In the summer of 2011, I lived and slept for a week in one of the barracks in the Terezin Concentration Camp. I was there to make a documentary film now called, Making Light in Terezín. This film and the companion book came about as a result of a miracle. Please note, I don't use the term "miracle" very often or bandy it about lightly. In fact, I say it with a certain degree of trepidation because, well, up until now, I didn't use to believe in miracles.

Okay, let me explain a little bit more. Sure, I live in Southern California

and sometimes I do hot yoga, but still, I often question the existence of God or an all-powerful creative force, especially when claims are made that they altered the course of a sporting event. However, in this case with this project, way too many events coalesced and way too many stars aligned for me not to give credit to some sort of bigger, more powerful, God-like force in the universe that allowed it all to happen.

You see, for over twenty years I've been writing plays and movies

and books, and only a few of them have seen the light of day. I've written numerous projects that have almost gone forward, but for some reason or another, stalled and ended up on my shelf in a dusty pile that seems to only grow bigger and bigger over time. But this film and book project—this one happened too smoothly, too fast, too easily for some force more powerful than me not to be involved.

Okay, ye of little faith, let's start at the beginning, and I'll show you what I mean. . . .

I'm an American Jewish kid who grew up loving American Jewish comedians and personally experiencing the positive impact of humor. You see, instead of worshipping at the feet of the great rabbis, I worshipped at the feet of the great funny men—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx . . .

Many of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent laughing

with my little brother and my father as we watched the Marx Brothers on TV or listened to comedy albums like The 2000 Year Old Man. The goal was always nothing less than to laugh so hard we cried and maybe, if wewere lucky, even wet ourselves. The joy of those moments spent together laughing along with the great comedians was something I loved and will never forget.

My career path had been carved out for me during those laughter-filled days as a kid. And as I grew older, I knew what I really wanted to do with my life: dedicate my life to writing comedy and making people laugh— and if I were lucky, maybe even wet themselves.

So I went to grad school for writing. I wrote funny plays, but after years of struggling as a playwright, it all sort of, well, just seemed like I was wasting my life. The vast majority of all that I wrote would just sit on my shelf. Occasionally, if I were lucky, I would receive a small production somewhere (for which my airfare would cost more than the total royalties earned). Sure, there was a wonderful sense of community in the theater, but I yearned for something more.

After twenty years of failing to make a living as a playwright and feeling as if the comedies I wrote were having very little effect on others, I began to wonder what I was doing with my life. I was at a crossroads.

And then a serendipitous event occurred. A few weeks after 9/11, I heard a rabbi speak at the biggest talent agency in Los Angeles. For an hour, the words of this man captivated the hearts and minds of some of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, offering hope and light in a dark time. After the lecture, I waited in a long line to meet this charismatic speaker. After we shook hands, I handed him my card and said that I'd be honored if he'd contact me next time he was in LA.

I assumed I would never hear from Rabbi Irwin Kula, but just a few months later, he reached out to me and said that he had two free hours before he got on a plane at LAX. We arranged to take a walk along the beach to chat about our lives and our dreams. I mentioned that I'd always yearned to write a comedic love story about a rabbi and a gospel singer. Irwin was intrigued by the idea. I asked him to send me some of his sermons, and a partnership was born. After a year of meetings in LA, New York, and my father's law office in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, we had a first draft of The Gospel According to Jerry.

I sent it to everyone I knew, but nobody seemed interested. Irwin and I gave up on the play and forgot about it for years. I got divorced. I grew a bit depressed. Then, out of the blue, I received an email from the artistic director of the Minnesota Jewish Theater.

A year later, the play was produced and was a hit in the Twin Cities.

It was even voted by Graydon Royce, the critic at The Minnesota Star Tribune, as one of the top ten plays in Minnesota in 2011. Royce wrote, "This truly feels like a play that needs to be seen for what it has to say." Yet, there were no further productions, and once again, I felt a bit empty. I had spent years writing this play, yet it ran for something like twelve performances—and then, that was that.

