Is This ‘the Face of the Future of Judaism’ for a New Generation in Los Angeles?
TV and film director Jill Soloway has been running a de facto Jewish community. The question is whether it can outlast her success.
“I was channeling my Aunt Rose.”
Jill Soloway was excitedly recounting LoveFest, the matchmaking event she held in July to mark the rarely celebrated holiday of Tu B’Av, known as the Jewish Valentine’s Day, where she and a few friends donned fuchsia babushkas and played yentas.
“Sooooo,” she said, dragging out the “O” and raising her voice half an octave for a nasal, Fran Drescher-style accent. “Tell me what you’re looking for.”
Soloway reverted to her normal voice: “I squeezed my nails into this girl’s arm.”
And Fran Drescher again: “You say you want to have children? Ohhhhkaaaay, we’re looking for someone who wants to make babies.”
“It was so stupid and so fun,” Soloway said, back to her normal tone. “I was deputized by the babushka to do the thing I’ve always wanted to do, which is putting people together. It was total chaos. It became more like a theater event than actual matchmaking. Some people really wanted my services, and some were completely annoyed by me.”
In other words, it was just another Saturday night in the life of Jill Soloway, television writer, movie director, and part-time yenta.
Three years ago, Soloway cofounded East Side Jews, which brings together 20- and 30-something Jews in Silver Lake and the surrounding neighborhoods of Los Angeles for offbeat, too-cool-for-shul events that tend to be heavy on comedy and light on Jewish ritual. Movie-style posters and Facebook announcements lead 50 to 350 young (and young-ish) Jews at a time to the L.A. River for Tashlich; to a spice store for Havdalah (with a Jewish porn star guest speaker for extra spice); and to the roof of a Korean spa for Rosh Hodesh. The events, as many as 10 to 15 a year, can feel like de facto Jewish singles mixers (except for LoveFest, which is squarely aimed at singles) for L.A.’s burgeoning creative class, an intersection of old-school entertainment (screenwriting, movie producing) and new-school technology (social media marketing, entrepreneurial app development).
In June, I attended Last Sabbath, a monthly gathering at a succession of restaurants that had about 60 of us seated at long tables appointed with pitchers of beer. It was held at ATX, a self-proclaimed “vegan-friendly,” open-air restaurant that serves pork, in a formerly industrial complex filled with design studios and artists’ collectives in up-and-coming Atwater Village. A few ESJ regulars recited prayers over the candles, wine, and challah. That was it for Jewish content, unless you count the discussion of ambivalence about Jewish observance that inevitably arises when you bring together strangers tied by the one thing they’re not sure they believe in.
“I love groups,” Soloway told me a week later, seated on a tapestry-covered bench on the terrace of her hilltop Silver Lake home. She attributes her “slightly culty impulses” to growing up in the progressive, secular community of South Commons, a late-1960s experiment in urban renewal on the south side of Chicago. “The writers’ room, that’s like a utopian fantasy,” she said of the collaborative space that a TV show writers’ room can be. “I’m constantly egging on conversations like, Let’s all go buy some land!” She’s been able to indulge those tendencies in the writers’ rooms of such series as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara.
“I’ve been a fan of Jill’s for a long time,” said Nick Hall, vice president of comedy development for HBO, who has brought her in to help guide less-experienced TV writers on the shows How To Make It in America and Looking, an upcoming half-hour about gay men in San Francisco. “She’s like the godmother of the writers’ room. And she has a skill that’s very hard to come by: Jill can go deep, really find the truth of a character, and make it funny. She grounds the comedy in something real”—qualities essential to shows that seek that rare alchemy of drama and comedy.
