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Finding Meaning in Hollywood

Finding Meaning in Hollywood

I'm good at telling funny stories in 22 minutes. I can choose to attach holiness to that, or not.


Around seven years ago I was at a Shabbat morning service at a temple where they had breakout sessions on various topics. I chose a discussion group titled, "Finding Meaning at Work." I remember sitting in a circle with about a dozen men and women of various ages and we were all asked to say what we did for a living. The person who started was a man in his eighties who stated that he was one of the architects of the Hydrogen bomb. He said he had trouble sleeping to this day, knowing that he was in part responsible for a weapon capable of apocalyptic destruction. The only thing that gave him comfort was the thought that maybe creating such a weapon helped to act as a deterrent to ever using it.

Next up -- and I promise this is true -- was a man in his fifties who worked for a defense contractor that helped develop an air-based missile delivery system for nuclear weapons. The two gentlemen had plenty to talk about -- nightmares and rationalizations about how their jobs ultimately led to peace. Our small circle was very sympathetic toward these two men, offering literal and figurative pats on the back for their willingness to share their pain.

Then it was my turn. "Hello, my name is Jeff Astrof and I write sitcoms for a living."

I was greeted with a chorus of boos. Unbelievable! Here were two men sitting to my left who could potentially be responsible for Armageddon and I'm being skewered for writing jokes!

I don't remember how the rest of the discussion went; my guess is that I said I found meaning in my job by being able to make people laugh, which is absolutely true. In fact, a member of that same congregation once told me that an episode of "Friends" I had written had made a good friend of hers laugh when she was undergoing chemotherapy. My guess is the guy who invented the H-bomb never got that.

Since that time, my wife and I have had two healthy children (thank God) and we have both become observant Jews who are very involved in our Orthodox community. And I am still a sitcom writer.

Now, there are many people who find being an observant Jew incompatible with writing sitcoms. First of all, there is the challenge presented by keeping Shabbos; many shows film or tape on Friday nights and there is a strong feeling of camaraderie that is broken when you tell your fellow non-observant Jewish writers that you have to leave at three in the afternoon on a winter Friday while they'll have to stay until near midnight, or that you'll need most of September or October off for a holiday that they've never heard of. It's still hard for me to ask for Shemini Atzeret off with a straight face. But, thank God again, I have been blessed with working for people who have been okay with it --especially the non-Jews. There are other challenges that include being in an environment that can become vulgar or gossipy. I am trying my best not to indulge in that (you should hear some of the stories…) but, ahem, I digress.

I was recently confronted point-blank about the seeming paradox of being a merchant of secular entertainment while refraining from eating treif. I was interviewed by a magazine that caters to the religious world about a Torah class that some other "Hollywood types" and I were taking. I was about 20 minutes into the interview when the interviewer dropped the million dollar question, "When do you think that your Yiddishkeit will force you to stop being a television writer?"

I want to be an example of how I can imbue meaning into my job.

I was immediately taken back to the people in that circle who thought that what I did was more destructive than nuclear weapons. I'm telling jokes, I'm not peddling pornography! I paused then answered something like, "God willing, never. It's what I do. And rather than let my job define who I am, I want to be an example of how I can imbue meaning into my job." In hindsight, I may not have used the word "imbue," but if I didn't, I wish I had.

A rabbi and friend of mine, Rabbi David Aaron of Isralight, tells the story of a screenwriter who, before sitting down to write a screenplay, asks God to "use him" as a vessel. I was so inspired by that story that I started saying a prayer every morning before I go into work: "God, please make me funny today. Please make me smart and creative. Please make me a good leader and a good follower. And please make me not do anything bad for the Jews."

Most of the time it works. On that level I am imbuing my work with spirituality -- there, I do imbue -- and am giving a joke or a story meaning by attributing it to the Creator. The same way that I say a blessing over my breakfast, I am adding a little bit of holiness into the words that hopefully millions of people will hear. That's not to say that every joke I pitch is God's best attempt at humor; believe me, I've pitched some clunkers that definitely did not come from Above. But it does give me a sense of perspective about my job.

I don't pretend that my job is as important as a congregational Rabbi, or a Torah scholar or someone who runs a drug treatment facility. In fact, if you asked a random person on the street to list the 100 most important jobs in the world, starting with the letter "s," sitcom writer probably wouldn't make the cut. But it is what I do best. I was recently at a NCSY parenting seminar and one of the Rabbis there said, "If you want to know what your purpose in life is, it's what you're good at." What I'm good at is telling stories in 22 minutes. I can either attach holiness to that, or not. I choose to go for the holy. Because when I involve God, it automatically makes my job more important. By eating kosher, by leaving early on Friday, by wearing a baseball cap to cover my head every day while telling silly jokes I am doing God's work. And nothing is more meaningful than that.

