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Hollywood’s Oscar-Winning Rabbi Takes Jewish History to the Stars

Marvin Hier puts two decades of documentary filmmaking to work—but for what cause?

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J.J. Abrams, Tom Cruise, and Rabbi Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Annual National Tribute Dinner, May, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Since its inception in 1995, Moriah Films, run by executive producer Richard Trank and dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, who in his other job is head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in the United States, has made it its mission to produce a film library devoted to the Jewish experience in the 20th and 21st centuries. “This is a very serious undertaking. It is not an undertaking that is flimsy,” said Hier. “I consider it to be one of the greatest outreach programs of the world Jewish community.”

Hier is head of three organizations: Moriah, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Museum of Tolerance, which are interrelated but subtly different: The center combats global anti-Semitism; the museum, while concentrating on the Holocaust, also devotes space to other forms of intolerance; and Moriah is solely about the Jewish experience. At the same time that Hier is meeting with the pope, Moriah is promoting a film about the early years of the state of Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center is putting out a statement castigating the American interim deal with Iran about their nuclear program. Occasionally this multiplicity of titles creates a sense of confusion, but mostly it just generates fruitful overlap. (“You [just] have to change the yarmulkes,” Hier said of his multiple roles.)

Along the long wall flanking his desk, a bookshelf holds numerous sets of the Talmud and books about the Holocaust with titles like Nazi Gold. On the wall facing him, a glass case contains Hier’s two Academy Awards and a picture of him accepting his award for The Long Way Home from Robert De Niro. Scattered about the room are pictures with Margaret Thatcher, Warren Beatty, Simon Wiesenthal, and Frank Sinatra presenting Genocide alongside Elizabeth Taylor. This may be the only office in America to contain both a shas and an Oscar.

With his gray pinstripe suit, blue tie, rimless glasses, and black velvet kippah, Hier seems more like the well-dressed businessman at your local synagogue than a major Hollywood macher. A movie buff as a young rabbinical student, Hier used to see movies at the Palestine Theater on Clinton Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, preferring Westerns starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He received his rabbinic degree from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph yeshiva and served as a pulpit rabbi in Vancouver, B.C., before heading out to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to start the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the famous Nazi hunter, which elbowed aside the Martyrs Memorial Museum, then being put together by local Holocaust survivors.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center was intended to combat global anti-Semitism and included what was then a small museum devoted to the Holocaust. Hier was putting together a permanent exhibit on the Holocaust and was planning to use 13 or 14 slide projectors to display relevant images. Screenwriter Fay Kanin (Teacher’s Pet) came by and saw them at work and had a suggestion: “Why don’t you do a film?”

“He’s like a high-rent, ethical version of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton”

From the very outset, Hier’s Hollywood contacts were influential in establishing a toehold for the Wiesenthal Center and for Moriah, which got off the ground with the assistance of Hollywood insiders like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ron Meyer; the Kennedy Center premiere of Genocide was chaired by Frank Sinatra. Hier and Moriah have since become significant players in the film industry with their ever-growing slate of documentaries, leaning on a glittering array of stars to help promote their films. Moriah’s latest film, The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers, is no slouch in this department, with an array of A-list stars brought in to provide the voices for Israeli leaders: Michael Douglas does a turn as Yitzhak Rabin, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is Menachem Begin, and Sandra Bullock plays Golda Meir.

Many of Hier’s encounters with Hollywood have a certain madcap glow, as if the rabbi’s presence is a walking setup and everyone is only too glad to provide the punchline. Hier remembered his first trip to the Academy Awards, for Genocide. “I’ve got an Oscar, and am wearing a yarmulke. Jack Lemmon says to Walter Matthau, ‘Walter, they changed the rules. When you and I went to school to get one of these you had to go to a good acting school. Now you have to go to a good yeshiva!’ ”

Hier’s remarkable success is, in fact, the primary cause of his detractors’ dissatisfaction. “He’s like a high-rent, ethical version of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton,” said Luke Ford, a Los Angeles blogger who covers the Jewish world and has written about Hier. “A fantastic hustler. He knows how to work with the goyim, he’s a master of it, he knows how to do it in a way that brings status to him and to the Jews.” For his part, Hier has heard all the queries and complaints before and often jumps in to answer them—even before they have been asked. “Some of the critics say, ‘Why do you use stars?’ ” he told me. “Well, who should we use? We could say like this: Chaim Bernstein is narrating the first film, Shoshana Feldman is narrating the second film. That won’t go anywhere.”

