A writer with something to prove

Los Angeles screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue talks about his innovative project East Side Jews.

Micah Fitzerman-Blue 370 (photo credit: Studio Adigital)
Micah Fitzerman-Blue 370
(photo credit: Studio Adigital)
Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Micah Fitzerman-Blue says he tended to feel “token-ish” as the only Jew in his small Episcopalian school and the son of a Conservative rabbi.
“I was the kid who would have to bring the kosher hot dog to baseball barbecues,” says the 30-year-old screenwriter, wearing speckled glasses during an interview at the ROI conference in Jerusalem this summer.
When he left home for Harvard, Fitzerman-Blue says he felt like he had something to prove, worrying that his fellow students would judge him for being from a less thriving metropolis.
“I think growing up in counter distinction to the community around you galvanizes your values,” he says. “It hardens your convictions and it gives you a chip on your shoulder. It gives you something to prove.”
And he still has something to prove.
“It turns out maybe it wasn’t my hometown,” he jokes. “It was just my disposition.”
Both in his professional life and Jewish life, Fitzerman- Blue is carving out a place for himself, whether it’s alongside Dakota Fanning or his collective of Jews in Los Angeles’ East Side.
He most recently wrote the screenplay for Willy Vlautin’s 2006 novel The Motel Life, starring Emile Hirsch, Fanning and Kris Kristopherson, slated for premiere later this year.
The small production, shot in Reno, Nevada, tells the story of two brothers who leave town after being involved in a fatal accident. It’s Fitzerman-Blue’s first feature film since moving to Los Angeles in 2006 and scoring a creative development deal at Fox TV Studios.
“On a film of that size you’re trying really hard to make your days,” he says, explaining that as the director tries to get all the shots he needs, the writer steps up to shorten or lengthen a scene depending on how production is proceeding. “You’re on hand to help solve those logic problems and to execute that.”
When Fanning was cast, he says he and co-writer Noah Harpster fleshed out her role. He also wrote The Last Meal (2008), a dark, 13-minute short about a couple caught in a diner that serves the last meals eaten by the likes of Aileen Wournos and Timothy McVeigh.
Fitzerman-Blue runs 5432 Films, a media production company focused on online content.
“The thing I love most that is written are movies,” he says. “I like people, and screenwriting is one of the ways that you can write and collaborate with people. It can be a very lonely existence... I like that when you’re making [a film] you’re sort of creating a little village and you’re doing it all together.”
But he attended the ROI conference not for his film career, rather to strengthen his blossoming side project, East Side Jews, an upstart, non-denominational collective for Jews living in Los Angeles’ East Side. Drawing between 100 and 200 people per event, the group gets together for programs like Rosh Hodesh text study and facials at a Korean spa and stand-up comedy and Chinese food on Christmas at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.
“The reality is we’d be hanging out already,” says Fitzerman-Blue of the originally programmed events he and his cohort plan. “We just make a flyer for it.” The eye-catching flyers are artistically punk.
The events are one part ritual, one part cool, like Sacred/Saucy, an evening of havdalah, tacos and beer for $10, or a food-themed event in which the group learned about kashrut from a shochet, and then ate dinner.
Along with his so-called “brain trust,” a group of 10 or so volunteers, Fitzerman-Blue plans the events, which he says are always over-attended, as the brain trust thinks 50 will show up and ends up with an average of 100. “It’s a good problem to have,” he says.
East Los Angeles used to be the center of the city’s Jewish community, but over time it migrated west, he says. Those neighborhoods, like Los Feliz and Silver Lake, are once again “brimming with people who are enthusiastic about building a community around them and also a community in their image that reflects their values of creativity, of irreverence, of a little subversiveness and of authenticity.”
The group especially enjoys celebrating those lesser known Jewish holidays like Lag Ba’omer, the 17th of Tammuz and the sixth day of Hanukka.
“We’re trying to plan events that we would want to go to that reflect Judaism we want to look like,” he says.
Fitzerman-Blue lives with his wife, Liba Rubenstein, a Brooklyn native, daughter of two rabbis – one Reconstructionist and one Reform – and Tumblr’s outreach director, in Silver Lake, “right in the heart of it.”
Fitzerman-Blue is careful that his group’s programming doesn’t look too professional or marketed.
That would be a turn-off not only to him, but to the crowd he’s trying to attract. And he’s not trying to compete with synagogues, though 2011’s Down to the River: A High Holidays Transformative Experience at the LA River, also included the tashlich ritual of casting away one’s sins into running water, live music and food.
“We’re doing what we want to do,” he says. “And we want people who would otherwise be unavailable to come to our events.”
From the workshops and networking with other Jews running their own organizations at ROI, Fitzerman- Blue says he looks forward to refining East Side Jews’ programming, but not messing with the rag-tag havurah’s original recipe.
“It’s important to us not to change what we’re doing too drastically. There’s a risk in this sort of environment where people really are market based. They’re going about this with a high degree of professional acumen. All I know is what we have feels authentic and I would not want to change that. I think if it feels too professional you can tell.”
ROI isn’t Fitzerman-Blue’s first Jewish conference. As a teen, he participated in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel (where he first met his future wife), and he attended a Reboot conference, an organization founded in 2002 for Jewish culture creatives and innovators to generate projects that influence their secular and Jewish worlds.
“I feel like a junkie,” he says. “I feel like I should get a badge. Or at least a free sandwich.”