(I want to thank God for helping me write this article. Any typos are mine.)

December 1, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 33

(33) rg, December 12, 2007 3:34 PM

"If you want to know what your purpose in life is, it's what you're good at."

1st off, I must admit that I haven't seen any TV for years, so I don't have a clue about these particular shows. But what I do know is that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and chasidut in general, teach us that anything can exist in this world only due to the divine spark inside. I think it's wonderful that you manage to extract sparks even from the banality of sitcoms and to elevate them to holiness.
We need all the laughs we can get in this world, for good health and to enable us to better serve G-d with joy.

(32) andrea, December 5, 2007 10:25 PM


This was clearly an amazing article for more than one reason...look at all the talk it generated! Jews, talking to and at each other...if we only listen, maybe we will get some of that Ahavat Yisrael I mentioned before.

You are going to need that Ahavat Yisrael, because I have no doubt some people reading this will have issues with Chassidut (I am not Chassidic, and appreciate all Jews on the spectrum, including the ones who are comepletely secular)

Niggunim were traditionally wordless melodies that often took their roots in something totally secular, mundane, or even unholy...Le marseilleise,songs of shepherds, drinking songs and when they were utilized as Niggunim, a spiritual phenomenon in itself, they were elevated to Holy Things.

Anyone who has ever been at a Chassidic Wedding knows the power of all those people singing the same niggun together, and anyone who has ever sat at my Shabbat Table, has also been able to join in with our rendition of Dror Yikra, as long as they are familiar with 'Sloop John B' by the Beachboys. REally. Look up the lyrics, but a more beautiful version of Dror Yikra, I have NEVER heard. Making the mundane holy. I am ALL for that.

So, the next time you think you hear a Tefila or a Tehilla sung to the the FRench National Anthem at Shul, think about our little discussion here, about what is holy and what is not, and consider that all those people lost in their passion of Kavana while they sing to the tune of the French National Anthem. I doubt anything could be much holier than finding holiness where there was none before.

(31) Miri, December 5, 2007 6:02 PM

Comment about Friends

While it's true Friends is a show that's not as light as people think and deals with important themes such as friendship, relationships and family in a meaningful way, there are a few drawbacks to it. Namely the sex. Sex is casual. That's not so holy. But then again, Jeff is trying to speak to a culture that has sex before marriage so to leave that out completely would ring fake.

The Torah doesn't leave out the bad actions. It shows people behaving badly. To not show this is to not show how people can progress.

One of the shows that I really like is called "Life as we know it". At first, these male friends start out as being interested in one thing, than it progresses to them wanting more. That show I found really had a holy message by the end of it, despite all the behavoir which would be shocking to the very orthodox.

The audience that Jeff is trying to reach isn't Torah observant. They don't have the same values towards sex and marriage that the religious community has. To influence them means speaking to them on their level and relating to them based on their lives. If you are going to speak to them, you aren't going to show a religious orthodox man going about his business as that's not Joe Shmo. He's not universal. What you are going to show is people with faults.

While friends does this to some extent, perhaps it puts humor above this. Humor is a dangerous tool because someone who is funny, who can make people laugh can also desensitize people to certain issues.

I think 'Friends' desensitizes people in this way and that is not a good thing but what is good is that it shows people the importance of friendship as many times the characters help each other through tough situations.

(30) Arielle, December 5, 2007 1:58 PM

In reply to the people who think Friends is secular trash

Jeff is writing to a secular target audience. Sure friends has people sleeping around, talking Lashan Hora on occasion and lying. But on the other side of the coin, it also has some important higher holy themes such as the importance of friendship, the importance of enjoying life, and often each one of the characters has to undergo a decision where they have to choose between what is moral and what is often not. Often times the result is the character choosing to do what's right. Not everything that has a spiritual message has to omit the bad stuff.

The Torah doesn't leave out the temptations to do bad things. The Torah doesn't gloss over life. In the Torah, men often had more than one wife and this wasn't against halacha but it's considered bad by us. Yaacov married two sisters which was against halacha. Tamar dressed up as a prostitute to have sex with the man who should have married her, so that she might have a child. Yaacov's mother dressed Yacov up to steal the birthright from Essau.

In Life, people aren't perfect. In the secular world there are people who have sex out of marriage. That's a fact. To deny this is glossing over reality. People aren't perfect.

