If scholars in several hundred years ever write the obituary of American Judaism, a key source document will surely be this piece from The Forward. Its title says it all: Rabbis Go Hollywood for High Holy Day Sermon Tips: Same Rules Apply to ‘Mad Men’ Episodes and Rosh Hashanah Talks.
The piece concerns “the High Holy Days Seminar, the largest trans-denominational gathering of rabbis on the West Coast.” And oh what a seminar it is:
“Rabbis want to be on the cutting edge,” said [seminar organizer Rabbi Jon] Hanish, who organized the Professional Writers Workshop for the August 16 seminar. Having dabbled in the movie business, Hanish attended the University of Southern California’s film school, sold a few screenplays and ran a postproduction facility before deciding to deliver sermons instead of pitching scripts. “My screenwriting classes taught me more about writing sermons than rabbinical school,” he said.
Hanish . . . by drawing on his industry ties pulled together a slew of star writers for the workshop. The impressive roster included [Janet] Leahy and colleague Lisa Albert, both writers for The AMC series “Mad Men”; Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning television writer/producer David M. Israel of Nickelodeon’s new series “How To Rock,” and Jason Katims (NBC’S “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” Fox’s “Boston Public”).
“We are all working on something,” Hanish said jokingly at the beginning of the session before directing the writers and rabbis to break into working groups of two and three.
The writers expressed some awe at the task at hand.
“The High Holy Days is like your sweeps,” Albert said, referring to the crucial weeks when TV ratings count most. “It’s like giving doctors advice just because you wrote ‘ER,’” another writer added.
David Weiss handed back to a rabbi a sermon whose theme was “This Is the Moment.” Words were circled on the page. He gently advised using more humor — “Top 10 lists, or taking the biblical and transposing it to the modern… you know, Abraham and Sarah on the way to Costco. Cheesy cheap tricks like that.”
It almost makes you wonder how thousands of years of rabbis could get by only on Torah.
What precisely is one supposed to feel about this? Contempt for rabbinical programs that cannot give their charges any more than they have? Or their admissions departments that can’t get better people? Or the postwar generation of American Jews that hollowed out the religion so much that no one could appreciate the depth and power of the tradition?
When I was growing up, my favorite part of my synagogue was grassy area where the Sukkah would be raised every year. It was a great, leafy, glorious structure, covered with vegetables and gourds. I loved it. And then one year I came back from college and discovered to my horror that the area had been paved over and was now home to a gray, steel Holocaust memorial. If that’s all you have from the tradition, and you don’t want to harp on the Holocaust, then I suppose all you have left is “Mad Men.”
I realize it’s a tough job market out there, but it seems to me that there are a few people who ought to be looking for another line of work.