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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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These stories are not intended only for Jews, but for the world’s vast non-Jewish majority. “How can 14 million Jews compete with China? They’ll tell us there are 14 million Chinese people in a village,” said Hier. “We need friends! The reach of Moriah Films, telling our story, which is quite a story, is about trying to make friends.”

It is Hier’s belief that Jews are at peril, always running the risk of being maltreated, exiled, or worse: He conceives of his films as a uniquely flexible tool for advocacy, an analog to, and PR campaign for, world Jewry’s most precious insurance policy—the state of Israel. “One of the most important things that Israel has to do is it has to have friends in the world who’d be willing to understand that there ought to be room on this planet for a Jewish state, because look what happened when there wasn’t any room,” said Hier. “We believe if something ever happened to the state of Israel, God forbid, Diaspora Jewry would be finished.”

Moriah tells the story of the Israeli miracle in order to protect the state’s rights and emphasize its unique role in the formation of the postwar Jewish spirit. “Jews started to walk taller. We didn’t need a chiropractor,” said Hier. Israel “is the chiropractor of the Jewish people.”

Yet other Jewish leaders remain concerned about the particular messages Hier and Moriah choose to emphasize. “The easiest way for Jews to make common cause with others is on the issue of anti-Semitism. And it doesn’t require appearing too Jewish,” said one prominent Jewish leader in Southern California who asked not to be named out of a desire to avoid conflict with Hier and the Wiesenthal Center. “Everybody agrees that we should fight discrimination and that the Holocaust was a catastrophe, a travesty. There’s no demands that are made on you.” The Jewish leader has no qualms with the stories Moriah (and the Wiesenthal Center) tell, only on their “over-emphasis” and “prioritization” over other kinds of Jewish stories. “They’re salesmen, and they’re selling a product,” he said. “He’s selling an angle. And he means it! He believes in it. But he’s selling an angle.”

Hier and Moriah are, fairly or unfairly, viewed as the poster children for what is seen as the Academy’s fixation on Holocaust-themed documentaries. Hier’s second Oscar, for The Long Way Home, came during a stretch between 1995 and 2000 when four of the six Academy Award winners for Best Documentary were about the Holocaust. Hier is unapologetic about his desire to tell the story of the Holocaust, but his affiliation with the Museum of Tolerance notwithstanding, Moriah is interested in more than just the Holocaust, having branched out in recent years to make films about Herzl, Winston Churchill, the fate of survivors in the years before Israel’s establishment, and the early years of the state of Israel. Some topics seem a strange fit with Moriah’s stated mission; what particular connection with Jewish history does Walking With Destiny, a hagiographic account of Churchill’s World War II years, have?

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Moriah’s latest cinematic effort extends and continues its recurring interest in Israel-themed films. After two decades and two Oscars, Moriah is an established brand in the world of documentary film, its stories professionally and efficiently told. The Prime Ministers fits snugly with Moriah’s earlier films, its Zionist triumphalism emphasizing Israel’s successes and downplaying its missteps. Adapting Yehuda Avner’s memoir, the film expects its audience to be familiar with the rough outline of Israel’s first two decades, preferring to offer a handpicked selection of anecdotes involving the country’s first prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir.

Its time frame is notably similar to an earlier Moriah film, In Search of Peace, which similarly touches on controversial topics, but only gently. The credits indicate that In Search, which covers the years 1948 to 1967, would be the first of two films, but no sequel ever emerged. In Search does discuss the forced Palestinian exodus during the war of 1948, quoting a shopkeeper in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony who fled, convinced that “next week, or 10 days’ time, we are going back to our houses.” We hear a Palestinian girl’s eyewitness testimony from the massacre at Deir Yassin and Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog’s issuance of herem (excommunication) for those responsible for the massacre.

