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Hollywood and Kvetch

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."

"The Creative Arts Temple is like a Friars Club comic roast," said Baron of Cutler.

"He’s not likable, unfortunately," Cutler said of Baron.

Gentile reader, this is not kvelling. This is kvetching.

Hollywood has a long and curious relationship with Judaism. Though the two have been deeply entwined since the beginning of the American film industry, religion, and Judaism especially, has always been something widely plied but rarely portrayed. Decades ago there were reasons for this — the House Un-American Activities Committee — but even today, with the specter of anti-Semitism more or less lodged safely abroad, a glaring coyness affects Hollywood’s Jews. Look, for instance, at the silence from people like Steven Spielberg during the brouhaha over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Cutler and his colleagues take another approach. Their common goal has been to make Jews feel comfortable practicing their religion openly in stridently secular Hollywood. Their other equally obvious goal — and it’s difficult to know which came first — has been to purposefully intermingle the practice of Judaism with Hollywood power and celebrity. Still, they will protest all day about this, even while casually mentioning their credits and dropping the names of the machers among their congregants. But the evidence is hard to dispute.

Telushkin has written episodes of The Practice and Touched by an Angel and has written and produced his own film. Baron is a producer and consultant when not a rabbi, and is married to Ellen Meyer, a casting director and ex-wife of Universal chief Ron Meyer. Baron has a television deal concerning Yom Kippur with the PAX cable network. Shalom holds its services at the WGA Theater and its big events at the Wilshire Theater, which is owned by the Nederlander family (they also own the Pantages Theater and the Nederlander Theater on Broadway), members of whom are Shalom members. On their temple Web sites, both Baron and Telushkin have mounted what can only be described as headshots (www.templeshalomforthearts.com, www.sftpa.com).

Cutler, meanwhile, has been a comic, a manager of comics, a television writer and screenwriter (he had a near run in the early ’80s with Haircut, a TV spinoff of the Warren Beatty movie Shampoo). He hosts a film-review radio show with a Catholic priest called Review From the Pew. He has a commercial agent, though he claims he stopped trying out for them last year when he bumped into an actor from his congregation at an audition.

Cutler’s house is tucked into a corner on one of the hilly streets behind Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood. Modest from the outside, inside it is sheer Long Island modern: white high-back upholstered chairs, marble-slab tables, tchotchkes and framed photographs covering every polished surface. Cutler is an affectionate bear of a man, with graying hair mostly on the sides of his head, thick glasses, and a voice like Al Lewis’. He calls both men and women "sweetheart" within an hour of meeting them. He greeted me in his living room while attempting to button a patterned silk short-sleeve shirt, his happy gut exposed for everyone — including, in addition to myself, the housekeeper, his daughter and his daughter’s piano teacher — to see. We went to his back office, adorned with posters of Marx Brothers knockoff stage shows that Cutler put on back in his managing days.

Cutler adamantly refuses to say how old he is, though his life story would seem to put him in his early 60s. He grew up in Brooklyn, attended New York University, and then began studying to be a rabbi and hanging out in comedy clubs. During the summers he performed at the Catskill Mountain resorts, following Jackie Mason. ("When I saw him perform, I said, ‘Forget it!’ He was brilliant!") After that he worked as a publicist for American International Pictures, and then as a manager of, among others, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, a job that brought him to Los Angeles.

 

The Jewish scene he found here dismayed him. There were only a handful of temples, and no one except the very wealthy seemed to patronize them, he said. So, in 1973, he and his old friend Charles M. Powell, then head of publicity for MGM (Jane Powell is his widow), conceived of a synagogue for performing artists.

"We started in a little place on Olympic," Cutler said. "I found a guy who had a little auditorium in his house. It sat 80 people. Then I called up Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Orenstein — you know Saul and Bernie? — and I said, ‘I need books.’ So we got prayer books. The services were beautiful because no one had ever seen anything like it." (Turtletaub and Orenstein, television producers, were responsible for such shows as Sanford and Son and Kate & Allie.)

