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.
It’s a little bit funny to talk about Soloway as a youth messiah considering how old she is. Then again, she’d rather we not state her age beyond saying that she’s in her 40s. After all, Hollywood covets youth, even behind the scenes. But no one laughs harder at this than Soloway herself, who has two kids, Isaac, 16, and Felix, 4. While accepting an honor in June for her work with East Side Jews from the Breed Street Shul Project, a nonprofit working to rehabilitate a synagogue in the eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights, she told a room full of donors: “The TV world sees me as someone who should be kept in a pen in the basement, with Penny Marshall and Nancy Meyers, and a few women who have passed away. But in the Jewish world, I’m Jessica Alba. Who knew? I’m being honored as the face of the future of Judaism, and I’m days away from menopause.”
Sanderson, of course, is well aware of Soloway’s age. “One of the tricky aspects of all the things happening in the Jewish community around young adults is that something that was really effective five or six years ago [may not be today],” he said. “People get older, get married, and have children. The question is what happens next.” He went on to articulate something that all Jewish communities are grappling with: Once young Jews are interested, what do you do with them? How do you deepen their engagement? How much religion do you impose? How do you affiliate the willfully unaffiliated? The questions are ever more important in Los Angeles, because Soloway’s career success has her flirting with leaving East Side Jews to the professionals.
Though her résumé is impressive, Soloway has spent most of her time in the TV business working on other people’s shows. A few years ago she had a pilot script under consideration for pick-up at HBO when she heard that someone named Lena Dunham had scored her own series on the network. Soon after came word that Soloway’s show did not get a green light. “I was like, ‘How the fuck did Girls happen on my watch?’ ” she recalled of her reaction at the time. “Where did she come from? Shit! Then I watched [Dunham’s movie] Tiny Furniture and I went, ‘Oh, yeah, I see why.’ I was so jealous-slash-inspired.”
Soloway got to work. She made a short film, Una Hora Por Favor, that was accepted at Sundance. While there, she saw a lot of movies. “This sucks. This sucks. This sucks,” was her response. “I can do better. I can do better. I can do better.” Soloway said she retreated to her condo at the festival, where she picked up a script she had abandoned a few years earlier. It became Afternoon Delight, which won Soloway the directing award at the next year’s festival. “I was really just so reanimated by the idea that to be a writer-director you have to grab it yourself,” she said. “You just have to say over and over again: I am a director. Nobody gives it to you. Nobody anoints you.”
This month, she will shoot a pilot for her own series, Transparent, about a Jewish family in which the dad (played by Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender. The show is for Amazon, which may be the leader in all things shopping online, but really wants to get into content development and distribution. Soloway’s pilot will be among a slate of shows that screens online Dec. 26; viewers’ favorites will become series. In many ways, Amazon seems a perfect match for Soloway’s scrappy, let’s-put-on-a-show ethos. “It’s hard to be funny, human, and moving, but Jill always is,” said Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, echoing the sentiment of Hall, his counterpart at HBO.
Soloway’s interest in all things Jewish was stoked by the 2005 Reboot conference, an invitation-only, all-expenses-paid retreat in the thin, rarefied air of Park City, Utah (the same town that hosts Sundance), for Jews primarily in media, entertainment, and technology. There the largely unaffiliated talk about reinventing Jewish traditions. “It totally blew me away,” said Soloway. “I think what Reboot delivers on just worked. In some ways they sort of manufacture a calling. They manufacture a spark.”
That spark led Soloway to start Heaping Portion, a Jewish version of her already popular open-mic storytelling event, Sit ‘N Spin, where writers, artists and musicians (read: “people in the business”) come together every other week to read essays and play live music. At Heaping Portion, a similar crowd would riff on the Torah portion of the week. “As someone who went to Jewish day school and has studied Torah, I remember being in the audience and having a new understanding of text that I had read over and over again,” said Rachel Levin, executive director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Jewish grant-making organization that helped to develop Reboot. “It was profound.” (Heaping Portion no longer exists, but Sit ‘N Spin goes on.)
That wasn’t enough for Soloway. She decided she wanted to make a Reboot for everyone. “Reboot had this slightly unfortunate exclusivity where you couldn’t really tell people about it because then they would go, ‘I want to go,’ and you would have to go, ‘You can’t. I got chosen and I don’t know if you would be,’ ” she said. So, along with fellow Rebooters, including entrepreneur Julie Hermelin, musician Craig Wedren, and journalist Christopher Noxon, she formed East Side Jews. They got a project grant from Reboot, which became the group’s 501(c)(3). Soon after, Ayana Morse, executive director of the Silver Lake Independent JCC, brought East Side Jews into the fold there as more Rebooters—Micah Fitzerman-Blue, co-founder of the men’s vintage shopping site Bureau of Trade, and his wife, Liba Rubenstein, who is Tumblr’s director of outreach—came on board. The Reboot mafia extends to Soloway’s professional work: Radnor, the male lead in her film, is a fellow Rebooter. “A lot of the people I know connect through working,” said Soloway. “We’re all so ambitious. Sometimes my friends will say, ‘I want to hang out with you.’ And I just go, ‘Well, let’s do a project together.’ That’s the only way I can.”
In Afternoon Delight, Rachel, the lead character, spends a lot of time dropping off and picking up her son at the East Side JCC. Those scenes were filmed at the Silver Lake Independent JCC. It’s as if Soloway manifested her vision of the JCC in the way she portrayed it on screen.
In real life, the JCC is old, and it’s been through a lot. Built in 1951 to serve a small Jewish community, it had fallen on hard times when, more than 10 years ago, the Jewish Federation decided to sell it off. But the JCC staff fought successfully to buy it back and make it independent. Now, in a twist of irony, the Federation is funding East Side Jews, which is housed at the Silver Lake JCC and uses its administrative services.
In those 10 years the hipsters grew up and started having babies. The JCC has a thriving preschool and Hebrew school, but the rest of the building is closed off, in disrepair; the gym is rented out to a children’s gymnastics school. But it could be an amazing center for Jewish life. When Soloway got involved she had plans to raise funds, raze half the place, and rebuild. “I was like, let’s do this, let’s kick the gymnastics people out,” she said, getting worked up. “It would have a place for people to go with their laptop, have a meeting, get a cup of coffee.” And, in an only-in-Hollywood twist: “A place where you can screen your film. That to me is more of a pressing need than a place to go and have services on Friday night. Then if people figure out a way to do services in that theater space, great.”
The poem ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ reminds us that we can change our own character, even if we cannot completely control our future