At the dawn of Hollywood talkies, “The Jazz Singer” told the story of a young Jewish man’s conflict between a career in the entertainment industry and being a cantor. The sacred and the profane seemed two poles whose opposing magnetic draws tore the protagonist apart. But that was 1927.
Today, more than 90 years later, I only had to drive to Westwood to meet Gary Levine, who has his feet planted comfortably in both worlds. During the week Levine is executive vice president of original programming for Showtime Networks, in charge of such edgy series as “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “The L Word,” and “Californication.” On the weekends, he is the cantor at Ahavat Torah, a small congregation in Brentwood. This is the story of how these two worlds not only coexist but flourish in one soul.
Levine grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family was not particularly observant, but Levine attended a conservative synagogue in Flushing, Queens, whose rabbi, Aaron Pearl, engaged him with his provocative and often political oratory — so much so that he continued to attend services regularly beyond his bar mitzvah.
“It was like listening to ‘Meet The Press,'” Levine recalled.
But the congregation itself wanted a rabbi who was comforting, not controversial. So they fired Rabbi Pearl, and, Levine said, “my temple time came to an end.”
Levine sang in chorus in high school, but it was as a student at the State University at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) that he first took voice lessons. David Clatworthy, a New York City Opera baritone, had just joined the faculty, and over the next six years, under his tutelage, Levine, who had never really listened to opera before, became a trained opera singer.
“It just opened up this door for me.” Levine said.
However, upon completing a master’s degree from Binghamton in 1976, Levine went to work not in the world of opera, but of nonprofit theater: “That was the end of my singing.”
Over the next decade, Levine worked as a producer and as the manager of a number of theater companies, including the Roundabout Theater Company in Manhattan and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, culminating in a five-year run as managing director of the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Nonetheless, by 1985, Levine found the not-for-profit world overly small.
“I needed to move on to the next thing,” Levine said. “I needed to make a midcourse correction.” So, in the immortal words of Horace Greeley, he decided to “Go West.”
Barbara Corday, then president of Columbia Pictures Television, offered Levine an apprenticeship. After a few months, the position of director of current programs became available, and Levine was asked to fill it. From there, he rose to become a vice president, in charge of a mix of shows both in comedy and drama.
“It was a great way to learn the business,” Levine said. “Things just progressed from there.”
Levine is being modest: Over the next decade, he ran drama development at ABC, at a time when the network still had “China Beach” and “Thirtysomething” on the air, and he developed such shows as “Twin Peaks,” “Life Goes On” and “NYPD Blue.” From there, he went on to become president of Witt-Thomas Productions, one of the most successful producers of comedies, a hands-on experience where he was “on the stage every day.” Witt-Thomas led to a position at Warner Brothers Television in charge of all development — both comedy and drama. Among the shows that were created under his tenure, Levine takes special pride in “The West Wing.” Levine’s rise in Hollywood was as well-rounded as it was meteoric.
Then Levine’s boss at Warner Brothers was fired. This was not good for Levine. And given that this coincided with the first internet boom, in the late 1990s, Levine moved to Icebox, an internet start-up, founded by TV writers Howard Gordon, Rob LaZebnik and John Collier, that promised to be the next generation of entertainment studios.
Levine found himself working in a cool warehouse space in Culver City, meeting “with unbelievable creators,” such as Larry David and “almost every executive producer of ‘The Simpsons.'” However, he admits, “There was no business plan to support it.” (Just to show how crazy Icebox was, they once bought a pitch from me and my much more talented partner on the project, Sandy Frank, which is how I first met Levine.)
Whether my pitch was the moment that Levine realized that the Internet bubble was going to burst was a question I did not raise in our recent interview, but shortly thereafter Levine leapt at an opportunity to move to Showtime.
Levine’s mandate was to put Showtime on the map with series, while at the same time also overseeing their movies and miniseries. That was seven and a half years ago, and “slowly but surely,” he said, they’ve been doing just that.
But there’s a whole other Gary Levine story, too. Take a step back, to 1994, when Levine was asked to coffee to meet a young rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who was leaving Stephen S. Wise Temple to start his own congregation, Ohr HaTorah.
“I really liked what he had to say,” Levine recalled.
Soon enough, Levine found himself attending services for the first time since high school, while his children attended religious school. “Mordecai does ignite people,” he said.
One day, Meirav Finley, the rabbi’s wife and partner in the administration of Ohr HaTorah congregation, announced that the shul’s cantorial soloist was leaving. Rather than replace her, the plan was to invite congregants to help lead services.
