By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illstrations by Darren McManus|
On Friday evenings, the streets of L.A. are alive with observant Jewry. From Larchmont to Westwood, from Wilshire to Van Nuys, men in dark suits and yarmulkes and women in boxy dresses can be seen strolling through the dusk, on their way to Shabbat services. On a recent Friday, I stopped into Temple Beth Am on La Cienega, where a breezy service was in progress. It is at Beth Am that the Creative Arts Temple, a loose congregation of Hollywood elders, meets once a month. The tone was casual, Hebrew speaking was at a minimum. People milled about, children played in the aisles. The cantor sang with theatrical flourish, which made sense: She was Lorna Patterson, from the television series Private Benjamin. Jerry Cutler, a large, jovial rabbi, presided. He kibitzed. He called up an attractive old couple from the crowd to open the Torah, which was housed in an immense half-cylinder arc made of what looked to be fake brimstone and red glass.
"You two look incredible," Cutler told the couple. "What kvelling must go on with you."
When he wasn’t marveling at his congregants, few of whom were under 60 and none of whom seemed to be famous, Cutler, an ex-comic, lamented the fact that the temple’s president couldn’t find a parking space. Toward the end of the service, he brought up Charles Matthau, son of Walter, and his fiancée, Ashley, and said a prayer for them.
From Creative Arts, which is one of three synagogues catering to — and competing for — a Hollywood crowd, I sped across town and up the 405 to the University of Judaism on Mulholland Drive where a similar service was under way. This one belonged to the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, or SFTPA. Though the auditorium was less ostentatious than that of Beth Am, the podium was adorned with the synagogue’s rather preposterous crest of tragic/comic masks in the shape of dreidels.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin paced the stage with a cordless mike, telling anecdotes about David Ben-Gurion and occasionally moaning about his wife. His zingers were impeccably timed. This much could be expected of Telushkin, who, when he is not writing sermons, writes television scripts and produces movies. Judy Fox, the cantor, who used to open for Rodney Dangerfield, sang a medley tribute to Naomi Summer, "Israel’s first lady of song."
Two weeks later, on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills, yet another folksy service was in progress at yet another temple with a flossy title. Temple Shalom for the Arts this one was called, and its rites were being held at the Writers Guild Theater, of all places. The cantor, Ilysia Pierce, whom I would have recognized from the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast had I ever seen it, was belting out New Agey Jewish devotional songs. A CD collection, called Enlighten, was for sale in the lobby.
Yom Kippur, the holy day of repentance, was coming up, so the rabbi, David Baron, spoke about "putting your house in order" and forgiving your enemies — which Baron, I would soon learn, knew something about. But if visitors to Shalom found themselves wondering about Baron, it was more likely for the fact that he also plays a rabbi in the movies; he married Ben Stiller and Debra Messing in Along Came Polly.
If these three temples seem a little too close for comfort, that’s because they are. Creative Arts, Shalom and SFTPA all come from the same seed, and they all lay claim to being L.A.’s premier "arts" synagogue. It was Creative Arts’ Cutler who actually founded SFTPA in the early 1970s with the help of some celebrities and quasi-celebrities and the vaudeville-holdover set (Walter Matthau and Red Buttons were original members). SFTPA (one can’t help feeling the guild sound of the name is somehow intentional) was the first temple to advertise so proudly its connection to Hollywood. But just a few years in, Cutler "left the pulpit," as abdication in the rabbinate is known, over a dispute with the board and went on to found Creative Arts. The two temples have been estranged ever since. Meanwhile, SFTPA hired David Baron, a controversial rabbi who’d already sued his old temple in Sherman Oaks. Not long after Cutler, he too left SFTPA, also over a dispute with the board, and set up Shalom. Finally, SFTPA hired Telushkin, a New Yorker who flies in once a month for services. (Rabbi David Woznica, who lives in Los Angeles, is also affiliated with SFTPA.)
This sock-drawer schism has produced four synagogues in 25 years — the fourth, Shofar Synagogue, is run by Jane Powell, widow of an SFTPA founder. One big happy kibbutz L.A.’s arts-synagogue scene is not. Just listen to these starkers go after each other:
"Those other temples are basically clubs where people in show business can go pray," Baron said.
"They wouldn’t let people in if they didn’t pay," Cutler said of SFTPA. "I didn’t want to be part of that."
"Baron is a consummate performer," Lee Miller, a SFTPA board member, said. "The furthering of his personal career always seemed more important to him."