Local Orthodox filmmaker Sruli Broocker is frustrated.
For the last five years, the producer and animator has been developing a film version of a well-loved children’s book, winning the interest of several big names in film, including David Kirschner, producer of the 1986 animated feature “An American Tail.”
Other seasoned artists had expressed interest in working on the project as well, Broocker said, including reggae rapper Matisyahu for the soundtrack. Concept artists Matt Hall, a former art director at Dreamworks Interactive, and Shane Prigmore, now an art director and development consultant at the Walt Disney Company, were helping develop the art for the film. An offer was out to actor Billy Crystal to voice the role of the main character.
The film, a whimsical adaption of Eric Kimmel’s “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” — a tale of hobgoblins trying to ruin Chanukah in an old world shtetl — remains, however, unmade.
The problem, according to Broocker, is that the film, with its Orthodox protagonists, is “too Jewish” to garner the financial support of mainstream studio executives. On the other hand, most Orthodox funders and foundations have little interest in supporting the arts.
“I went to multiple places and tried to reach out,” Broocker said, only to be turned down again and again.
He is disappointed not only because he is stymied in his own creative endeavor, but also because, as an Orthodox Jew, he laments the lack of positive portrayals of Orthodox Jewish characters in the arts.
“When I see Orthodox Jews in the media, they are usually depicted as terrible, horrible human beings,” he said. “You don’t see an Orthodox Jew as the protagonist, with very few exceptions, like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ There is a disdain for Orthodoxy that you see in American culture, and there are few accurately depicted Orthodox characters in TV or film.”
And yet, he said, an investment in the arts is “unorthodox” for Jewish funders.
“There is little or no interest in Jewish communities to develop arts and entertainment to develop Jewish identity,” according to Broocker. “I get discouraged.”
Pittsburgh fiction writer DovBer Naiditch is having similar struggles getting his work — which typically features Orthodox characters — published by the mainstream press.
One agent in New York, who rejected Naiditch’s work, sent him several books to peruse as examples of work about Orthodox characters that do get published, all narratives of people who had left Orthodoxy.
“Orthodox artists definitely have a harder time finding funding and backing, from both sides of the community,” said Naiditch. “Non-Orthodox funders are worried, or assume, that the art will be too preachy, and the Orthodox funders are worried that it’s about individuality and not community.”
For mainstream arts funders, though, the main determinate of whether a project is backed is whether it will sell, and films and books about Orthodox characters and subjects may have too small an audience.
“Someone told me a long time ago that it’s called ‘show business’ because it is a business,” said David Sacks, an Emmy award-winning Orthodox television writer based in Los Angeles, whose credits include episodes of “The Simpsons,” “Third Rock from the Sun” and “Murphy Brown.”
While Sacks has been successful as an artist, his work does not focus on Jewish characters, or particularly Jewish themes.
“If something is very narrowly focused, it does not automatically deserve to be a mainstream production,” Sacks observed. “People will back away from funding it.”
On the other hand, not all projects featuring minority characters necessarily are limited in their appeal. Sacks sited the film, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” about Pakistanis living in London, as an example of a film that became a hit because it touched on universal themes through its minority characters.
“Things that are Jewish-related and Torah-related absolutely have that ability, too,” he said. “But we need to mine our tradition for those things that are universal. If we had a wonderful, wise, loving Orthodox character in a giant hit show that would probably be a fantastic thing. But I’m not sure the lack thereof is stopping the redemption.”
Carl Kurlander, a co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Steeltown Entertainment Project, which, among other things, invests in film and television projects, said that while some faith-based entertainment producers are successful, it may be more of a challenge for Orthodox Jews because their numbers are relatively small.
It is hard for any artist to get funding for mainstream productions, Kurlander noted, and a niche subject matter makes it even more difficult.
“It’s very hard to get people to put up $150 million to do any project,” Kurlander said. “Sruli [Broocker] has got some really talented stuff. But if it’s too Jewish, it limits the audience.”
On the other side of the coin, there is a lack of emphasis on the arts in the Orthodox community, so getting funding from that source is a challenge as well, said Amy Guterson, founder and director of Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts in Pittsburgh, the only seminary in the United States for post-high school age girls that focuses on nurturing the creative talents of its students as well as their Jewish identity, observance and Torah learning.
Guterson, a filmmaker and actress who has performed off-Broadway, grew up in a Modern Orthodox household but moved away from its practices for a time so that she could pursue acting in New York, an ambition which she could not reconcile with strict Sabbath observance.
When she eventually decided to come back to observance and became connected with the Chabad movement, she found ways of applying her creative talents that did not conflict with Sabbath observance, such as launching Kol Isha, a Jewish women’s theater group in Pittsburgh.
Four years ago, Guterson founded Tzohar Seminary to provide Orthodox Jewish girls with the opportunities to explore their own artistic proclivities in ways that coincide with their religious observance and identity.