***

Hier’s films may rarely make it to the multiplex—although The Prime Ministers is opening in more than 70 cities across the country—but he talks business like an old-school studio mogul, with one crucial difference. “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” Samuel Goldwyn once famously said. Hier prefers to use his films to disseminate his message, seeing them as serving as cinematic ambassadors for Jewish history and the Jewish state.

Moriah’s house style can best be described as Jewish Ken Burns, employing dramatic music cues, artfully framed still photographs, and archival footage in the service of straightforward, no-frills storytelling. The birth of Zionism and the foundation of the Jewish state are presented as nothing less than miracles. “It’s an unbelievable story,” Israeli President Shimon Peres gushes at the start of It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl. Given the Wiesenthal Center’s roots in fighting prejudice, Moriah’s films also often center around anti-Semitism; Herzl’s burgeoning interest in a Jewish state is grounded in the Dreyfus trial, the Jew-hating Viennese mayor Karl Luger, and anti-Semitic graffiti in the streets.

Hier and director Clint Eastwood, November 2010, in Los Angeles, Calif.(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

To promote Hier’s from-the-gutter-to-the-stars narrative of Jewish history, Moriah not only attracts top-flight talent but gets them free of charge. Moriah has never paid its celebrity narrators. Hier mostly demurs from answering the question of why stars like Bullock and Douglas would choose to spend their valuable time narrating documentaries for Moriah. Many performers are themselves Jewish, or have emotional attachments to Jewish causes. Hier somewhat farcically credits Sandra Bullock with taking the role of Golda Meir because her mother and grandmother were public-school teachers, like Meir had been in Milwaukee before immigrating to Palestine. Genocide narrator Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Jewish film producer Mike Todd, had converted to Judaism. Orson Welles, who narrated Genocide along with Taylor, thought of himself as part-Jewish. Add to this the perception that doing good works for Jewish organizations might be a career boost in a still-very-Jewish industry, and you end up with wonderful oddities like Dustin Hoffman reciting the words of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik.

And some observers see Moriah’s appeal as even more directly linked to Hier. “Jews dominate Hollywood, and this guy is an authentic Jew. He’s Orthodox. So, he’s the real deal,” said Ford. “And so if you work for free for him, you’re doing the real thing for the Jews, and you’re enhancing your status in Hollywood. There’s no downside to it. You network with other powerful people in Hollywood, and it’s just win-win-win.” Ford argues that working with Moriah is a means of building one’s Hollywood cachet. “It’s like the opposite of saying anything bad about Jews,” said Ford, who mentions Mel Gibson’s tirades as an example of a career-ending anti-Semitic faux pas. “It shows how cool you are. It’s the ultimate fashion statement. And you’re doing it for someone who’s got a really good brand.”

Down the hall from Hier’s office is a suite of state-of-the-art sound and editing equipment. On the morning I visited in November, a pair of sound editors were working on footage of Hier’s recent meeting with Pope Francis. Trank, who co-produced, directed, and wrote The Prime Ministers, had approached Hier in 1996 with a proposal to update an Avid editing system, jettisoning the time-consuming approach of physically cutting film. The cost was eye-popping—roughly $250,000—but gave Moriah the flexibility to make its films entirely in-house. “Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ron Meyer gave us the advice. They said, if it’s a one-shot deal, then retail is not a bad idea,” said Hier. “If you’re going to do this regularly, you have to set up your own studio. Don’t come to us, because it will be too costly, and it won’t be fair. This way you have your own equipment, your own sound studio, your own Avid and everything. And it’ll be much cheaper.”

Moriah’s documentaries, which typically cost around $1 million each to produce, are paid for through donations from supporters. Trank is the house writer and director, having spent more than three decades working for the Wiesenthal Center and Moriah. He was hired in 1981 after having interviewed Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper for a radio show. At first, Trank worked on Holocaust survivors’ oral histories, before branching out to short videos, and eventually to feature-length documentaries. Trank was a producer on the Wiesenthal Center’s second film, Echoes That Remain (1991), and Liberation (1994), which had initially been intended as an exhibit for the Museum of Tolerance. “And then we realized that something like that is a temporary exhibit. You’re investing a huge amount of money. It’s in one place. It would make much more sense to do it as a film. It could have an endless platform,” said Trank.

Hier said he spends most Thursday afternoons with Trank and the Moriah team, looking at footage and discussing potential changes. Speaking to the filmmakers responsible for Hier’s two Oscars, though, provided a different take on his involvement in the artistic process. “We met a little bit at the beginning, but he had very little to do with the film,” said Mark Jonathan Harris, the director of The Long Way Home and currently a filmmaker and distinguished professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “Very little indeed,” said Arnold Schwartzman, the director of Genocide, about Hier’s day-to-day involvement in production. “The rabbi in fact has received two Oscars [for work] which quite frankly, in terms of creative input, is virtually nonexistent.”