The bulk of the film, though, is a hopscotch through the first two decades of Israeli history with an emphasis on the triumphant. Certain topics, like Golda Meir’s travels abroad and the fierce fight over accepting reparations from Germany, recur here and in The Prime Ministers. Moriah prefers triumph and uplift to nuance and controversy; In Search of Peace ends with the Six Day War and the return of the Old City to Israeli sovereignty, only lightly touching on the occupation that ensued.

Producer Rabbi Marvin Hier, Oscar winner Sandra Bullock as the voice of Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Director/Producer Richard Trank. (Moriah Films)

Hier received a copy of The Prime Ministers from a board member and was struck by it. He passed it along to Trank, who was also impressed. Hier asked his son Avi, who lives in Israel, to call Avner and express their interest. “He said, ‘Yehuda, you never told us about this!’ ” said Hier. “He put me on the phone; I said, ‘Yehuda, we’d like to do the film.’ He couldn’t believe it, that we were interested. He said, ‘Nobody called me!’ ” Moriah ended up beating out a number of other suitors for the rights to The Prime Ministers and called on Avner to narrate the film adaptation of his book. “I was nervous because I didn’t know what he’d be like on camera,” said Trank. “As soon as we sat down, I knew.”

Adapting Avner’s book has turned into Moriah’s most complex project yet. Avner’s 700-page book, chock-full of personal anecdotes about Israeli leaders the author had known, offered a wealth of material. Trank began editing together a rough cut and showing it to Hier at their weekly meetings. “Every week we were watching, cutting, rabbi’s very happy, my editor’s very happy, I’m very happy,” remembered Trank, “and we get to a certain point where an hour and 35, hour 40 minutes into the movie—” “According to the book, we’re only on page 148,” Hier said with a chuckle. “At this point, we’ll be on The Prime Ministers for five years!” Hier and Trank conferred and ultimately decided to split the book into two separate films, with the first, subtitled The Pioneers, concluding shortly after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Much like In Search of Peace, The Prime Ministers mostly bypasses the more complex or traumatic aspects of Israeli history in favor of an uplifting, if occasionally bittersweet, story of triumph. The Prime Ministers ends on a downbeat note, with Meir’s resignation after the Yom Kippur War, but leaves the strong impression of an unbroken chain of forward-thinking and fundamentally decent Israeli leaders.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, mostly absent from In Search of Peace and The Prime Ministers, is more present, yet still underplayed, in Trank’s finely wrought short documentary Beautiful Music. The film follows a blind, autistic Palestinian woman named Raja, raised by Christian missionaries on the West Bank, who flourishes under the care of an Israeli piano teacher named Devorah Schramm living in nearby Gilo. Raja, who cannot speak, discovers music as a lifeline. The film takes a darker turn when the second intifada, in 2000, keeps Raja from making the journey from Beit Jala to Schramm’s home in Gilo. Will Raja be able to make it to her piano recital? Beautiful Music is tender and touching, with Schramm concluding by saying that “if we look deeply at another person, we see another person. When we look at headlines, we see generalities. All of us need to look at people.”

Hier’s often-expressed hawkishness—Tom Segev refers to the Wiesenthal Center’s “neoconservative, universalist worldview” in his biography of Wiesenthal—undoubtedly colors some of Moriah’s films and their approach to recent Middle Eastern history. The Prime Ministers is a look at Israeli history that only lightly engages with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trank said that the second installation will take up the subject, but one wonders whether Hier views Moriah as another form of advocacy for his own constricted version of history.

Hier sees his political ideology as a product of the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The Rav argued that “every Jew should be in the entrance of his tent,” engaged with the world and contributing to mankind, and Hier is the embodiment of that belief—perhaps to a fault. He is in the entrance of his tent, inviting the world in, and sometimes his voice may drown out other, potentially dissenting voices. “I think people look and they’re very proud,” Trank said of Hier’s image in the Southern California Jewish community. “I’ve been on planes with Rabbi Hier where a non-Jewish flight attendant is like, ‘You’re Rabbi Hier!’ A lot of that has to do with what we’ve done in the entertainment world.”

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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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