Welcome to our newest column: “Jewish Stars.”
Each month, Malina Saval will give Tablet readers a glimpse into how Jewish identity and Jewishness is experienced in Hollywood. She’ll be interviewing players in front of and behind the scenes—writers, actors, producers, directors, development executives. And she’ll be asking them what it’s like living and working as a Jew in Hollywood, where they seek our spirituality, where they seek out Jewish delis, and how they maintain a sense of strong cultural identity (or don’t) in a business that—while heavily Jewish in its history and ranks, isn’t always in its kishkes.
On the subject of Jews in the entertainment industry, Sascha Rothchild is rightfully wary. It’s a loaded topic—people still legitimately wonder if there’s truth to the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews control Hollywood; some Jews still ask this question—and she’s careful not to say anything that might unintentionally perpetuate the pervasive myth that to be Jewish and work in TV or film means you’ve got some sort of guaranteed monopoly on success.
“This conversation weirdly makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want to propagate the idea that Jews run Hollywood,” says Rothchild, a seasoned TV writer whom I first got to know when I profiled her for Variety’s “10 TV Scribes to Watch” feature in 2015. “But I also think that it’s a good conversation to have. There’s a whole history there, of why Jews came to Hollywood, because they weren’t allowed [to work in theater] in New York. It might seems like there are a lot of Jews in Los Angeles but, in fact, there was no place for them anywhere else.”
When we meet one sunny weekend afternoon, Rothchild has just spent two hours at an intensive handstand workshop class in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, an eastside hipster neighborhood dotted with cafes and clothing stores and kid-friendly coffee shops. (“Headstand was my fortieth birthday goal,” she says, her fiery red hair swept off her face. “Handstands is my forty-first.”) It’s a break in Rothchild’s hectic schedule as a Hollywood screenwriter in demand: she recently sold a one-hour dramatic comedy pilot to ABC and Warner Brothers and is currently supervising producer on Glow, Netflix’s critically-hailed half-hour comedy about the outrageous, glitter-filled world of women’s wrestling in 1980s Los Angeles. Think: Spandex and leg warmers and hairspray galore. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the series is executive produced by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds fame) and stars Alison Brie as a fledgling actress who trades Shakespeare for body slams, Betty Gilpin as a busty, bodacious ex-soap opera star angling to get back into showbiz, and Marc Maron as a failed filmmaker-turned-wrestling impresario who snorts coke and chain smokes his way through coaching sessions in the ring.
While being Jewish certainly didn’t help in terms of securing Rothchild, who was raised in a Reform Jewish family in Miami Beach, any of her numerous writing gigs—”I’ve always felt that it’s not an issue one way or the other”—her background has been a source of inspiration during the creative process.
“I think there’s something in Jewish culture—the pain and the suffering and the guilt and the boisterous, tight-knit families—it all tends to breed comedy,” she says. “Growing up, you get into arguments that you wind up thinking are funny, because the laughter helps with the pain and the tears. My parents taught me if the joke doesn’t land at the dinner table, you move to another joke. If you’re losing your audience you change the subject. In that sense I think being Jewish has served me very well to be a comedy writer. I think, in a way, those family dinners were my first writers room.”
It was at Boston College, a Jesuit school, where Rothchild first cut her teeth as a writer, majoring in theater with a concentration in playwriting. It was also where, out of necessity, she became more pro-actively Jewish than she’d ever been: she founded an on-campus Hillel chapter, took History of Judaism—out of 8,000 students, she was the only one to sign up for the course—and built a sukkah on the arts quad.
“Miami has a huge Jewish community and we went to temple sometimes, but it was just a part of life that I didn’t think about too much,” she says. “I went to Boston College and I had never experienced anti-Semitism before or the ignorance of people outside of Miami. Most of the kids there didn’t understand that Passover was the Last Supper—they had no connection to any of it. I went to Boston College because I didn’t get into Yale; it was a safety school. It didn’t even occur to me that it was a Jesuit school. It didn’t even occur to me what that meant. So when I first got there, I was shocked that there were crucifixes in every classroom and in all the cafeterias. I was like, I’m in a public space where Jesus is everywhere. I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I was the only one who thought that was odd. So, I became an uber Jew.”
That changed when Rothchild graduated and moved to Los Angeles. She had no job, no leads. And wasn’t feeling particularly Jewish anymore.
“In L.A., I quickly felt this overwhelming Jewish community and then no longer felt like I needed to be like the symbol or the teacher,” she says. “I felt, L.A. doesn’t need me to be Jewish anymore, so I just kind of went back to my sort of cultural yet non-religious feelings about it.”