Cutler insisted to me the motivating factor was to give young, poor Jewish actors a place to come together. "Primarily it was for the people who couldn’t afford it," he said. "We charged $18 a year, and the services were free. I don’t go for the celebs so much as the people."

Even as he said this, Cutler pulled out from beside his desk a framed photograph of the original members standing in suits and yarmulkes. There was Cutler, still looking bearish and affectionate but with darker hair, holding a Torah; Charles Powell; a Yiddish stage and TV character actor named Mike Burstyn, who served as the original cantor; Allan Blye, who produced The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour; Turtletaub and Orenstein; and Walter Matthau, looking typically unimpressed. Cutler performed the service at Matthau’s funeral in 2000. "I got applause," he said excitedly, and then, catching himself, looking suddenly downcast.

In 1979, Cutler became disenchanted. The Powells and the board wanted to start charging more for membership and services and to play up the synagogue’s celebrity members to attract new dollars. "They wouldn’t let someone in for Yom Kippur because he couldn’t pay. That drove me crazy." Cutler’s father had just died, and he was going through a divorce. "I said, ‘Before I have a heart attack, let me get out of here.’"

Cutler returned full time to writing sitcoms for a time, and then in 1982 returned to the pulpit, founding Creative Arts. Certain older members of the SFTPA congregation defected to be with him, creating an animosity between him and the SFTPA board, he said. It worsened over the years. One incident that Cutler remembered particularly rankled him. He’d hired Jordan Bennett, a musical actor he’d seen in a traveling production of Les Misérables, to be his cantor, but since Bennett was often on the road, Cutler frequently had to employ guest cantors. One Friday he called Judy Fox, the cantor at SFTPA and an old friend. She said she’d have to check with the board.

"She called me back and said, ‘Jerry, they won’t let me do it. They say you’re a competing temple.’ I said, ‘Competing? Has it gotten to that plateau now, that it’s a competition?’ I said ‘Judy, please, I’m asking you as a friend!’ She couldn’t do it. For a long time after that I couldn’t believe it. I was walking around in a stupor. I started that temple! I gave birth to it for God’s sake! That hurt."

Fox, however, said Cutler’s memory of events was off. She claimed that Cutler asked her to participate in a fund-raiser for Creative Arts, and she declined of her own volition. "It didn’t feel appropriate," she said. "I hadn’t even done a fund-raiser for my own temple."

To show that his old temple, SFTPA, is overly concerned with celebrity status, Cutler told a story involving actor Jon Voight — a friend of Cutler's, of course, who does a lot of work for charities. Someone on the SFTPA board called him and asked him to speak at a service. He called Cutler. "He said, ‘Jerry, do I have to go to this thing?’ I said, ‘Jon, first of all, you're not Jewish. Secondly, why would they call you? Only because you've been at my service.’

"It’s nutty. It’s crazy."

David Baron was initially reluctant to sit for an interview. "I don’t want to be grouped with those other temples," he said. "We’re the largest of the three by far, and we’re the only one that takes the mission of the arts in religion seriously."




Rabbinical rivals: David Baron of
Temple Shalom for the Arts, top,
and Creative Arts Temple's
Jerry Cutler


 

He did finally agree to meet, however, and I went to Shalom’s small office in a nondescript white building on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, also in Westwood. Baron, who is 53, looks the part of the showman-rabbi his critics accuse him of being. Trim, with stylishly tousled gray hair and a conspiratorial grin, he photographs well. In person — though, strangely, not in pictures — he bears a strong resemblance to Garry Shandling. He has the easy but insistent demeanor of someone who’s always in the midst of carrying out a "project" of some sort and wants you to know about it. Baron has written an Old Testament–inflected business-advice book called Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greates Manager of All Time, and he takes the job of running a temple very seriously. At the moment he was putting together Shalom’s yearly Yom Kippur television special, Temple of the Air, which was broadcast in September on PAX. He is trying to put together a six-part High Holy Day deal with the cable network.

"They have 98 million homes," he casually informed me, adding, "So, you know . . ."

On the white board behind his desk, in large black Magic Marker letters, was written "Call Jason Alexander" and the number.

