“The Rabbi Who Can Bless Your Movie.”
That was the headline in “The Hollywood Reporter’s” Oscar issue in March. And if that sounds a bit incongruous, it gets more interesting. The rabbi in question is Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its affiliated Museum of Tolerance.
So you may ask, how come a rabbi is “blessing” movies?
That’s a version of the question that the article’s author, Scott Feinberg, asked himself. Feinberg’s beat is the award shows — the Grammys,Tonys, the Emmys. In preparing for this year’s Oscars, he said in a telephone interview with The Forward, “something jumped out at me as a reporter and a Jew.
“There was a member of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] who was not just a rabbi, but who won two Oscars” — for the documentary “Genocide” in 1981, which he co-wrote and co-produced and in 1997 “The Long Way Home,” about the survivors in the years immediately after the war ended.
Feinberg had only minimal knowledge of the Center and its leader. But additional research revealed Hier provides both spiritual and practical sustenance to the Hollywood community. Both Jew and non-Jew have sought him out (Will Smith reportedly called him for advice on Christmas Eve) and on a more practical level, the theater at the Museum of Tolerance has become a go-to venue for Oscar contenders and wannabes.
“I just thought this was an incredible story, how some of the most powerful people in Hollywood hold him in such high esteem.”
Speak with Rabbi Hier directly and it turns out the Hollywood connection is not surprising at all. It was beshert (or as he calls his recently published memoir, “Meant to Be).
Hier is accessible, even to a reporter representing a newspaper that has been sharply critical of his reported six-figure salary. He’s also an easy interview. Ask a question and just hope the battery in your recorder doesn’t run out before he finishes.
Even on the phone, it’s easy to see why people are drawn to him. He’s ebullient, positive and, if a bit of a self-promoter — he mentions that memoir in his opening sentences — he gets a pass because his accomplishments are worthy of promotion, self or otherwise.
He helped found YULA, one of Los Angeles’s largest Jewish high schools. Out of that grew the Wiesenthal Center, to fight intolerance and its affiliated museum, with branches in New York, Paris, Jerusalem.
Still, how did he become Hollywood’s rabbi? “It’s a long story,” he said speaking from Florida. “You know, I just came out with my book [that covers this]. The best way I could describe this would be that it was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Hier, 76, grew up in an orthodox family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “I loved movies and when I was a yeshiva bucher, whether it was the Delancey or the Palestine Theater on Clinton and Houston, every Sunday I watched all the movies. The rest of the week I was involved in yeshiva and learning.”
He studied enough to land a position as assistant rabbi at a Vancouver Congregation and was named rabbi in 1964. In 1977, he came to Los Angeles to help start a west coast branch for Yeshiva University. That eventually became YULA high school, where he introduced a Holocaust Studies program.
“America didn’t have a Holocaust center; but it had [museums] for dinosaurs.”
So he decided to start a separate Holocaust related project. While still in Vancouver, he’d taken a youth group on a tour that included a visit in Vienna with Simon Wiesenthal himself. Now, years later, he contacted Wiesenthal for permission to use his name.
“He didn’t remember me at all,” Hier says. “I called to ask if I could come to see him. He asked if we could just do this on the phone, and I said it would be better in person. He liked me, he liked the idea and he gave his name to the institution. When we started, I never would have dreamed of turning to the entertainment industry.”
That changed when he got a call from Mickey Rudin, attorney to the stars. Rudin told Hier:
“You might get a call from Frank Sinatra today.” He added that Sinatra had “read that you’re starting the Wiesenthal Center and wants to get involved.”
Hier thanked Rudin who said, “Don’t thank me. I didn’t want him to do it. But Frank is his own man.”
Sure enough, Sinatra called, invited him to visit in Palm Springs and told Hier: “I’m in a business where we invent heroes, but he’s [Wiesenthal] the real hero. I’ve always admired him. I’m going to do what I can to help.”
Sinatra put Hier in touch with many of the people he dealt with, such as Don Soffer, who built the Aventura Mall, the Turnberry Isle Gold Resort and revived the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida.
Frank contacted Soffer and, according to Hier said, “‘I’m sending my rabbi down. I want you to help him.’ And he did help. He chaired four of our dinners and was always on call for us, and joined out board of trustees.
“Frank Sinatra remained a member until he died; he opened the doors of Hollywood to us. Many Jews said if Frank Sinatra is supporting this and I’m the one who has a relationship with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, I should support it, too.
I’m very proud to count among my friends people I respect, heads of studios, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Jane Fonda brought her children for a shabbos meal with the Hiers. Tom Cruise and his then-wife Katie Holmes for a shabbos meal once, too, along with an Imam from Dubai where Cruise was about to shoot a “Mission: Impossible” movie. “We sang traditional songs. They all wore yarmulkes.”
And Hier spoke about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “description of the dialectal aspects of man.” Really. Oh, and, yes, Katie went home with Marlene Hier’s recipe for potato kugel.
Since 1993, has screened 11 films that won Oscars, starting with (fittingly) “Schindler’s List,” and most recently “Son of Saul,” which screened twice. The screenings are frequently attended by the stars of the films, such as Jared Leto (for Dallas Buyers Club”) and Bryan Cranston (who participated in a post screening Q&A for “Trumbo”). Important to the producers, Hier frequently invites guests who are Academy members and more important voters.
“We pick films that have a social message that fits the pattern of the museum of Tolerance. ‘The King’s Speech’ — which screened there and subsequently won the 210 Best Picture — “fits the framework. If someone made a movie on the mafia, it wouldn’t fit the philosophy.”
To his credit, Rabbi Hier doesn’t flinch when the subject of his salary comes up. “I don’t pay myself,” he says, “We have a board, a compensation committee. Nothing is done by me. They analyze it [and set a figure] based [on comparisons with] a number of other [non-profit] organizations. I’ve never spoken to them [about money]and I never will. I’ll tell you straight talk. I have great responsibility. We’re building a huge project in Jerusalem. I never asked for this salary.
“I was born into a poor family. My father was a lamp polisher who got fired because he wouldn’t work on shabbos. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I had my education in the school of hard knocks and I learned to be passionate about the things I believe in. I hope I communicate that to people.”
Curt Schleier writes about the entertainment industry for the Forward.