Passover rolled around and pangs of nostalgia kicked in and Rothchild went looking for a Seder. She reached out to a childhood friend, who put her in a touch with another friend and, through a series of events that’s nothing if not decidedly Hollywood, wound up having her first Passover Seder in Los Angeles with Ben and Fred Savage and their family.
“I thought, oh, this is so L.A,” Rothchild recalls of the experience. “I’ve been here for like three months and now I’m having a Seder with the TV stars of The Wonder Years because that’s how L.A. Works.”
Of course, that wasn’t exactly how L.A. worked at all. Rothchild would spend the next decade struggling to launch her writing career, unable to gain traction, working as a cocktail waitress and growing frustrated as the years wore on. She wasn’t getting staffed, she wasn’t selling features. At one point she was “the girl in the glass tank” at the Standard hotel on Sunset. And her marriage was falling apart.
Eventually she turned to journalism, penning a cathartic—and comedic—first-person essay for LA Weekly about that failed first marriage (she’s now happily married to her second husband). Within one week of the essay’s publication she landed a book deal with Penguin and a movie deal at Universal. In 2010, Rothchild’s breakout memoir How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage was published.
“I moved to L.A. when I was 21,” she says. “That article came out when I was 31. So I had ten years of nothing to show for it and then everything coalesced in one week.”
But not everything fell into place. She was up for a lot of jobs that she did not get and sold several feature films that were not made, including a pitch for a comedy called Who Invited Her? that Dreamworks won in a bidding war. At one point Amy Schumer was attached to star (the movie has since been acquired by Universal).
“Some of these projects are still in play, most of them are dead,” she says. “But I made a living at writing, which was amazing. I just don’t think the TV landscape was ready for me.”
In 2013, she was hired as a staff writer and consulting producer on The Carrie Diaries, the CW’s short-lived prequel to Sex and the City, and spent time developing a TV project with Sarah Jessica Parker for HBO that never got made. She next created a single camera comedy for Freeform about the founders of Juicy Couture. It didn’t get picked up.
And then came Glow, a series that, while set in the outrageous, big-banged 80s, captures the zeitgeist of female empowerment in the modern age. It’s also a show put together by a lot of creative minds that just happen to be Jewish—Maron, Kohan, Tablet columnist Rachel Shukert is on its writing staff.
“It’s a very Jewish-friendly room,” Rothchild says of the Glow workspace, which consists of six female writers and one male one. “It’s like my cocoon, being in this writers room all day and feeling very loved and accepted in this world.”
Not so, she says, of social media, which has become an infamous font of anti-Semitism, especially for those in high profile positions. Since joining Twitter about six years ago, Rothchild says she has received approximately 200 death threats on the social media site, noting that many of these have coincided with the Age of Trump.
“Maybe it’s that they’ve confused with me with one of the Rothschilds [the banking family with a slightly different spelling], or maybe it’s only because I am a Jew,” she says of the tweets, ranging from “All Jews should die” to “All Jews should be at the bottom of the ocean.” One tweeter called her a “dirty Jew” and then threatened to rape and kill her.
“Mostly, they’re just horrible anti-Semitic ramblings that I don’t even understand,” says Rothchild. “It has definitely gotten worse in the last year since Trump. It’s just been a constant reminder—in a weird way, maybe it’s an important reminder—of how anti-Semitic it is in the world, how it really exists.”
There was also that time Rothchild met a successful Hollywood screenwriter who declared that being a Nazi doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person—that you can be a Nazi and still be a decent human being.
“I was so shocked that this women who is a working person in Hollywood—not Jewish—who just was so dense,” she says. “And the thing is, now it’s everywhere. Trump has let them all out of the woodwork. I thought this was an anomaly but I see so many of them everywhere. I remember meeting this woman and thinking she is crazy and what is she doing in Los Angeles? It’s frightening to know that she’s still working in the industry.”
Now in L.A. for 19 years, Rothchild has yet to return to the level of uber Jew observance she maintained in college. She and her husband usually spend Jewish holidays with her parents either in Miami or their vacation home in North Carolina, in a setting where “the only thing the neighbors know of Jewish life is from the TV show The Goldbergs.” A few years back Rothchild felt “spiritually empty” and briefly checked out one “amazing Reform temple” that she’d heard about on L.A.’s westside. But it wasn’t a match.
“It felt a little cult-y,” she says. “And the people were obsessed with it.”
Still, in Rothchild’s writing there remains a longing to stay tightly connected to her religious roots and cultural identity.
“When I pitch using my own family as material, it’s always Passover or some story about us all being together for a Jewish holiday,” she says. “But I know that for the script I’ll turn it into Thanksgiving, or something to which many more Americans can relate.”