May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My Overworked Hollywood Life

When I worked in Hollywood I was extremely devoted to my career. So much so that when a colleague would occasionally make the rounds to say goodbye because he or she was off to another career endeavor—no doubt one that allowed a personal life—I would feel a twinge of pity for them. What was it about this lifestyle they couldn’t keep up with? At the time, it was difficult to imagine ever leaving the entertainment industry. I absolutely loved my job and had been fascinated with pop culture from an early age.

It was 2001. My placement agency called me one morning and asked how quickly I could get across town. They had an assignment for me with one of the most famous and most prolific movie producers in history. Of course, I scrambled to make myself presentable and got to the job. It was supposed to last one day. It turned into a full-time job that lasted almost a year.

Growing up non-religious, my world lacked spirituality. As a young adult, I channeled all of my brain power and energy into ambition. I wanted to work in film and was willing to work hard.

I had initially been an actress, but when I suddenly had to fill in for a flaky producer or have our spring performance canceled, I volunteered for double-duty as an ensemble cast member and the producer. I found I had an aptitude for the behind-the-scenes production work and fell in love with the process. From that point on I was hooked. I still wanted to work in film, but now as a producer.

Through the placement agency I worked in almost every segment of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. I spent a year dabbling until I figured out which way to pursue my career. I settled on a small production house.

Unfortunately, the first one I worked in was where I was hazed by a woman who was like Jekyll and Hyde. I eventually left and was enormously blessed to land a real dream job: movie production. This was the job with the famous and prolific movie producer. I worked in his script development department under his executive producers. Every project in the pipeline came through my hands. I was responsible for managing all of the scripts. On the way home at night I would frequently drive these valuable screenplays to the homes of directors and film stars.

Working in such a busy and successful movie house brought with it a lot of pressure, but it also brought what appeared to be unlimited potential. Where will this stepping stone lead me to from here? What were all the jobs I could get after paying my dues at this level? I heard this job was the ticket to almost anywhere in the industry.

But about the same time I landed my dream job, I had been enjoying learning about Judaism through a local outreach organization. I was experiencing Jewish life in new ways. I was invited for Shabbat dinner for the first time in my life. It became a recurring practice. I was attending classes on various Jewish topics. I had just started a crash course on Hebrew reading when the call came for this rare opportunity working for the famous producer. I put all of my burgeoning interest in Judaism on the back burner to dive into this job. I figured it would be temporary, just a year or two, before I could resume all I was doing and take on more.

But then I was working 70-80 hours a week, every week. I had a Blackberry (for the kids, consider this an early version of a mobile phone that included email and texting) on me that needed to remain by my side at all times, seven days a week, even while I slept. Friday nights were our latest nights of the week. All of the producers stayed late to catch up and I never left before 11 p.m.

The monetary compensation was very rewarding, however. I had never made this much money in my life. I was earning more than many people with advanced degrees. Yet, I felt I had no life. I needed to buy dinner out every night on the way home because I had no time at home. When could I cook? When could I wash dishes? Getting laundry done was a noteworthy achievement.

There was also an ethical toll. I believed this job would lead me down a path I’d only dreamed about. And I expected that once I reached a certain level of accomplishment I would have a personal life again. I could get my Friday nights back. I could return to classes on Judaism. I could marry and have children.

But then again, I saw the producers around me and the kinds of lives they were living. The one who most closely resembled what I wanted (an upscale house, a spouse, kids, a nanny, a cook, a driver, private schools, lavish vacations) had no life. He was 40. He was at the pinnacle of his career, getting home at 9:30 or 10 on work nights and always carrying scripts with him. He spent weeknights and weekends reading scripts. When his kids came to the office for a visit, they were holy terrors. Then there were the liaisons. It’s very difficult to know that one of your bosses is out with a woman who is not his wife. I knew when he left to meet her. I knew when he returned. When his wife called and said she couldn’t reach him on his cell phone, could I put her through to him? How was I supposed to respond to her? Of course, I had to lie.