This year Soloway wrote and directed her first movie, Afternoon Delight, about a Silver Lake wife and mother (played by Kathryn Hahn) who invites a young stripper to stay in her home. The film, shot in and around Soloway’s own home, won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened in theaters last week to mixed reviews but solid box office. It has a subtle undercurrent of Jewish themes, particularly about ambivalence over Jewish ritual, which proves to be a grounding force. Josh Radnor, the movie’s leading man, likens Soloway’s way with those themes to the coded messages that politicians use when speaking to certain demographic groups. “I feel like Jill’s movie has a lot of code in it,” said Radnor, who is also a star of the long-running TV series How I Met Your Mother. “You can certainly watch it and not even think about the Jewishness of the movie, but if you are Jewish or if you understand what is rippling under the surface of that I think it makes it a richer experience.”
Between her gift for bringing together unaffiliated young people and her IMDb credentials, Soloway has long been on the radar of the institutional Jewish world. “What Jill has brought to the Jewish community is a certain curiosity, an openness and a level of creativity that is generally missing from Jewish life,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which has been funding East Side Jews since 2011. “She’s been able to create a sense of community in an area where there wasn’t community.”
It’s a little bit funny to talk about Soloway as a youth messiah considering how old she is. Then again, she’d rather we not state her age beyond saying that she’s in her 40s. After all, Hollywood covets youth, even behind the scenes. But no one laughs harder at this than Soloway herself, who has two kids, Isaac, 16, and Felix, 4. While accepting an honor in June for her work with East Side Jews from the Breed Street Shul Project, a nonprofit working to rehabilitate a synagogue in the eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights, she told a room full of donors: “The TV world sees me as someone who should be kept in a pen in the basement, with Penny Marshall and Nancy Meyers, and a few women who have passed away. But in the Jewish world, I’m Jessica Alba. Who knew? I’m being honored as the face of the future of Judaism, and I’m days away from menopause.”
Sanderson, of course, is well aware of Soloway’s age. “One of the tricky aspects of all the things happening in the Jewish community around young adults is that something that was really effective five or six years ago [may not be today],” he said. “People get older, get married, and have children. The question is what happens next.” He went on to articulate something that all Jewish communities are grappling with: Once young Jews are interested, what do you do with them? How do you deepen their engagement? How much religion do you impose? How do you affiliate the willfully unaffiliated? The questions are ever more important in Los Angeles, because Soloway’s career success has her flirting with leaving East Side Jews to the professionals.
Though her résumé is impressive, Soloway has spent most of her time in the TV business working on other people’s shows. A few years ago she had a pilot script under consideration for pick-up at HBO when she heard that someone named Lena Dunham had scored her own series on the network. Soon after came word that Soloway’s show did not get a green light. “I was like, ‘How the fuck did Girls happen on my watch?’ ” she recalled of her reaction at the time. “Where did she come from? Shit! Then I watched [Dunham’s movie] Tiny Furniture and I went, ‘Oh, yeah, I see why.’ I was so jealous-slash-inspired.”
Soloway got to work. She made a short film, Una Hora Por Favor, that was accepted at Sundance. While there, she saw a lot of movies. “This sucks. This sucks. This sucks,” was her response. “I can do better. I can do better. I can do better.” Soloway said she retreated to her condo at the festival, where she picked up a script she had abandoned a few years earlier. It became Afternoon Delight, which won Soloway the directing award at the next year’s festival. “I was really just so reanimated by the idea that to be a writer-director you have to grab it yourself,” she said. “You just have to say over and over again: I am a director. Nobody gives it to you. Nobody anoints you.”
This month, she will shoot a pilot for her own series, Transparent, about a Jewish family in which the dad (played by Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender. The show is for Amazon, which may be the leader in all things shopping online, but really wants to get into content development and distribution. Soloway’s pilot will be among a slate of shows that screens online Dec. 26; viewers’ favorites will become series. In many ways, Amazon seems a perfect match for Soloway’s scrappy, let’s-put-on-a-show ethos. “It’s hard to be funny, human, and moving, but Jill always is,” said Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, echoing the sentiment of Hall, his counterpart at HBO.
