Rabbis Go Hollywood for High Holy Days Sermon Tips

Same Rules Apply to 'Mad Men' Episodes and Rosh Hashanah Talks

Inspiration From On High: Rabbis met with Hollywood scriptwriters as they sought to create punchier sermons for the High Holy Days.
Rex Weiner
Inspiration From On High: Rabbis met with Hollywood scriptwriters as they sought to create punchier sermons for the High Holy Days.

By Rex Weiner

Published August 22, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Comedy writer Janet Leahy was working on an episode of “The Simpsons” a couple of years ago, when her rabbi asked her for three jokes to punch up his Rosh Hashanah sermon.

With this year’s High Holy Days looming, Leahy sat on the sun-drenched terrace of the Stephen S. Wise Temple and listened attentively to two other rabbis pitching ideas for their biggest sermons of the year.

“It’s about a leap of faith,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “About accepting what will be…”

“How you let go of fears,” Leahy interjected, taking Fox’s theme and running with it, “so you can move forward and take the journey.”

The veteran writer connected Fox’s premise to a rafting trip she took down the Colorado River. Leahy quickly segued into her own life in the rough-and-tumble entertainment business, and the scariness of “constantly losing our jobs and looking for work.”

“Don’t be afraid,” chimed in Rabbi Jason Weiner, who will be delivering his High Holy Day sermon to staff at Cedars-Sinai hospital. “‘Don’t be afraid’ is the most repeated phrase in the Bible whenever God speaks.”

In Jewish learning, this kind of give-and-take is similar to havrutah, a session in which everyone shares ideas. In Hollywood, it’s called the Writers Room, a fast-paced process where scriptwriters sit around a table and trade ideas under tight deadlines and the pressure to turn out hit shows.

Put the two together, and you get the High Holy Days Seminar, the largest trans-denominational gathering of rabbis on the West Coast. Presented by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, under the aegis of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, this year’s event was reshaped by the board’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Diamond, and seminar chair Rabbi Jon Hanish.

“Rabbis want to be on the cutting edge,” said 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.

It was Hanish who had solicited jokes from Leahy, and by drawing on his industry ties pulled together a slew of star writers for the workshop. The impressive roster included 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.

In one session, a rabbi asked if it was possible to make his sermons more personal with examples from real life without intruding or making his congregants uncomfortable.

“People come to me for counseling,” he said, “but they don’t want to wind up in a sermon.” The writer nodded sympathetically, but it looked like he was tucking away that idea away for a future episode.

“Confronting the dark side” was the edgy topic in another group, with allusions to Moses and snakes in the desert. “It leads to healing,” the rabbi said. The writer agreed.

“How do you like the ending?” another rabbi asked writer Dahvi Waller after she had perused a draft of the rabbi’s sermon.

Waller, a veteran of ABC’S “Desperate Housewives,” liked the first draft for earning what TV writers dub “The vomit pass — where we just get it all out there.”

Still, she said the sermon needed a “polish,” with fewer generalities and more details.

“What makes writing fresh is finding specificity,” Waller told the rabbi, advising to sharpen generic terms “like it’s a real story.” “The character wears a certain necklace, or has a lisp.”

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.”

The rabbi looked quizzical, but Weiss was undeterred. “TV is… a constant series of riddles,” he observed. “Like Mark Twain said, ‘You have to constantly surprise people with the expected.’”

As an example, Weiss told the joke about the difference between the Jewish optimist and the Jewish pessimist. “The Jewish pessimist says, ‘Things can’t get any worse,’ and the Jewish optimist says, ‘Sure they can!’”

The session ran well over its allotted hour, and the writers exchanged e-mail addresses with the rabbis, promising to help them with jokes and rewrites. Hanish seemed pleased. “We’re piloting this program,” he said, indicating that if it was picked up next year, it would probably go through a few rewrites.

Along with the Hollywood types, the rabbis got some tips from clergymen who have a knack for lighting a fire under their congregations.

Perhaps the best advice came from the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, the legendary former pastor of L.A.’s First American Methodist Episcopal Church. At 82, he still works the pulpit with the agility of a sanctified James Brown. Murray gave the assembled rabbis a taste of that old-time religion.

“If you hear the people snoring,” Murray declared, cupping a hand to his ear, “you’re violating the 11th Commandment!”

Contact Rex Weiner at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.