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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.”

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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?