“These girls are coming from all over the U.S. and other countries and are having few if any arts classes in their various [high] schools,” Guterson said. “And the arts are certainly not presented as a career path.”
Yet, even if her students do not choose to pursue a career in the arts, she said, by exploring music and theater and painting and filmmaking, they are developing essential parts of their personalities.
“Creative thinkers are in demand,” she observed. “And there is a need to develop this kind of creativity in the Orthodox community. These are God-given talents, and we should be developing and utilizing them.”
Still, finding funding for these endeavors is difficult, Guterson said.
“Look, artists have a hard time anyway,” she said, adding that while Tzohar is just getting by financially, it is actively seeking supporters who embrace its mission.
There are not many Jewish foundations that make it a priority to support the arts. The Foundation for Jewish Culture, a New York-based organization that gave more than $50 million to Jewish scholars and artists since 1960, ceased its operations in 2014 leaving a philanthropic void for Jewish artists. Still, there is some funding available, including through The Schusterman Family Foundation, which supports several artistic initiatives in the U.S. and in Israel.
“We see arts and culture as a vital access point for young Jews into building Jewish identity and connecting with the Jewish community,” David Rittberg, the foundation’s senior program officer wrote in an email.
“Through these initiatives, we hope to create high-quality opportunities for artists to network with and connect to each other, to reach new audiences and to deepen their impact,” Rittberg said.
One program supported by the Schusterman Foundation is Asylum Arts, with operates retreats for Jewish artists and provides small monetary grants to help finance their work.
The vast majority of Asylum artists, though, are from the non-Orthodox world, said Rebecca Guber, Asylum’s director. The group has just started working with its first Haredi artist — a filmmaker — she said.
“We will continue to reach out [to the Orthodox],” Guber said. “We are trying to be pluralistic. But we choose artists by their excellence and not by any diversity criteria.”
Guber recognizes the barriers for the Orthodox in the mainstream art world.
“Residencies are very hard to do, because of Shabbat and kashrut,” she noted. “And, potentially, there are cultural barriers to going to art school, and getting MFAs are becoming more essential to having a long-term career as an artist. Also, their work may be considered too niche.”
Still, there are Orthodox Jewish artists who have great stories to tell, and it is important for them to be told, according to Kurlander.
“I’ve always said that one of the greatest things Jews could do is put through great Jewish stories,” he said. “The Jewish people are a storytelling people, and I think stories are sacrosanct and important.”
That is why Kurlander finds it imperative that Jews find an online presence to tell those stories.
“We have a democratization of the media now, where you don’t have to go to Hollywood anymore to make these films,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity like never before for outreach; there’s almost a danger of ignoring it.”
One Orthodox artist who is making the most of the Internet is Elad Nehorai otherwise known as Pop Chassid, a creative writer and the founder of the fledgling Hevria, an online community for “Jewish and spiritual people who are ‘creators.’” On Hevria.com, writers post their work, and musicians have a clearinghouse to sell their albums.
While Hevria is now a blog, Nehorai is trying to turn it into something bigger. And, just 12 days into a crowdfunding campaign, he had raised more than double his $4,500 goal to do so.
“I am trying to bring more creativity into the Jewish public sphere,” Nehorai said. “It’s about giving a voice to Jewish artists. The problem is that the Jewish art world is not funded, and there needs to be a venue that is supporting these artists.”
Nehoria recently connected with the ROI Community, another Schusterman initiative that supports creative innovators in a quest to increase Jewish engagement.
“ROI is really forward-looking,” Nehoria said, adding that the small grant he received from the organization “was a life preserver.”
Nehoria, 30, intends to create a self-sustaining business model for Jewish creativity through Hevria, including original video content.
“We are desperate for spiritual creativity in our lives,” he said. “There are people dying for this. This is essential for the Jewish community.”
While Nehoria is focusing on getting out a spiritual message through mostly Jewish content, other Orthodox artists are taking a broader approach.
Marc Erlbaum is the founder of Nationlight Productions, a film and television production company focused on creating meaningful content for mainstream audiences of all backgrounds and affiliations.
“Our goal is not Jewish content,” said Erlbaum, who is Orthodox, “but to make movies with universal values to take the message to the masses.”
He started Nationlight in 2008, its name an allusion the Jewish mandate to be “a light unto the nations.”
Nationlight films such as “Café,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, which has its disparate characters coming together at a café to help one another, are not geared to preach, but to entertain audiences while getting out a positive message.
“This industry is not easy,” Erlbaum said. “It is a struggle every day. You just have to keep working hard and be innovative.”
Erlbaum agreed there is a lack of quality films showcasing positive Orthodox role models, but he is not necessarily interested in making those films.
“I’m not making movies to show to Lubavitchers,” he said, although he is Lubavitch. “My films are certainly no worse than anyone else’s. But I have no interest in preaching to the choir.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.