***

Hier’s best-known film, for which he received one of his Oscars, was Genocide—a project he got creatively involved with when Simon Wiesenthal grew agitated over, of all things, an illustration of Raoul Wallenberg that was set to appear in the film. Wallenberg, Wiesenthal insisted, would never appear with a hat. Hier pleaded with Schwartzman for months to remove Wallenberg’s hat until photographic evidence, brought back by Hier’s colleague Rabbi Abraham Cooper from a Helsinki tribunal on Wallenberg’s mysterious postwar fate, demonstrated incontrovertibly that the Swedish diplomat had, indeed, worn a hat.

The Wallenberg dispute was merely a warmup for the conflict between the director and Hier over credit for Genocide. Hier called Schwartzman and told him that the board had suggested he receive a cowriter’s credit. Schwartzman argued that historian Martin Gilbert had written the bulk of the script, but after Hier convinced Gilbert to share the credit, the director agreed to the change. Later, Hier would also successfully claim a producer’s credit—the one that would enable him to receive an Oscar for the film.

A filmmaker and graphic designer who was a protégé of Saul Bass, Schwartzman gave Genocide more verve than its successors. This is in no small part due to Welles, whose Charles Foster Kane voice conveys just the right tone of sneering incredulity at the failings of Western governments to prevent the slaughter of the Jews of Europe. Schwartzman treats the screen like a blackboard, covering it with dynamic graphics and panning across still photographs. The breaking glass at a wedding ceremony becomes the breaking glass of Kristallnacht, and a graphic shows a man putting on tefillin made of barbed wire.

“There was no state of Israel then,” Welles offers as part of the explanation for why no other countries extended a helping hand to the Jewish people, underscoring the fundamental point of Moriah’s future films: that the state of Israel is the Jews’ protection against future Holocausts. “No one is responsible?” Welles asks near Genocide’s conclusion, incredulous and appalled. “It just happened? A freak accident along the road of history?” Wiesenthal himself appears in response at the film’s end, placing a slip of paper in the Western Wall that reads, “I AM MY BROTHER’S KEEPER.”

Despite having directed the film, Harris received no Oscar for The Long Way Home. Harris is philosophical about the contretemps, but Schwartzman, who was then chairman of the Academy’s documentary executive committee, changed the rules after The Long Way Home to ensure that one of the two Oscar recipients for Best Documentary must be the film’s director.

Director of the Museum of Tolerance Liebe Geft, actress Sharon Stone, and Rabbi Marvin Hier in Los Angeles, December 2010. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images For PFI)

After the success of The Long Way Home, Harris signed on to make a film for the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. “I said, if we did a film about this, we have to really try to look honestly at Israel, and the rabbi said, ‘warts and all.’ He agreed. But in the end, they didn’t like the warts,” said Harris. The initial goal for the film, titled A Dream No More, was to avoid the traditional spokesmen for Israel—the politicians and generals—and find unique voices like novelist David Grossman. According to Harris, Hier was nonplussed by the proposed film treatment: “What is this, twenty no-name Jews? Where’s my Paul Newman?”

Hier and Moriah were displeased with the first cut of A Dream No More and wound up firing Harris from the film. Harris chalks up his firing to the uncertain political climate in which his film was made. “It was two years after the assassination of Rabin,” said Harris. “It was a difficult time in Israel. People were still in mourning for Rabin. We tried to do an honest film looking at what Israel had accomplished in 50 years and some of the challenges that remain.” Harris believes that his film would have been entirely uncontroversial in Israel, but that the American dialogue about Israeli politics remains more closed-lipped. Ultimately, Moriah released In Search of Peace instead, covering the period from 1948 to 1967. “There was never a second film. Because the problems started in 1967,” said Harris. “I think they were afraid of alienating [then-prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. That’s my take.”

Harris went on to make another Academy Award-winning film, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, and bears no ill will toward Hier or Moriah. “I’m grateful for the fact that they hired me to do The Long Way Home. And I’m grateful for the fact, even though A Dream No More was never released, it gave me, personally, a chance to see and experience Israel and meet people I otherwise would never have had the chance to do. I don’t regret that experience at all.”