Soloway’s interest in all things Jewish was stoked by the 2005 Reboot conference, an invitation-only, all-expenses-paid retreat in the thin, rarefied air of Park City, Utah (the same town that hosts Sundance), for Jews primarily in media, entertainment, and technology. There the largely unaffiliated talk about reinventing Jewish traditions. “It totally blew me away,” said Soloway. “I think what Reboot delivers on just worked. In some ways they sort of manufacture a calling. They manufacture a spark.”
That spark led Soloway to start Heaping Portion, a Jewish version of her already popular open-mic storytelling event, Sit ‘N Spin, where writers, artists and musicians (read: “people in the business”) come together every other week to read essays and play live music. At Heaping Portion, a similar crowd would riff on the Torah portion of the week. “As someone who went to Jewish day school and has studied Torah, I remember being in the audience and having a new understanding of text that I had read over and over again,” said Rachel Levin, executive director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Jewish grant-making organization that helped to develop Reboot. “It was profound.” (Heaping Portion no longer exists, but Sit ‘N Spin goes on.)
That wasn’t enough for Soloway. She decided she wanted to make a Reboot for everyone. “Reboot had this slightly unfortunate exclusivity where you couldn’t really tell people about it because then they would go, ‘I want to go,’ and you would have to go, ‘You can’t. I got chosen and I don’t know if you would be,’ ” she said. So, along with fellow Rebooters, including entrepreneur Julie Hermelin, musician Craig Wedren, and journalist Christopher Noxon, she formed East Side Jews. They got a project grant from Reboot, which became the group’s 501(c)(3). Soon after, Ayana Morse, executive director of the Silver Lake Independent JCC, brought East Side Jews into the fold there as more Rebooters—Micah Fitzerman-Blue, co-founder of the men’s vintage shopping site Bureau of Trade, and his wife, Liba Rubenstein, who is Tumblr’s director of outreach—came on board. The Reboot mafia extends to Soloway’s professional work: Radnor, the male lead in her film, is a fellow Rebooter. “A lot of the people I know connect through working,” said Soloway. “We’re all so ambitious. Sometimes my friends will say, ‘I want to hang out with you.’ And I just go, ‘Well, let’s do a project together.’ That’s the only way I can.”
In Afternoon Delight, Rachel, the lead character, spends a lot of time dropping off and picking up her son at the East Side JCC. Those scenes were filmed at the Silver Lake Independent JCC. It’s as if Soloway manifested her vision of the JCC in the way she portrayed it on screen.
In real life, the JCC is old, and it’s been through a lot. Built in 1951 to serve a small Jewish community, it had fallen on hard times when, more than 10 years ago, the Jewish Federation decided to sell it off. But the JCC staff fought successfully to buy it back and make it independent. Now, in a twist of irony, the Federation is funding East Side Jews, which is housed at the Silver Lake JCC and uses its administrative services.
In those 10 years the hipsters grew up and started having babies. The JCC has a thriving preschool and Hebrew school, but the rest of the building is closed off, in disrepair; the gym is rented out to a children’s gymnastics school. But it could be an amazing center for Jewish life. When Soloway got involved she had plans to raise funds, raze half the place, and rebuild. “I was like, let’s do this, let’s kick the gymnastics people out,” she said, getting worked up. “It would have a place for people to go with their laptop, have a meeting, get a cup of coffee.” And, in an only-in-Hollywood twist: “A place where you can screen your film. That to me is more of a pressing need than a place to go and have services on Friday night. Then if people figure out a way to do services in that theater space, great.”
But the glacial pace of nonprofit life put a damper on Soloway’s parade. “It was like, ‘No, Jill, slow down. We’ve got to get you on the board. We’ve got to put together a strategic plan committee to make a strategic plan,’ ” she said, rolling her eyes. Things don’t work that way in the movie business, where you get a green light on a project and all of sudden it’s go, go, go!, and the sets and costumes are constructed in a week. But in the Jewish world, she laments, “It’s unbelievable how quickly things slow down as ideas get bigger.”
