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Is This ‘the Face of the Future of Judaism’ for a New Generation in Los Angeles?

TV and film director Jill Soloway has been running a de facto Jewish community. The question is whether it can outlast her success.

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Jill Soloway. (Emily Shur)
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“I was channeling my Aunt Rose.”

Jill Soloway was excitedly recounting LoveFest, the matchmaking event she held in July to mark the rarely celebrated holiday of Tu B’Av, known as the Jewish Valentine’s Day, where she and a few friends donned fuchsia babushkas and played yentas.

“Sooooo,” she said, dragging out the “O” and raising her voice half an octave for a nasal, Fran Drescher-style accent. “Tell me what you’re looking for.”

Soloway reverted to her normal voice: “I squeezed my nails into this girl’s arm.”

And Fran Drescher again: “You say you want to have children? Ohhhhkaaaay, we’re looking for someone who wants to make babies.”

“It was so stupid and so fun,” Soloway said, back to her normal tone. “I was deputized by the babushka to do the thing I’ve always wanted to do, which is putting people together. It was total chaos. It became more like a theater event than actual matchmaking. Some people really wanted my services, and some were completely annoyed by me.”

In other words, it was just another Saturday night in the life of Jill Soloway, television writer, movie director, and part-time yenta.

***

Three years ago, Soloway cofounded East Side Jews, which brings together 20- and 30-something Jews in Silver Lake and the surrounding neighborhoods of Los Angeles for offbeat, too-cool-for-shul events that tend to be heavy on comedy and light on Jewish ritual. Movie-style posters and Facebook announcements lead 50 to 350 young (and young-ish) Jews at a time to the L.A. River for Tashlich; to a spice store for Havdalah (with a Jewish porn star guest speaker for extra spice); and to the roof of a Korean spa for Rosh Hodesh. The events, as many as 10 to 15 a year, can feel like de facto Jewish singles mixers (except for LoveFest, which is squarely aimed at singles) for L.A.’s burgeoning creative class, an intersection of old-school entertainment (screenwriting, movie producing) and new-school technology (social media marketing, entrepreneurial app development).

flyers for past East Side Jews' events

In June, I attended Last Sabbath, a monthly gathering at a succession of restaurants that had about 60 of us seated at long tables appointed with pitchers of beer. It was held at ATX, a self-proclaimed “vegan-friendly,” open-air restaurant that serves pork, in a formerly industrial complex filled with design studios and artists’ collectives in up-and-coming Atwater Village. A few ESJ regulars recited prayers over the candles, wine, and challah. That was it for Jewish content, unless you count the discussion of ambivalence about Jewish observance that inevitably arises when you bring together strangers tied by the one thing they’re not sure they believe in.

“I love groups,” Soloway told me a week later, seated on a tapestry-covered bench on the terrace of her hilltop Silver Lake home. She attributes her “slightly culty impulses” to growing up in the progressive, secular community of South Commons, a late-1960s experiment in urban renewal on the south side of Chicago. “The writers’ room, that’s like a utopian fantasy,” she said of the collaborative space that a TV show writers’ room can be. “I’m constantly egging on conversations like, Let’s all go buy some land!” She’s been able to indulge those tendencies in the writers’ rooms of such series as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara.

“I’ve been a fan of Jill’s for a long time,” said Nick Hall, vice president of comedy development for HBO, who has brought her in to help guide less-experienced TV writers on the shows How To Make It in America and Looking, an upcoming half-hour about gay men in San Francisco. “She’s like the godmother of the writers’ room. And she has a skill that’s very hard to come by: Jill can go deep, really find the truth of a character, and make it funny. She grounds the comedy in something real”—qualities essential to shows that seek that rare alchemy of drama and comedy.

This year Soloway wrote and directed her first movie, Afternoon Delight, about a Silver Lake wife and mother (played by Kathryn Hahn) who invites a young stripper to stay in her home. The film, shot in and around Soloway’s own home, won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened in theaters last week to mixed reviews but solid box office. It has a subtle undercurrent of Jewish themes, particularly about ambivalence over Jewish ritual, which proves to be a grounding force. Josh Radnor, the movie’s leading man, likens Soloway’s way with those themes to the coded messages that politicians use when speaking to certain demographic groups. “I feel like Jill’s movie has a lot of code in it,” said Radnor, who is also a star of the long-running TV series How I Met Your Mother. “You can certainly watch it and not even think about the Jewishness of the movie, but if you are Jewish or if you understand what is rippling under the surface of that I think it makes it a richer experience.”

Between her gift for bringing together unaffiliated young people and her IMDb credentials, Soloway has long been on the radar of the institutional Jewish world. “What Jill has brought to the Jewish community is a certain curiosity, an openness and a level of creativity that is generally missing from Jewish life,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which has been funding East Side Jews since 2011. “She’s been able to create a sense of community in an area where there wasn’t community.”

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Is This ‘the Face of the Future of Judaism’ for a New Generation in Los Angeles?

TV and film director Jill Soloway has been running a de facto Jewish community. The question is whether it can outlast her success.