***

Hier believes in film as a method of reaching unaffiliated Jews who otherwise might not be aware of their cultural and historical heritage. Making movies is merely the latest iteration of a millennium’s worth of technological adaptation on the part of Jews in the name of preserving their intellectual treasures. Hier gestures at his Schottenstein edition of the Talmud—handsome burgundy volumes that feature the traditional layout of the Talmud with a matching English translation on the opposite side of the page.

“Now look what happened to the Shas,” said Hier. “It was all in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the message to the Jewish community was, you either know those two languages, we’re happy to produce for you books, if you want to learn the Talmud, but if you’re insisting on English and notes, get lost. [Of course, the Talmud was originally written in Aramaic because it was the English of its day—the vernacular language most Jews spoke.] Then we changed our attitude. What do you mean, get lost? If they get lost, we get lost! So, they better not take that attitude. So, they said, let’s do it in English, with comprehensive notes.”

He went on. “The same thing about film. The Pew Report tells the following story. The good news is, we got, more or less, a million Jews that know they’re members of a shul, they pay their dues. The rest, they’re wandering somewhere. And they begin wandering right after their bar and bas mitzvahs. Who’s going to reach them? We live in a new generation where the Internet and the computer are dominant. Media is dominant. People are watching films. Who’s going to reach them with our story?”

These stories are not intended only for Jews, but for the world’s vast non-Jewish majority. “How can 14 million Jews compete with China? They’ll tell us there are 14 million Chinese people in a village,” said Hier. “We need friends! The reach of Moriah Films, telling our story, which is quite a story, is about trying to make friends.”

It is Hier’s belief that Jews are at peril, always running the risk of being maltreated, exiled, or worse: He conceives of his films as a uniquely flexible tool for advocacy, an analog to, and PR campaign for, world Jewry’s most precious insurance policy—the state of Israel. “One of the most important things that Israel has to do is it has to have friends in the world who’d be willing to understand that there ought to be room on this planet for a Jewish state, because look what happened when there wasn’t any room,” said Hier. “We believe if something ever happened to the state of Israel, God forbid, Diaspora Jewry would be finished.”

Moriah tells the story of the Israeli miracle in order to protect the state’s rights and emphasize its unique role in the formation of the postwar Jewish spirit. “Jews started to walk taller. We didn’t need a chiropractor,” said Hier. Israel “is the chiropractor of the Jewish people.”

Yet other Jewish leaders remain concerned about the particular messages Hier and Moriah choose to emphasize. “The easiest way for Jews to make common cause with others is on the issue of anti-Semitism. And it doesn’t require appearing too Jewish,” said one prominent Jewish leader in Southern California who asked not to be named out of a desire to avoid conflict with Hier and the Wiesenthal Center. “Everybody agrees that we should fight discrimination and that the Holocaust was a catastrophe, a travesty. There’s no demands that are made on you.” The Jewish leader has no qualms with the stories Moriah (and the Wiesenthal Center) tell, only on their “over-emphasis” and “prioritization” over other kinds of Jewish stories. “They’re salesmen, and they’re selling a product,” he said. “He’s selling an angle. And he means it! He believes in it. But he’s selling an angle.”

Hier and Moriah are, fairly or unfairly, viewed as the poster children for what is seen as the Academy’s fixation on Holocaust-themed documentaries. Hier’s second Oscar, for The Long Way Home, came during a stretch between 1995 and 2000 when four of the six Academy Award winners for Best Documentary were about the Holocaust. Hier is unapologetic about his desire to tell the story of the Holocaust, but his affiliation with the Museum of Tolerance notwithstanding, Moriah is interested in more than just the Holocaust, having branched out in recent years to make films about Herzl, Winston Churchill, the fate of survivors in the years before Israel’s establishment, and the early years of the state of Israel. Some topics seem a strange fit with Moriah’s stated mission; what particular connection with Jewish history does Walking With Destiny, a hagiographic account of Churchill’s World War II years, have?

***

Moriah’s latest cinematic effort extends and continues its recurring interest in Israel-themed films. After two decades and two Oscars, Moriah is an established brand in the world of documentary film, its stories professionally and efficiently told. The Prime Ministers fits snugly with Moriah’s earlier films, its Zionist triumphalism emphasizing Israel’s successes and downplaying its missteps. Adapting Yehuda Avner’s memoir, the film expects its audience to be familiar with the rough outline of Israel’s first two decades, preferring to offer a handpicked selection of anecdotes involving the country’s first prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir.

