Look up! – Filmmaker Ashley Lazarus learns to put Hashem in the picture


By: Robert Sussman

Ashley Lazarus’ name may not be familiar to you, but his body of work almost certainly is. Anyone who grew up in South Africa will remember the Peter Stuyvesant shorts that played in the cinema before each feature film, whetting everyone’s appetite for travel by sharing incredible scenes and exotic locales from around the world – all of which were created, filmed, and directed exclusively by Ashley. But his greatest success as a filmmaker was likely the original South African story of two young boys – one black, the other white – who became friends during the dark years of Apartheid, e’Lollipop, which he wrote and directed and which was only beat out at the box office by a “space opera” imported from the US by the name of Star Wars. A decade later Ashley moved to the US where he became a successful director of television commercials for more than 100 corporate clients including: Coca Cola, General Foods, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, Exxon, Shell, Mobil, Mattel, and Disney. He reached what was likely the pinnacle of his career directing commercials when, in 1990, he made a 30-minute advertisement that premiered just before the Super Bowl – a television first – to launch the Saturn model of cars by General Motors.

It was while living in America that Ashley began “seriously trying to be a Jew”, a decision which would wind up changing him dramatically as a filmmaker. On a visit to his sister, Beverly Beard, who lived in Atlanta, Ashley met Dr Robert Cohen and wound up sharing his private wish that he could find a way to use all of his filmmaking talent and training for more meaningful projects in the Jewish world. As fate would have it, a short time later, Rabbi Berel Wein, famous for his popular Jewish history tapes and books, spent Shabbos with the Cohens, where he expressed to Robert how much he wanted to start making films, but how he couldn’t seem to find a filmmaker who was skilled enough to do it and who, at the same time, could appreciate and understand what he was trying to accomplish by making such films. A shidduch, via Ashley’s sister, was quickly made, and it wasn’t long before Rabbi Wein came knocking at Ashley’s Manhattan-based film studio.

Ashley had heard of Rabbi Wein but had never listened to any of his tapes which, at that time, were the most popular Torah tapes in the world. Rabbi Wein explained to Ashley, “I want to tell the story of the Jewish people to the Jewish people. I want us to make films together.” Ashley had previously made films for Jewish organisations and had learned along the way that it was not an easy process. For a man who was used to shooting commercials that cost in the neighbourhood of half a million to a million US dollars for 30 seconds, the extremely meagre budgets – a few thousand or tens of thousands of dollars – that were usually offered by Jewish organisations were not even close to sufficient to do the job. Sensing that Rabbi Wein was a “straight shooter”, Ashley turned to him and said, “Do yourself a favour and do me a favour and go away.” Rabbi Wein naturally asked, “Why?” “Rabbi, who do you want to talk to with these films?” Rabbi Wein explained that he basically wanted to do outreach (ie. to try and reach unobservant and unaffiliated Jews), but that he also felt that “there was major inreach to be done” as well. Noting that the primary purpose was for outreach, Ashley suggested that they look at things objectively. “The people who you want to reach go to the movies. They watch television. They are used to being on a playing field at a very high standard. Let me explain. The cheapest, excellent PBS (Public Broadcasting System) film costs US $130 000 to make a documentary. If you get to a Nova-level of documentary (Nova is a popular science television series produced for PBS), you’re talking US $400 000 to $500 000. If you get to a Ken Burns-level of documentary, then you’re talking US $600 000 per hour. Television movies can go for US $2 million or higher. Even an animated television movie – for 30 minutes – is US $1 million or higher. Rabbi, let me be generous in my estimation. You’re going to come to me with more than I’ve ever been offered to make Jewish films before – US $50 000 – and with that amount I simply can’t make films at the standard which that outreach audience is used to. And, it’s Jewish history films you want to make. We’re not a people of the Renaissance – we don’t have paintings and sculptures and buildings to show people. We’re the people of the book – we have a ton of texts, but we don’t have a whole lot of visuals, which begs the question, where are we going to get the visuals from? That has to be done either via a drama or animation and both of those cost a fortune. The amount you have to spend simply will not cut it and we’d be wasting your money and my money and the films would never even make it to the audience we would be aiming for – and, if it does get there, they’re reaction will be: ‘This is substandard’. So aren’t we wasting our time?”

Undeterred, Rabbi Wein asked to see some of Ashley’s films. After viewing the films and being suitably impressed, Rabbi Wein commented with his signature dry wit, “Ashley, you’ve got me all wrong. I didn’t come here with US $50 000. I only came here with US $40 000!” Ashley couldn’t help but laugh – and take this as a clear signal that Rabbi Wein really understood what he was getting at. The meeting ended with Rabbi Wein expressing his seriousness about the project and telling Ashley that he’d be in touch the next morning. True to his word, Rabbi Wein called first thing and instructed Ashley to meet him at the airport at 10:00 to fly with him to Miami, Florida, where they would meet with someone who could potentially provide some real money for the project. Rabbi Wein told Ashley to bring along his portfolio of films and to book a professional studio for showing them. Ashley remained hesitant and continued to express his concerns about the project. “We have no distribution outlets. A film can be great, but it’s the distribution and marketing that gets the film in front of an audience. We don’t even have a budget for such things! What are we doing? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on Jewish education? Jewish education doesn’t get the money it needs. Shouldn’t it go to teachers?” Rabbi Wein responded, “Ashley, I’m going to make what may be an incorrect assumption based on what you’ve just said: you sound like a very arrogant man. I want to ask you a question. Is it your money you’re talking about going to educators, or other people’s money?” Ashley responded that although he might be able to put a bit of money towards such things, he was really speaking about other people’s money. Rabbi Wein didn’t mince his words, “You are, without a doubt, arrogant. You’re taking a position where you’re telling other people what to do with their money – only G-d can do that Ashley, and to assume that you know better, that’s the height of arrogance. Ashley, I’ll meet you at the airport at 10:00.” Ashley put the phone down and thought to himself, “This is some guy.”