I watched every day as unethical actions took place all around me. I saw how people stabbed each other in the back to get the advantage and get ahead faster. I saw how two-faced people were. I heard lies being spoken. Eventually, I began to lie as well. If I hadn’t I could not survive there. I became impatient and critical, just like all of those around me. I saw myself changing. These were sharks all around me. Either I needed to learn to swim with the sharks or get eaten by them. Nearly every day as I worked in that office, slaving away my life, I had an inner conflict going on. Was it possible for me to ascend in this industry without losing myself? Could I remain honorable and still succeed?

I was also stabbed in the back, cruelly. I accidentally came upon an email one day. An assistant to my producer wanted a friend of hers to get a job in our company. There were no openings. She emailed the other assistants that she hoped I would get sick so she could have her friend come and fill in for me, and subsequently have me fired.

This led to my becoming disenchanted with the lifestyle. It made me understand that everything I ever wanted could not be achieved if I wanted to be actively Jewish and stay true to my values.

A few months later I began working in production on cable television. The pay was paltry; the hours were liberating. “Only” 40 hours a week unless we were editing, which was only about every eight to nine weeks. I was working on the “E! True Hollywood Story.”This was not the same high-profile work as movies. I was on the outskirts of the movie premieres and lifestyle perks, but the fulfillment and happiness factors were immeasurable. This was my favorite job of my life. All of my best skills were in use and new skills were developing by the day. I had a knack for the work. My brain was at its optimum output. I adored every stage of production. My creativity soared.

Outside of work I finally had time to re-embrace attending Shabbat dinners and going to classes again. I was matched with a learning partner and began studying the weekly Torah portion. I began lighting Shabbat candles at age 28. I gradually replaced the food in my kitchen with kosher versions.

A couple years later I returned to the East Coast and worked as a field producer. I had a lot of free time between jobs and started taking classes several times a week at a synagogue with an excellent adult education program. I began attending Shabbat morning services. It snowballed quickly and I was soon attending Friday night services, as well as Mincha and Maariv on Shabbat day. I switched to eating only kosher food inside and outside of my home. I re-took that crash course in Hebrew reading and soaked it up quickly now that I didn’t have work distractions. I bought my first siddur.

That fall, I was briefly hired for a new daytime talk show. I began working 17-hour days again. I was the first one in the office and the last one out each day because on Fridays, as the sun set earlier and earlier each week, I needed to leave while the work day was still in full swing. It isn’t noticed when you are the first one in and the last one out, but it is noticed when you need to leave in the middle of work on Friday for Shabbat. I was promptly fired.

Had the foundation of my life fallen out from under me, again? Working in this industry was my entire life’s goal from such a young age that I cannot even pinpoint it any longer. My resume was strong and my work ethic was even stronger. I had devoted myself to my jobs, always. And this was the reward for all of those years of dedication?

The floor of my career may have fallen out from under me, yet something was different this time. Hashem had me now. He was holding me up. I realized, abruptly, that I didn’t need that career any longer because I had Him and I had learned to appreciate that I was a Jew. There was so much I could do with that now that I had time to focus.

Shortly afterwards I received the answer to my most recent heartfelt prayer: I met my soulmate. We were married less than a year later.

I had all of these valuable and wide-ranging skills and wanted to use them in a different career that was a better fit for my new religious lifestyle. I was hired to do publicity and fundraising for a Jewish organization that needed my help.

And Hashem had another answer to my heartfelt prayers. I had always wanted daughters and was blessed to have two of them. My husband and I have been raising them ourselves with no nannies, cooks, drivers or extravagant homes. I’ve since made another career change, to teaching religious school. Teaching children exhilarates me because I get to pass on the beauty of Torah and tell these sweet kids about their Jewish heritage.

As time marches along I sometimes reflect on my former career in entertainment. I miss many aspects of it, but I could never do it now. One needs so much momentum to perform a job like that, and sustaining that level is difficult. Most importantly, the religious lifestyle I enjoy is not compatible with that type of career. It’s not sad to me, though. I traded in my favorite job of my life for my favorite way of life.

Allyson Gur-Aryeh lives in Teaneck with her husband, two children, and seven rescue animals. She continues to express her artistic side by writing whenever she can and practicing gourmet cooking. Becoming religious did not prevent all of life’s challenges, but made it much easier to handle them.

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