Skin Deep

The Dream Factory

by Rabbi Asher Sinclair
(Rabbi Asher Sinclair is the producer of
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody")

6:15AM. Avenue of the Stars, Hollywood, California.

Fifteen years since I drove this road. A long fifteen years. In the quiet light I see two concrete monoliths hidden away from the road, looming above the trees. Hours ago, these concrete monsters, giant Hollywood sound stages, have already risen from their slumber. In the dawn glow they seem more formidable than I remember them. "This is where the dreams are made," I think to myself. This is the dream factory.

Hollywood is a Jewish town. The business of dreams is a Jewish business. Prior to dream factory, commerce in the United States of America was an East Coast affair dominated by WASPs. They weren't particularly fond of the Jews. After all, the Mayflower had arrived a couple of hundred years before those Eastern European steamboats disgorged their poor, their tired, their hungry onto the shores of Ellis Island. Apart from any anti-Semitism, white Anglo-Saxon America was certainly intent on maintaining its fiscal hegemony. The movies changed all that. Overnight. However, like many overnight changes, it took a while for the enormity of the change to sink in.

When the moving pictures came along, no one really foresaw that a new art-form had been born. Motion pictures were no more than a curiosity. A marvel of technical wizardry - but an art-form capable of expressing ideas and feelings? That, no one had foreseen. Movie making was a new business and it was as wide-open as the West. With no WASP cartel to exclude them, the owners of the first movie theaters were, almost exclusively, Jews.

The movie houses were hungry beasts, requiring a large and varied diet. It became clear to the fledgling industry that, to produce movies economically, they were going to need somewhere with a lot of space and low rents. They were also going to need a lot of sun. In the early days, photographic film was insensitive, demanding a lot of light. That meant expensive electricity or reliable sunshine. Those Jewish movie theater owners looked around for a place with year-round sunshine and cheap rent and labor. They found some sleepy orange groves a few miles outside the city of Los Angeles. The place had a rather bland name. It was called Hollywood. From a few oranges, a legend was born.

New Greeks For Old

If a lot was new about Hollywood, a lot was not: Hollywood was the latest chapter of a 2,500 year dialogue - a dialogue about how you get beneath the surface of things. About how you get to the Truth. It was the dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens.

Birth of a Notion

You might have thought that the story of Chanuka is about how a small group of Torah-loyal Jews trounced the armies of the Greek Empire. In fact it's the story of how the Torah beat out Hollywood or its second-century BCE equivalent.

The Hellenized Jews who wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks were more a threat to the Jewish People than the Greeks themselves. The Hellenists changed their names to Greek names. They patronized the theater (which the Greeks conceived of as religious worship). To compete in naked athletic competitions, the Hellenists underwent painful cosmetic operations to remove the evidence of brit mila (circumcision), the mark of the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish People. Why did these Jews abandon their faith? Was it just a ticket into society as conversion to Christianity was for 19th century European Jews? Or was there something more philosophical about their apostasy?

Art for Art's Sake

Look up into a cloud-covered sky, and all you can see are the clouds. The sky itself is beyond sight.

"By His breath the Heavens are spread (shifra)" (Iyov 26:13).

G-d spreads aside the curtain of cloud to reveal that which is beyond. He disperses the clouds that conceal so we can see past the obstruction, past the surface. The word "spread," shifra, has the same root as shapir, which means "to beautify." In Jewish thought, beauty is seeing past the surface to the essence. That which is beautiful, by definition, is that which takes us beneath the surface, beyond the clouds, to reveal the endless blue heavens - to reveal the truth. To a Jew, beauty can never be skin deep. Similarly, the word for "ugly" and "opaque" in Hebrew are the same - achur.

By definition, something which conceals essence is ugly. "Art for Art's sake" is not a Jewish concept. For if the definition of beauty is that which reveals, something that reveals nothing but itself can never be beautiful.

Art - For G-d's Sake?

More than any other single nation in the world, the Greeks gave birth to art as we know it. If anyone "invented" art, it was the Greeks; and if anyone celebrated the cause of Art for Art's sake, it was Athens. However, it would be too easy to dismiss the Greeks as merely interested in the surface of things. The Greeks and their heirs, whether Rembrandt or Fellini, believed - and they believe to this day - that Art has a power to take you beyond, to connect to that which is above. That through Art and artifice, you can get to the Truth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), British poet and literary critic, writes in Chapter XIV of his autobiography, Biographia Literaria: was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons
and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer
from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth
sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
This "willing suspension of disbelief" is at the heart of all poetry,
of the graphic and the narrative arts, of all theater and film.
We all know that the person who just died so messily on the
stage will be doing exactly the same thing at the 3:15 matinée
tomorrow. We all know that the dinosaurs tearing the luckless
hero limb from limb are no more than a few billion pixels generated
by a computer whiz in an air-conditioned Hollywood special
effects factory. And yet these images move us. They affect
us. They are illusions, but they create real feelings.
On a more abstract level, fine art creates its own emotions.
We are moved, genuinely moved, by the arrangement of blobs of
oil paint on a canvas, by the chiaroscuro of a fine photograph.
These things move us - but they are illusions.

Torah - For Torah's Sake

At the heart of the debate between Athens and Jerusalem, the Greek believes that you can get to the truth through illusion; that celebrating the surface can take you beneath the surface; that from illusion can come reality; that a lie can teach you the Truth. The Jew says that there is only Truth or Illusion - and illusion only takes you to greater illusion. It never leads to the Truth. If you take the first letter Aleph of the Aleph Beit, the alphabet with which the Torah is written, its middle letter, Mem, and its final letter Tav, it spells Emet - "Truth." The Torah is called a "Torah of Truth." It is truth from the beginning to the end - and at every stage in the middle. It never uses artifice in the service of reality.

Back to the Works

In those Hollywood dream factories, there are many Jews whose talent lights up an industry. They can't resist the challenge to light up the world. Neither could Chagall, Rothko, Modigliani, Pollock, Mahler, Kafka, Medlessohn, Marx, Trotsky, Freud, or Einstein. Some 22% of all Nobel Prize nominees have been Jewish. The Jewish desire to light up the world, and their success in doing so, is totally disproportionate to their numbers. At all times and in all places, you will find the Jew yearning to light up the world - whether he has Torah or not. Without Torah however, he will find that there are many blind alleys and dark crevices, places of unredeemed illusion and selfishness, that come from his "light." When a Jew lights up the world with Torah, he finds no dark places, no self-indulgence, no immorality, no freakishness, no blind alleys that lead to nothing more than his own ego. He has chosen to light up the world with a light which is True - from Aleph to Tav.

By: Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair

*Rabbi Asher Sinclair is the producer of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody".


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An Apology to the Graduates

Most people are servants of their passions, but the truly free person is the one who can control his desires.  When the sages taught "Only one involved in Torah is truly free" (Pirkei Avos 6:2), they meant to say that only Torah allows one to free himself from the shackles of desire and to truly exercise free choice.  Without Torah, one is not free at all, he is a slave, controlled by a master foreign to his better instincts.  While intellectually he might have correct ideas of how to live, ultimately his master - his passion - will force him to act otherwise.

Excerpt from: The Torah Treasury pg. 146     (more quotes - click here) - Judaism Online