was scheduled to take place on a barge off a remote stretch of coast an hour north of the city. The weather was terrible -- water scenes are always difficult -- and the director said he categorically needed me there for it on-the-spot script revisions. The shoot wouldn't end until an hour after candle-lighting and I was informed that the only transportation back to the city was a single run of the crew boss.

This was my first shoot and so far everything had been going magnificently. I didn't want to upset that, so I simply avoided the issue until the last possible moment. At 5:00 Friday morning as we were all loading onto the bus to head to the location, I said to the one Jewish producer as nonchalantly as I could, "Now how's this going to work? I need to be back for Shabbat..."

I was both surprised and overwhelmed by the support [he gave me], and even more so at two o'clock that afternoon when, an hour before I expected to leave myself, the producer started agitating to get me off the barge and back to the city in time for candle-lighting. I can't say he showed the same interest in Judaism as McCluskie did, but he was intrigued by the concept of someone other than his late grandfather keeping Shabbat...

Within the Jewish community, misperceptions about the entertainment industry abound. One is that the industry in general (and television in particular) has a specific agenda to promote values that are anti-Torah. When I was in film school in the mid-1980s, the then-head of programming at one of the networks came to guest-lecture to us. His first words were that he didn't want us to be under any misapprehensions: "Commercial television," he said, "is about filling the blanks between commercials so that viewers will stay to watch those commercials."

Like any other business, television has no agenda other than making money. It operates on the simple principle of supply and demand, and the networks and advertisers have extremely sophisticated departments that monitor, with frightening accuracy, what viewers want at every half-hour of every day. At the moment, that determination includes a great deal of violence, sex and broad humor. Next year, if by some miracle it is found to include dramatizations of the Talmud, believe me, that is what we will see.

Jews who work in entertainment are often asked why we can't do better stories, more uplifting stories that espouse Torah values. The current reality is simply that the audience for them is limited. The problem is on the demand end, not the supply, and the implications of that are particularly sobering for Jews. We must ask if those of us who proudly and publicly (and easily) rid our homes of the supplier are not turning our backs on the more difficult responsibilities with the demander. If the Jewish people were effectively doing its job as the Light Unto the Nations we are intended to be, then it is axiomatic that we could expect the sea change we would like in the demand for programming...

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action magazine (Spring 2002) published by the Orthodox Union

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