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Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, right, greets actor Idris Elba at Sundance 2018.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, right, greets actor Idris Elba at Sundance 2018.
Yehuda Prero

L.A. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein Brings Digital Detox and Shabbat Dinner to Sundance

The special connection between the Sundance Film Festival and Los Angeles is no mystery. Large companies such as William Morris and ASCAP rent out their own private events, while millionaire businessmen come to their Deer Valley homes with hopes of partying at $20,000 tables at the Post Malone concert in their once-a-year fur coats.

But it’s not all about the sold-out shows and celebrity parties. Yonah Bookstein, rabbi at the Pico Shul synagogue in Los Angeles, and his organization Shabbat Tent set up dinner dates for the film industry, sharing challah, wine and brisket at the Sundance Shabbat Lounge at the Wasatch Brew Pub.

Bookstein sees it as a chance for a “digital detox” at the celebrity-driven film festival in Park City, Utah (where it runs Jan. 18-28 this year). On a simple level, he just wants to chill and enjoy the Sabbath, and he's giving others the opportunity to do that with him.

The Sundance Shabbat dinner features traditional elements of the weekly Friday Night Sabbath meal, such as challah, wine, fish, soup and multiple courses. But instead of family members and close friends, this sold-out meal is packed with entertainment and tech insiders, aspiring actors, writers and directors.

On Friday, Jan. 19, Bookstein schmoozed with tech entrepreneurs and Shabbat Lounge sponsors including Suzanne Felson of RESO.io, Leo Jeremias of Tris (a private/public messaging platform), and the head of @thesafeapp, a safe-sex app. Other guests included producers of such films as Madeline’s Madeline, American Animals and The Price of Everything; John Corser, VP of production at NBC Universal; Shabbat dinner host Nick Meyer of Sierra/Affinity; and actor-director Idris Elba and his entourage (who chilled till late at the Shabbat Lounge).

After dinner, Bookstein performed with his band, Shankbone, which got the crowd up and dancing to traditional Jewish songs.

A Detroit native, Bookstein realized his mission in life while a college student _ to help young Jews connect to Judaism. He went on to receive a master’s from Oxford University, where he met his wife and partner Rachel, and studied to become a rabbi in Israel and New York. He and his wife lived and worked in Israel, Poland and New York before finally settling in Southern California in 2004.

At Cal State Long Beach, Bookstein created a music, arts and culture festival called Jewlicious, which ran from 2005 to 2014 and featured top Jewish performers such as internationally known reggae artist Matisyahu.

Bookstein also collaborates with rappers and runs a Jewish hospitality tent at Coachella.

The Shabbat Tent, Sundance 2018EXPAND
The Shabbat Tent, Sundance 2018
Yehuda Prero

Bookstein doesn’t do any work on the Sabbath, the day of rest, when the Jewish religion calls for turning off cellphones and other electronics, walking instead of driving and forgoing any business dealings. So on Saturday, the day after the Shabbat dinner, L.A. Weekly asked about Bookstein's ties with Sundance.

How did you get into throwing Shabbat dinners at the Wasatch Brew?

We launched Shabbat Tent as an organization 11 years ago based on a model of festival hospitality developed by friends. We now reach seven to eight major festivals annually. Even on Passover we do Matzahchella, running seders at the Coachella grounds.

Are there any different blessings for a festival like Sundance versus your normal Shabbat at Pico Shul?

While I offer blessings every week at synagogue, at Sundance I offered a blessing before Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath, that everyone should see success spiritually and materially from their work and films. So, I wish hatzlacha (luck) to the agents, the buyers, producers and directors and, of course, the actors. Then we turned on the amps and rocked!

Are you excited for any films?

Favorite movie? OK, documentary, The Price of Everything. For a feature, American Animals. For a short, Don’t Be a Hero.

How did you end up at the Wasatch Brew, which usually serves tater tots, pizza and beer?

Rabbi Mendel Schwartz from Los Angeles invited me to co-organize Shabbat dinner at Sundance six or seven years ago. He organizes a famous Shabbat dinner in Cannes. After my first Sundance Shabbat dinner at the Yarrow Hotel, I said to Mendel, “We need a Shabbat Lounge on Main Street, like we do with Shabbat Tent at music festivals!”

Shabbat Tent has been planning this lounge for six years but could never line up sponsors and a venue at the same time. Venues at Sundance are very hard to come by. We even had to get a permit from the city, and they were confused because we weren’t selling anything and our whole goal is to bring a safe place of joy and rest. Thanks to Suzanne Felson, EJF Philanthropies, our board and the local Chabad rabbi, aka the Skiing Rabbi, who first suggested the Wasatch Brew Pub. It all aligned this year!

Is everyone Jewish at these festival Shabbats you run?

Shabbat Lounge and Shabbat Tent are always open to all people. We follow the vision of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was the first model for Jewish hospitality.

Why is your Shabbat Tent or lodge so needed at a festival like Sundance or Coachella?

Today the message of Shabbat could not be more needed — taking a digital break is critical for sanity. So much emailing and calling and selling and buying. This is a place to take a break from that.

So why Shabbat versus any other holiday?

Shabbat is a gift that has maintained the Jewish people for millennia. We believe also that the idea of Shabbat is a gift to the whole world and could help to make the world a better place. It is like Thanksgiving in America, but we do it every week.

For more information, check out picoshul.org and sundanceshabbat.org.

Rami Even-Esh is also known as rapper Kosha Dillz. Find him on Twitter or Instagram: @koshadillz.

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