Its time frame is notably similar to an earlier Moriah film, In Search of Peace, which similarly touches on controversial topics, but only gently. The credits indicate that In Search, which covers the years 1948 to 1967, would be the first of two films, but no sequel ever emerged. In Search does discuss the forced Palestinian exodus during the war of 1948, quoting a shopkeeper in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony who fled, convinced that “next week, or 10 days’ time, we are going back to our houses.” We hear a Palestinian girl’s eyewitness testimony from the massacre at Deir Yassin and Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog’s issuance of herem (excommunication) for those responsible for the massacre.

The bulk of the film, though, is a hopscotch through the first two decades of Israeli history with an emphasis on the triumphant. Certain topics, like Golda Meir’s travels abroad and the fierce fight over accepting reparations from Germany, recur here and in The Prime Ministers. Moriah prefers triumph and uplift to nuance and controversy; In Search of Peace ends with the Six Day War and the return of the Old City to Israeli sovereignty, only lightly touching on the occupation that ensued.

Producer Rabbi Marvin Hier, Oscar winner Sandra Bullock as the voice of Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Director/Producer Richard Trank. (Moriah Films)

Hier received a copy of The Prime Ministers from a board member and was struck by it. He passed it along to Trank, who was also impressed. Hier asked his son Avi, who lives in Israel, to call Avner and express their interest. “He said, ‘Yehuda, you never told us about this!’ ” said Hier. “He put me on the phone; I said, ‘Yehuda, we’d like to do the film.’ He couldn’t believe it, that we were interested. He said, ‘Nobody called me!’ ” Moriah ended up beating out a number of other suitors for the rights to The Prime Ministers and called on Avner to narrate the film adaptation of his book. “I was nervous because I didn’t know what he’d be like on camera,” said Trank. “As soon as we sat down, I knew.”

Adapting Avner’s book has turned into Moriah’s most complex project yet. Avner’s 700-page book, chock-full of personal anecdotes about Israeli leaders the author had known, offered a wealth of material. Trank began editing together a rough cut and showing it to Hier at their weekly meetings. “Every week we were watching, cutting, rabbi’s very happy, my editor’s very happy, I’m very happy,” remembered Trank, “and we get to a certain point where an hour and 35, hour 40 minutes into the movie—” “According to the book, we’re only on page 148,” Hier said with a chuckle. “At this point, we’ll be on The Prime Ministers for five years!” Hier and Trank conferred and ultimately decided to split the book into two separate films, with the first, subtitled The Pioneers, concluding shortly after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Much like In Search of Peace, The Prime Ministers mostly bypasses the more complex or traumatic aspects of Israeli history in favor of an uplifting, if occasionally bittersweet, story of triumph. The Prime Ministers ends on a downbeat note, with Meir’s resignation after the Yom Kippur War, but leaves the strong impression of an unbroken chain of forward-thinking and fundamentally decent Israeli leaders.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, mostly absent from In Search of Peace and The Prime Ministers, is more present, yet still underplayed, in Trank’s finely wrought short documentary Beautiful Music. The film follows a blind, autistic Palestinian woman named Raja, raised by Christian missionaries on the West Bank, who flourishes under the care of an Israeli piano teacher named Devorah Schramm living in nearby Gilo. Raja, who cannot speak, discovers music as a lifeline. The film takes a darker turn when the second intifada, in 2000, keeps Raja from making the journey from Beit Jala to Schramm’s home in Gilo. Will Raja be able to make it to her piano recital? Beautiful Music is tender and touching, with Schramm concluding by saying that “if we look deeply at another person, we see another person. When we look at headlines, we see generalities. All of us need to look at people.”

Hier’s often-expressed hawkishness—Tom Segev refers to the Wiesenthal Center’s “neoconservative, universalist worldview” in his biography of Wiesenthal—undoubtedly colors some of Moriah’s films and their approach to recent Middle Eastern history. The Prime Ministers is a look at Israeli history that only lightly engages with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trank said that the second installation will take up the subject, but one wonders whether Hier views Moriah as another form of advocacy for his own constricted version of history.

Hier sees his political ideology as a product of the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The Rav argued that “every Jew should be in the entrance of his tent,” engaged with the world and contributing to mankind, and Hier is the embodiment of that belief—perhaps to a fault. He is in the entrance of his tent, inviting the world in, and sometimes his voice may drown out other, potentially dissenting voices. “I think people look and they’re very proud,” Trank said of Hier’s image in the Southern California Jewish community. “I’ve been on planes with Rabbi Hier where a non-Jewish flight attendant is like, ‘You’re Rabbi Hier!’ A lot of that has to do with what we’ve done in the entertainment world.”

***

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Hollywood’s Oscar-Winning Rabbi Takes Jewish History to the Stars

Marvin Hier puts two decades of documentary filmmaking to work—but for what cause?