How are we going to survive without Law and Order?
No, of course I don't mean these two guiding principles of civilized society themselves. I'm talking about the television program that has so fascinated us for two decades and is finally going off the air.
Before reality programs became the vogue, here was a show that introduced viewers to contemporary crime and punishment à la New York City. And what made it all so enjoyable was the feeling as we watched it weekly that we were actually getting a taste of "the real thing".
That's why my brush with TV stardom on this show was so illuminating. And what it taught me is a truth well worth remembering in all of our encounters with the world of TV and cinema.
It all started when I got a call from my agent. My dealings with her until then centered solely on getting my books published - a task she admirably fulfilled for all of the 12 works I've authored. Because she's in the business she often gets calls for other projects as well. And this time I could hardly believe her offer.
“Law and Order is looking for someone to play a rabbi. Interested?”
"I just got a call from the producers of the very popular TV series Law and Order. They have an upcoming script that calls for the role of a rabbi. Would you be interested in trying out for the part?"
So I know that I'm not an actor but I definitely am a rabbi and who better to bring reality to the role while I get the opportunity at the same time to enjoy the experience of a lifetime? I said yes.
All that remained was for me to pass my first screen test. If I made it through my exam for rabbinic ordination, I reassured myself, how hard could this be? I didn't have to spend years under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio to develop the principles of method acting that would allow me to become a make believe Rabbi. I've been the real thing for over 40 years. There is no way the camera would be able to miss this obvious fact.
I'll admit I was a bit nervous when I came to the studio for my interview. But when I looked at the other candidates my confidence grew by leaps and bounds. There were six other gentlemen, each one manfully struggling with an ill fitting head covering, three of them paper and the other three battered remnants of some long forgotten bar mitzvah, attempting to create the look of an Orthodox Jew crowned by a religiously mandated yarmulke. If ever, I thought to myself, anyone truly stood out like a pig in a poke it was these obvious counterfeiters of traditional conformity.
In my own mind, the part was mine. No one could possibly mistake margarine for real butter, the illusion for actuality.
I was fated to be the last one interviewed. The producer began with a simple question: “So what makes you think you can play the role of a rabbi?” With the inspiration of the moment, I answered, “Are you kidding? I wrote the book for that part” -- and then pulled out a copy of “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism” with my name prominently displayed on the cover as the author.
Of course it got a big laugh. And then I did a reading of the part and the producer told me that I absolutely nailed it.
But as you probably guessed, I didn't get the part. You see, I don't have a beard. I don't look exactly the way people expect a rabbi to look. Externals outweigh reality. Image means more than essence. Please don't think that I'm offering the excuses of someone who didn't get a coveted job by covering for a lack of ability. The producer was kind enough subsequently to give me a call and succinctly share with me the real reason for the death of my Hollywood dream as an on-screen rabbi: “I hate to have to tell you this,” he told me, “but in this business being real is a real disadvantage.”
What could serve as a better summary of the way in which our mass media depict the world around us. And what colossal chutzpah to use the phrase “reality show” for all those distortions of true human feelings, of immoral behavior, of callous and cruel relationships that masquerade as normal representations of civilized behavior.
Watch enough of the Jerry Springer show and you come to actually believe that there are millions more like the participants somewhere out there -- people about as real as the role-playing rabbi on Law and Order. Pattern your romantic life after The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and you will doom yourself to inevitable disappointment and disillusionment.
A little more than half a century ago TV in its infancy was outraged when it turned out that quiz shows were rigged and winners were surreptitiously given answers in advance before dramatically feigning confusion until they somehow miraculously came up with the correct answers. At that time the country was so incensed that Congress intervened and held hearings to probe into the scandal.
Yet that was only about money. It wasn't about all those other major issues around which our current reality shows falsely claim to depict our lives, our morals, our values.
Isn't it time for us to collectively remind ourselves that the business of Hollywood and TV is in fact to substitute the unreal for the real? Because in a make believe world, as the producer confessed to me, being real is a big disadvantage.