Sometimes talking to Soloway is like that old saw, “Two Jews, three opinions.” One minute, she’s laying out her vision for the JCC as a rabbi-free haven for creativity and acting out the anxiety people feel in a synagogue: “I’m on the wrong page. I’m not doing it right. I’m supposed to be standing. What’s the Barchu?” The next minute, she’s switched gears: “In the past few years it’s become really clear that we need a spiritual leader. What do we do when someone’s father passes away? When it comes down to it, Judaism might need that visionary rabbi to give people something to magnetize around.”
That visionary rabbi would be Susan Goldberg. There’s a lot of excitement around Goldberg in L.A. At Temple Beth Israel in the eastside community of Highland Park, she grew from rabbinic intern to pulpit rabbi and presided over a newly flourishing, progressive community of worship. Last year she was ordained as a rabbi, and then she was hired away by Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Wilshire Boulevard is a Reform synagogue in the heart of Koreatown—not exactly the east side, but in Los Angeles those terms of direction are relative and mutable. The oldest congregation in L.A., it’s known as a very Hollywood gathering spot (you might recall its appearance on the HBO series Entourage). It’s also in the midst of a $150 million restoration and in need of new congregants. That’s where East Side Jews comes in.
Goldberg and Soloway became friends around the time East Side Jews began. “It was love at first lunch,” said Goldberg. “We have similar motivations for community-building. We’re looking for meaning and comfort.” Goldberg has become East Side Jews’ de facto rabbi, and they’ve built up a new partnership between the two entities.
The first official East Side Jews event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple was LoveFest—the one with the yentas. “Tu B’Av totally worked as a collaboration,” Goldberg said. “The question is, How did the singles feel?” Open-minded and eager to learn about what people really want, she answered her own query: “Some people felt it was fun and light-hearted, others felt put on the spot.”
Indeed, one woman there who wants to be anonymous for fear of insulting her friends, laughed uncomfortably at the memory of LoveFest. “The thing is, singles events are awful, no matter how you dress them up,” she said. “I’m not sure what you can do to make it not awful. They tried, but it didn’t work.” It’s not necessarily a problem with one event, she added, calling East Side Jews happenings “hit or miss,” especially lately: “I feel like that’s the life cycle of these kinds of groups. They’re a strong presence for a few years, and then that’s it. I think East Side Jews is either going to morph [into something more synagogue-based], or it’ll die out.”
Joshua Avedon is a cofounder and COO of Jumpstart, which works with Jewish nonprofits around issues of sustainability; he hasn’t worked with East Side Jews, but he’s been to some events. “East Side Jews is a great example of the meta-phenomenon of people having some frustration with the Jewish world and building something themselves that’s of their values,” he said. “It works so well because the various people creating it built something that is in their reflection and feeds their own needs. And it turns out their friends are turned on by the same thing, so there’s a shorter feedback loop.”
Avedon is particularly impressed by how Soloway markets events: “She understands her community clearly. She doesn’t overthink it. Those flyers are the best examples of why what they’re doing is so smart. They’re like trailers for movies. They give you a vibe.”
But when he learned of the Wilshire Boulevard relationship, Avedon was skeptical. “It doesn’t seem consonant with their overall brand,” he said. “And the Federation is old-school, too. I think the Federation sees East Side Jews as a gateway drug to Judaism. But if people are attracted to East Side Jews, they’re getting something meaningful to them that doesn’t make demands of them in a way that a synagogue does.”
All these are issues Soloway wrestles with. “I feel like synagogues might be like monogamy,” she said. “Like, not the best system, but the one we’ve got.” As for her role in all of this in the months and years to come, “I feel like it’s not my destiny to run a JCC, or to build this building,” she said while standing outside the Silver Lake JCC. Although Hollywood is lousy with Jews, it’s still rare for writer-directors on the rise to do the kind of Jewish work Soloway does. “I don’t know if I need Hollywood thinking about me as a Jewish organizer person,” she mused candidly. “My destiny is to make television and create content. That’s what I like to do. I happen to be here right now while this is happening.”
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The poem ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ reminds us that we can change our own character, even if we cannot completely control our future