But on the other side of the equation, one could argue that friends was one of the first shows to be so frivolous with sex, to make it seem that sleeping around was the normal thing. Even Beverly Hills 90210 had it's main character Brenda stay a virgin for 2-3 seasons and other character's were virgins as well on that show like Donna. Lois & Clark didn't have sex until the third season after they were married. Mulder and Scully never had sex. Now, it's rare to find any virgins or lack of sex on television.

Perhaps it's valid criticism to say that Friends kind of created a culture which enforced people's ideas that sleeping around and acting if it was no big deal, was the normal thing. Now you could say there were other shows as well that had this mentality but not as much. I mean right before friends came along there were still shows like Picket Fences where the two heated love interests didn't have sex throughout the entire show. Shows weren't entirely focused on sex then. The problem people on shows were usually the ones who had sex in their teens like Rayanne on 'My So Called Life'. Dawson's Creek was extremely slow moving. Sex and the City and Friends are mainly the two shows that re-enforced the idea that having sex like a rabbit was the cool thing to do. While Friends had less of it, you still had Rachel having numerous flings and Joey sleeping with many women. I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. It's one thing to comment on society. It's another thing to get the message across that being frivolous with sex is the cool thing to do.

So now, I'm arguing the other side. I've argued both sides. While I think friends had many good things about it and making people laugh is a very good thing and it also has a higher message imbued with holiness with the themes that it addresses, perhaps it could have had people sleep around a little less. Becuse it was such a popular show, it might have contributed to the desensitization of society.

But...that being said, I still enjoy it. Laughing can pick people up on a bad day. Friends wasn't as raunchy as 'Sex and the City' and it still had the themes of love and finding your soul mate (Ross and Rachel, Monica & Chandler) as well as being a good friend. Friends really paved the way for the raunchier Sex and the City. While I enjoy both of these shows, and can take the higher meanings in them, I think they have hurt society by desensitizing us through humor.

It's a shame because both shows are wonderfully written by great writers and have much amazing talent.

But the sad thing about today's society, is that if Jeff were to write a show leaving out all the sex stuff, it would not ring true today. Sex brings so much drama. I often find the best shows however withold that sex. Sex shouldn't be a quick pill for drama but it does help. But in my opinion, one could still show sex but emphasize the value of something more over that. I don't feel that friends accomplished this even with the two great couples, Ross and Rachel, and Monica and Chandler. These were great couples but the frivolous attitude to sex was still there and ofcourse it was there, it was a comedy. To show someone actually making love wouldn't be that comedic could be. But friends wasn't a was a comedy. So you had to have an equal balance of everything.

The sitcoms that I most enjoyed growing up were 'Growing Pain's and 'Who's the Boss' because the highlight of these shows wasn't whose having sex with whom. But Friends was a different kind of show. It was a laugh out loud quick fix. I also kind of really liked Married with Children. There is an attraction to these shows and a trend towards shows like this and I like them. Sorry to make this a bit of a ramble but there's just one more thing I'd like to say regarding friends. It did a good job at creating the friends culture and taking the emphasis away from the family. Perhaps it was commenting on society. I don't really know because I was a young teen then. Perhaps it was a show that needed to come around so that society could relate.

As a writer, you have so much power. Ofcourse in the tv world, your ideas are often limited by upper management. But as a writer you can communicate with people. But in order to communicate, you aren't going to talk about rocket science to the masses, you are going to speak to them on their level, you're going to tell them a story, something that will interest them and reak of their life. For Jeff to omit all the bad stuff, he might not be able to connect as well and by limiting himself, he would be somehow putting a sticker over a certain situation and saying that's bad without explaining what's better. To influence people sometimes a few bad things are necessarily to include in writing, because that's real. But it's also important to try to elevate that and say something higher. What a wonderful that Jeff believes in G-d and is trying to use what he's good at to bring G-d into this world.

Kol HaKavod!

(29) Anonymous, December 5, 2007 11:46 AM

Main Thing: Intentions and Outcome

There's the common story: Eliyah Hanavi was asked who will be zocha to Olam Haba. He pointed out to 2 people who were going around in the market place joking to sad people. As unbelievable as it sounds, these 2 out of all people there were the worthy ones!!!
(They were telling them to move closer to Hashem, have Bitochon etc... and thus what a powerful mitzvah!!!)
So, everybody out there, with everything ordinary we do, the main thing we should have pure intentions and have in mind to be sanctify Hashem's name.
(Eating pizza to have strength to pray and do mitzvos, sleeping to have a clear head to know what's right and wrong...)

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