Baron moved to Los Angeles from his native Miami in the early 1980s, he told me, and took up the pulpit at Temple B’nai Chaim in Sherman Oaks. In 1985, he was hired by SFTPA, and in 1992 he left to found Shalom after a dispute with the board. He was willing to divulge more than Cutler about the details, but refused to mention board members’ names.

"I was really ready to take my mission of Judaism in the arts to a whole other level," he said. "I guess the analogy would be, if you decided to start working out and your chest went from a size X to an X plus 3, and you’re still putting on the old suit — well, the old suit’s not going to do anymore.

"They saw the mission of that synagogue to be a club," he went on. "My experimentation with Judaism and the arts was bringing 800 to 1,000 people out on a Friday night. Their response was: ‘I don’t like that, I can’t get my good seat anymore. Who are all these strange people? I don’t know them. They don’t work in the entertainment industry.’ I said, ‘Who gives a shit? These are people — Jews and others — who are getting turned on by this religious experience. That’s what this is about!’ ‘No, no, no, Rabbi, that’s not what this is about. We want show-biz asses in those seats.’"

Cantor Judy Fox corroborated this in part. "Baron opened it up to more people outside the industry, and not everybody liked that," she said, then defended Baron’s stance: "Whatever’s gonna keep a Jew interested in Judaism is what you want."

Differences with synagogue boards seem to be common with Baron. Following our interview, I called B’nai Chaim and learned not only that Baron was fired from the temple but that he subsequently sued them. He’d neglected to tell me of any of this.

"He was good at publicity and getting attention for the temple," said a B’nai member who did not want to be named. The dispute was largely financial. "There were a lot of people on the board who didn’t like what he was doing. He’d go away on cruises without telling us. When he got married he made us have a party for him. It was expensive." The speaker did not want to be named for fear of retribution from Baron. "Knowing his personality, he’s likely to come after me," she said.

When I asked him about the firing and the lawsuit, Baron admitted to them but said that he had been clearly vindicated by the out-of-court settlement, the terms of which he said he couldn’t discuss.

At SFTPA, neither Miller, Tobias nor Fox would discuss the circumstances of Baron’s departure, or claimed not to remember them. Baron, for his part, said he was fed up with SFTPA’s claim to being a seat of Hollywood power, which is an illusion.

"One of the board members is a travel agent who worked for Paramount Studios," he said. "So her number-one client is Paramount — so what? [The Hollywood connection] was always being stretched. Another [board member] was a lawyer, but only 10 percent of his practice was entertainment, the other 90 percent was personal injury. This is not Jake Bloom or Bert Fields."

 

Baron, who is fond of estimating percentages, said that 40 percent of SFTPA's congregation left with him when he abdicated in 1992. Lee Miller, whose wife, Cookie, is, incidentally, both SFTPA’s executive director and a travel agent, put the number at 20 percent.

No sooner had he belittled SFTPA’s show-business pretensions and claimed that he had none of his own, however, than Baron offhandedly estimated that "about 80 percent" of his congregation comes from the entertainment industry. In his case, though, the posturing seems to stand up: An inspection of his 17-person board found entertainment lawyers and business managers, producers, actors and set designers. (A comparable inspection of SFTPA’s board found only three people directly affiliated with entertainment.) And where a Shalom board member wasn’t in the industry, Baron was eager to point to a father or wife who was. He remembered credits, dates, Emmy nominations.

Barry Gordon, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1988 to 1995, is one of his cantors. Stacey Sher, producer of Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich and one of his members, convinced him to play the rabbi role in Along Came Polly. When I asked whom I might contact to get a congregant’s perspective, he advised me to call film critic Leonard Maltin or CAA agent Fred Specktor. "To us he was the service," said Maltin, who attended Baron’s first service at the SFTPA 20 years ago and followed him to Shalom. Baron presided over Maltin’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. "David is a humanist, and he conducts a very warm ceremony. It’s very embracing and inclusive. There’s always humor. He has brought some riveting, inspiring guests." What about the Hollywood factor? "I don’t go there to be seen," Maltin said. "I’m sure an outsider looking in couldn’t help noticing the juxtaposition of the service with the Hollywood scene. But let’s face it — that’s where we live."

