Booster of Israel, arts will speak at JNF breakfast

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

To say that Howard Rosenman’s career as a passionate supporter of Israel as well as a producer of a vast array of plays, films and stage productions is the “stuff of legends” would not be an exaggeration.  Rosenman, whose early entertainment career was mentored by Leonard Bernstein and who has worked with Katharine Hepburn and other top stars, will be the featured guest speaker at the local Jewish National Fund’s Annual Breakfast on Sunday, April 19 (see info box for full details).

Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised on Long Island, Rosenman is the son of seventh-generation Israelis from Jerusalem.  He is 70 years old and lives in Los Angeles with his “dog and parrot.”  His films have won two Peabody Awards, an Academy Award and top honors for commercials produced for the famed ad agency Benton and Bowles (winning two Clio Awards) and co-founded or headed several film companies, including his own, Howard Rosenman Productions. 

Rosenman is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and has taught at the University of Southern California, UCLA, the American Film Institute and at Tel Aviv University.  He is co-founder of Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, which provides meals-on-wheels for ALS/HIV/AIDS?patients and is one of the largest charities in Southern California.

 The Light caught up with Rosenman last weekend for a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home.

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The title of your talk is “From Israel and Back.”  Can you describe this journey for us?

I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Long Island. I went to Brooklyn College, and I went to medical school.  I was in my third year of medical school in 1967.  During that time, from May 5 to June 4 of that year, it was called the time of tension in Israel since the Arabs had stationed troops in the Sinai.  And all of my (American) cousins were going to Israel to take the place of those who were conscripted. Our families were taking the places of the soldiers during their service, at their various businesses. A week before June 4, I was with my cousin Aryeh, who asked when I would be coming.  There was a disinformation report that some refineries in Haifa were blown up. My cousin came to New York and picked me up and we came to JFK Airport and got on a plane that was just filled with materiel.

What happened when you got to Israel?

Through a cousin, I was able to serve an internship in the Nahal, made up of volunteers from the Diaspora. I was placed in a medical field hospital in the Gaza Strip. I did triage and amputations. My commanding officers called my family the “Ancients of Jerusalem.” They told me to escort the troops to Jerusalem the next day. So I got to Jerusalem when Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blew the shofar after Jerusalem was reunited. 

What happened in your career after the Six-Day War?

Well, 30 days after the war, Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor, came to visit the volunteers, most of whom were Scandinavian. Lenny saw me standing among them and said, ‘My God, you look exactly like a waiter of mine in New York, at a discotheque, and I answered in Hebrew, saying I was his waiter. So he gave me four tickets to the concert (to mark the successful conclusion of the war).  Friends and relatives who had flown in from America were ready to pay $1,000 a ticket.  So I took my cousins to the concert, which was incredible, but at the party afterward it was even more amazing.

What happened at that after-concert party?

At that party at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Mr. Bernstein asked me to be a go-fer on his documentary film on the Israel Philharmonic.  It would require someone to go not only to Jerusalem, but to Bethlehem, Schechem and Jericho. I got very, very close to him.  One night he told me, ‘You are such a great storyteller, you should not become a physician. You should go into the arts and become a writer, a director.’ So, when I went back to medical school in the fall of 1967, I kept hearing Mr. Bernstein saying this to me. I decided to call him (and drop out of medical school).  He introduced me to a lot of people, and I was able to get a (producing) job working with Katharine Hepburn on a musical called ‘Coco’ about Coco Chanel, by Alan Jay Lerner. I then worked on four more musicals, including a translation of an Israeli musical that adapted ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ to Solomonic times in the Bible, which I helped translate. Lenny also introduced me to Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, among others.

So how did you go from Broadway to Madison Avenue at Benton and Bowles ad agency?

I decided to try my hand at advertising at Benton and Bowles.  I came in at the tail end of the ‘Mad Men’ era.  I started winning Clio Awards, and (there I met) Barry Diller and David Geffen.  About five years later, I found a piece of material and brought it out to Barry, who was making about a hundred films a year.  So I produced my first television movie with Barry Diller on ABC.  It was called ‘Journey to Jerusalem.’   I then met Robert Stigwood, who was a great entrepreneur and manager of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Eric Clapton, and made a movie called “Sparkle” about three African-American girls in Harlem and their musical career. I also was the producer of a remake a couple of years agowith Whitney Houston starring.  So that started my progression in entertainment and production.

You said you lived through the ‘Mad Men’ era at its tail end. How accurate is the TV series in evoking that era?

It evokes it very, very well.  Benton and Bowles was once a very WASP agency, and they were having these three-martini lunches, and they would all come back to the office and be drunk out of their minds. And I would was this very intense Jewish boy who made a lot of films and winning Clio Awards. During the time I was at Benton and Bowles, about three or four years, it changed from a WASP agency to a Jewish agency.

 What attracted you to lend your name to the Jewish National Fund?

About three years ago, Russell Robinson, the JNF CEO, invited me to the Los Angeles JNF Annual Breakfast.  I was seated next to Jane Ottenstein, who was associated with the Annenberg family. I fell in love with the speakers and their message about the vital importance of the JNF and have been involved ever since.  JNF has planted millions of trees, but it is also involved in a project to make Beersheba comparable to Tel Aviv, offering loans for affordable housing and an infrastructure.

What do you think of Hollywood celebrities and other entertainers who boycott performing in Israel?

I think a lot of that kind of activity stems from ignorance, and among some of them from anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred. I am finding that among younger Hollywood associates, who are in the post-9/11 era, there is a much more positive attitude toward and support of the State of Israel. I try to bring a lot of entertainers to Israel for visits, and once they go, they fall in love with the Jewish State.