“I was not happy about it,” Levine said.
Eventually, Meirav approached Levine saying, “I need you to volunteer.”
Levine was reluctant. In what he described as “typical Finley fashion,” she said, “That’s why you have to do it. We don’t want someone who wants to perform.” Levine agreed on two conditions: One, that he could in fact learn how to do it; and two, that doing so should not rob him of the enjoyment of attending services.
The following week, Meirav announced to the congregation that Levine would be leading High Holy Day services — just five months away. Levine wasn’t sure he could do it, but he and Meirav worked together.
“She was an excellent teacher,” he said.
Not only was he able to chant the services, but he said that doing so became “if anything, a deeper experience.”
Using his voice to help carry a congregation along was “enormously satisfying.” In some mysterious way, Levine’s early voice training and temple attendance, all of which he had forsaken, had come together for some greater purpose.
For the next eight or nine years, Levine served as one of the congregation’s volunteer cantors. He assisted Rabbi Finley at services, at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. Once, when Finley was asked to officiate at a Wexner Heritage Foundation event and was allowed to invite any cantor in the country to assist him, he chose Levine.
However, at a certain point, Levine and Finley reached what Levine refers to as “creative differences” — a euphemism from his showbiz world. Levine stopped officiating and returned to being a congregant. Yet that, in time, proved too frustrating an experience.
“We drifted away,” Levine said.
Levine was without a congregation. On occasion, he freelanced, as when a congregation in Montecito whose cantor was on bed rest called him to fill in for the High Holy Days. But he thought his cantorial days were behind him.
Then, in 2002, he heard from a group who wanted to start their own minyan, several of who were former members of Ohr HaTorah. Levine declined, not wanting to be part of a breakaway group.
However, as the group grew and formalized themselves into a congregation of their own — Ahavat Torah — and were joined by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Levine accepted the invitation to come in and chant. That was about five years ago, and Levine has been their cantorial soloist ever since.
Levine describes Ahavat Torah as a congregation for the 40-plus crowd (age, not suit size), whose kids are out of religious school — people not forced to find a congregation but seeking one where the prayers are vociferous, and with intense, interesting Torah discussions. They have fashioned their own siddur (prayer book) with the prayers mostly in Hebrew; it’s egalitarian; and people dress from casual to traditional. The drash (or sermon) is given by the rabbi once a month, while others come from guest rabbis or congregants. Levine describes it as “very cordial, very inviting, small and warm.”
Let me say this loud and clear: Levine invites you all to come by some time and try it.
“People who experience it, find it very seductive,” he said.
Levine told me that his two lives overlap very occasionally. One time, two writers he had worked with happened to attend services and couldn’t get over how much the cantor “looked just like Gary Levine,” never imagining the two could be one and the same person.
On another occasion, Levine was in the middle of a Showtime meeting when his assistant interrupted saying “Dustin Hoffman’s on the line.”
Hoffman was not calling to pitch Showtime; instead, he was standing on a soundstage and needed Levine to intone the Kaddish for a movie he was mixing (Levine has officiated at Hoffman family events).
Levine has also contributed cantorial content to “The L Word,” (not only the show, but also the soundtrack CD), and even appeared onscreen in “Sleeper Cell,” in a scene where a meeting took place at Sinai Temple.
Which brings me back to my original point. What I find so interesting is that Levine finds no conflict between his two professional commitments. Never has he been called to choose between cantorial and professional duty. (A friend of mine once had a job interview with Rupert Murdoch scheduled for Yom Kippur. Ask yourself: Was it a test? Did Murdoch know? What would you do?) Never has the content of his shows posed a conflict, and never has the content of his religious duties colored his development duties. Peaceful coexistence in a two-state solution, if you will.
Although the leap from singing “Sim Shalom” (“Song of Peace”) to giving notes on a script about serial killer Dexter or “Californication’s” debauched writer Hank Moody seems a great one, Levine argues that characters such as Dexter, Hank or even the pot-selling mom on “Weeds” are multidimensional characters “who are tested — very tested” (and in that respect they are not unlike the very flawed, very human characters one encounters in the Torah).
“I’ll stand by the humanity of the work,” Levine said.
What Levine accomplishes weekly, Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” could not. At a time when we all, regardless of race, creed, or political party, hope for change, let’s take this as one reminder of how far we’ve come. Or of what one very talented individual, Gary Levine, can accomplish that we can’t. Take your pick.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.