During one phone conversation, Baron had to put me on hold. "I have the White House on the other line — can you hold for a second, please?" he said. He returned to breezily inform me that Noam Neusner, George W. Bush’s liaison to the Jewish community, wanted a favor. But for all of his politicking and contradictions, it must be said that Baron takes his "mission of the arts in religion" quite seriously — far more seriously than Creative Arts or SFTPA, it seemed to me. "I think the expression of the human condition comes out in prayer and in art," he told me.

Baron’s devotion can be seen in Temple Shalom prayer books, hardbound and adorned with lush Marc Chagall prints, that he had custom made. He’s produced, with the History Channel, a documentary and teaching program called Diplomats for the Damned, about diplomats who helped Jews escape the Holocaust. He released the Enlighten CD of new Jewish devotional music, and in his bimonthly newsletter he writes on important arts-related topics affecting Jews; in last fall’s issue, for instance, he pilloried The Passion of the Christ. At his High Holy Day services, Baron presents "living sermons," in which notables speak on a theme — last year, author Gerald Posner, L.A. terrorism czar John Miller and Geraldo Rivera gave talks. At his Temple of the Air special in September, lawyer Barry Scheck of O.J.-trial fame spoke on the subject of guilt and innocence, bringing with him a falsely convicted man whom he helped exonerate.

There is no doubt that Baron is good at what he does. There is also no doubt that he holds a good many long-standing grudges. Telushkin doesn’t impress. "They hired a rabbi who doesn’t even live in L.A. and never will live in L.A. and just is not an L.A. person," he said. "He’s just a hire-in who comes in for the High Holy Days. He’s not part of the community." And though admitting that he had never attended a Creative Arts service, he had nothing favorable to say about Cutler. "For Jerry, the whole thing is about the humor," he said.

Told of these comments, Cutler responded, "There are a lot of comics in my congregation because I used to be a comic. I hope I still have a sense of humor. But that’s very, very, very unfair of him. Terribly uncalled for. I’m very annoyed at that. What a terrible thing to say. Whew! That's uncalled for."

The reasons for Baron’s aversion to Cutler, who has never served on the board of a temple where Baron was rabbi, are not clear. They have never crossed paths professionally. Certainly, Baron seems to take deep offense at arts synagogues that in his opinion do not live up to their titles. Another possible explanation is that he wants a larger congregation. Several years ago, Cutler said, Baron furtively took him out to lunch. He had a proposition: He wanted Cutler to retire from the pulpit, disband Creative Arts, and give his congregation to Baron. In return he would make Cutler rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom.

 

"He had a deal with some cruise lines," Cutler said, "and he said he’d put me as a rabbi on cruises. ‘You’ll love it,’ he said. What do I want to do that for? I was livid with him, to say the least. Why is he fighting so bitterly?"

"Jerry’s memory needs to take some ginko biloba," said Baron. He claimed that the president of Creative Arts at the time, Stewart Kricun, approached a Temple Shalom board member with the idea of a merger. The rumor was that Creative Arts was broke. Baron pitched the idea to Cutler, who turned it down. There was no discussion of cruise lines, Baron said. "It is a typical half-truth but, considering the source, not a surprising half-truth."

So the accusations continue to fly and probably will continue to do so as long as there are congregants to fight over and attention to be sought, even as the people in the pews grow older and older and that day more than 30 years ago, when Jerry Cutler first stood up and cracked jokes from the pulpit of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, recedes farther into the past. Comedy and theatrics have always had a prominent place in temple life but no more so than politics and feuding. Indeed, I got the impression from Baron and Cutler that without some kind or rivalry, these two proud rabbis would feel somewhat lost. For them, religion is not just a matter of the expression of faith. It is a way of life, a manner of speaking, a brand of humor and, no less, a business. As Baron put it, "We’re in the business of religion, but it is a business like any other."

Like, for instance, Hollywood.

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