I returned to California, and the questions started haunting me again.

Was doing theater something of value? Did comedy really matter? Was I really doing anything substantial with my life? The comedy I had loved so much as a child—from people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and the Marx brothers—seemed to give people joy and to make a lasting difference in their lives. But my work didn't seem to be having any impact.

It was at this time that the serendipity began to happen at a more rapid pace.

In a bit of synchronistic timing, I just happened to be talking to the woman who had directed my play in Minnesota. She informed me that she was just weeks away from going to Prague and Terezín to perform a recently rediscovered comedic cabaret that had been written by several Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. They were scheduled to perform the cabaret for the first time in almost seventy years at Terezín, the same concentration camp where the show had been created and originally presented.

This came at a time when it became clear to me that I needed to make a decision. I was getting older and needed to be more fiscally responsible. So I did what all fiscally responsible people do: I made a feature-length documentary film with what little money I had left after my divorce.

Yep, I decided to go along with the Minnesota acting company and document their story. I flew to Prague with a camera man and spent a week in Prague and then a week in a concentration camp. This, I thought, is the perfect summer vacation for a Jew. And you know what? It was.

The serendipity continued when I returned home with over forty hours of footage to whittle down to eighty-seven minutes and with having spent my life savings on the filming. I took a few weeks off from working on the film and looked around for a job to bring in some money. It just so happened that I was asked to teach a class in Brazil, where I met a talented editor who volunteered to spend a year of his life doing eighteen edits of the film—for free, because he loved the idea of the project so much. He wasn't Jewish; he was just a good guy who saw the relevance of this story for all people and felt strongly that it needed to be shared, and he had the skill to help make that happen.

Then, when we needed to do post-production, which would've cost approximately $20,000 in LA (which was $20,000 more than we had left in the budget), my editor connected us to people down in Sao Paolo, who all volunteered their time and talents to help finish the project.

We even had one of the best Brazilian sound editors on board, but when he had to take another job, we were stuck! But then we discovered that the owner of the biggest sound house in Sao Paulo, A Voz do Brasil, was Jewish, and he put all of his people on the project pro bono, because he, too, wanted to help. Now, there aren't a lot of Jews in Brazil, but when I needed one to help finish the film, Voz appeared.

All in all, there were just too many coincidences, too many fortuitous events, for me to ignore them and not wonder if some force somewhere in the cosmos wanted this story to be told and to be heard. We all know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but most of us aren't aware of the other stories—those filled with laughter and song and dance and grace.

Most people, myself included, didn't know that around the same time that the Jews in Warsaw were beginning to rise up, there were other different kinds of resistance movements occurring throughout Europe. I am talking about acts of resistance that didn't include guns, but instead, included prisoners in the most dire of circumstances celebrating the human spirit through music, dance, and comedy.

And now I'm proud and happy and grateful to be able to be the one to share this story with you. I make no claims to be a Holocaust scholar, and this isn't an academic treatise. It's simply a story about a journey to a dark time in humanity, out of which emerged some light. It is a story of how the arts and comedy offered a few of the individual moments of comfort, escape, and hope that are essential for survival in the worst of circumstances.

By meeting survivors of this little-known chapter in my people's history, I felt transformed. I was inspired and moved by their stories of how they made light of a horrible situation, one that is beyond what any of us could imagine, and how, in doing so, they filled their empty stomachs with laughter and love.

By chronicling this wonderful comedic play written by four twenty-

year-old Jewish prisoners in a dark ghetto in 1943, I felt healed and able to create again, grateful, and much more appreciative of all that I had. In hearing the survivor's stories, I gained a renewed sense that comedy and the arts can—and do—make a positive difference in people's lives, even amidst the darkest of situations and even if only for mere moments. This experience has inspired me to honor those who died and those who survived such trying circumstances by renewing my commitment to create humor and trusting that it can make a difference.

And so it is my hope and my prayer that the film or book will bring you healing, inspiration, laughter, and maybe even a miracle or two to your own life. I know it did for me.

God Bless! 

 


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