When they arrived in Miami, Rabbi Wein introduced Ashley to an older gentleman, Leon Sragowicz, who was waiting to pick the two of them up from the airport. They got into the car and began driving, at which point Rabbi Wein turned to Sragowicz and said, “Mr Sragowicz, Mr Lazarus has got a problem.” Sragowicz, a holocaust survivor, asked in his Polish-accented English, “What’s the problem?” Ashley answered, “Well Mr Sragowicz, I’ve tried to raise money for Jewish films before and I was told by a leading PR company in New York that when it comes to raising money for Jewish causes, nobody will donate money to Jewish films – there are just too many other worthwhile causes. We have no money for distribution. We have no money for marketing. To make films, you have to make them properly, but even more importantly, there has to be a distribution channel.” Sragowicz smiled and said, “Rabbi Wein, what do you do?” Rabbi Wein answered, “I’m an amateur historian.” “Mr Lazarus, what do you do?” Ashley answered, “I make films.” Sragowicz said, “So, we have an amateur historian and a filmmaker – and me,” he said, “I sign checks. I understand we don’t have a distributor and that’s a real problem. But, Mr Lazarus, you are looking straight and around. You’re not looking up! We have an amateur historian, a filmmaker, and someone who signs checks. Look up! We do what we have to do and Hashem will be our distributor.”

After watching the films from Ashley’s portfolio, Sragowicz thanked Ashley, praised him for his obvious talent, and indicated that he wanted to speak privately with Rabbi Wein. After about ten minutes, Sragowiz popped his head back into the film studio, where Ashley was busy packing up, and said, “Mr Lazarus, thank you very much,” and then added, with a big smile and his index finger jabbing up towards the sky, “Look up!” Ashley finished packing up his things and found Rabbi Wein, immediately asking him, “Nu?” Rabbi Wein informed him that they were waiting for a taxi to take them back to the airport. Ashley was eager to hear what had happened with Mr Sragowicz, but Rabbi Wein was in no hurry to tell him, explaining that they’d discuss it in the taxi. As they drove away, Ashley said, “Rabbi, this is not fair! What happened?” Rabbi Wein reached into his pocket, took out a check, dramatically unfolded it, and held it up for Ashley to see that it was made out for the remarkable sum of US $650 000. Rabbi Wein said, “Mr Lazarus, our job is to ask. It’s Hashem’s job to decide where the money goes. This man, Mr Sragowicz, bought my audio tapes for cost plus zero, so that he could distribute them in prisons. Prior to this check, he donated less than US $100 per year to my yeshiva! He has never opened up his check book to me like this before. Mr Sragowicz thought that film would be a more powerful medium and when he heard that I wanted to make one, he told me to get on a plane and come see him right away.”

Throughout the filmmaking process, as well as after, Rabbi Wein’s first wife, Jackie (Yocheved), a”h, who Ashley calls a “shining example of an educator who educated by love and encouragement”, was a constant source of inspiration for Ashley, frequently expressing her gratitude for the work that Ashley was doing to make her husband’s dream a reality and praising the quality of the finished products. In the end, Rashi: A Light After the Dark Ages, the movie that they made with Sragowicz’s money, wound up costing around US $800 000. Because of the very limited budget, Ashley chose to have the film illustrated and opt for what he describes as “minimum animation”, placing emphasis instead on the quality of the audio track, which he sought to make “world class Hollywood” with voices provided by well-known actors Leonard Nimoy and Armand Asante, and legendary British film star Paul Scofield. For the face of Rashi, Ashley gathered images of great rabbis and asked the illustrator to make a composite sketch, instructing him to search for the most common features, including their posture. The film eventually made it into over 400 schools and an educator’s guide was produced to assist teachers with making the most of the material.

Rabbi Wein and Ashley have gone on to collaborate on many more films, including another animated one on the Rambam (whose image was based on a composite of great Sephardic rabbis), and a series of history documentaries, covering the period from 1900 to 2000, which they have yet to complete, called Faith and Fate: The Story of the Jewish People in the 20th Century, based, in part, upon Rabbi Wein’s many history books. Describing the theme that runs through these documentaries, Ashley explains how “sticking to the core values [of Torah] holds things together [for us]. What has kept the Jewish people going since Sinai? Holding to those core values – what Rabbi Wein calls ‘the rope of Torah’. As history has clearly shown, if you let go of the rope, then you’ll eventually fall away.”

In addition to his on-going work with Rabbi Wein, Ashley has been busy creating an innovative multimedia approach to pre-school education called TJ & Pals (https://tjandpals.com) geared towards children from preschool up to age 6. An English/Zulu version is in the works, specially created for the nearly 5 million underserved children who get no pre-schooling whatsoever in South Africa.

For more information, to purchase a film, or to become a sponsor, visit: www.jewishdestiny.com

Thank you to Anette Kramer for this story idea.

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