Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Jaws of Life


Operation Inspiration


Years ago, I heard a story which I’ve never actually verified. It was said that a fellow from Chabad approached a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg and asked him for a donation of his maaser money (tithing.) Spielberg’s response was that if the man got him a bracha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that his next film would be successful, he would give him the maaser from it. The next film he directed was a little project called “Jaws,” a 1975 movie about a man-eating shark which became the highest-grossing film in history up until that time. From then on, Spielberg’s credits only grew, until he became a legend in the film industry.

What makes the story so perfect for urban legend status is that it contains so many of the necessary pieces for a compelling story that you just want to believe. First, you have an underdog rabbi approaching a then-struggling director, who promises something in return for success. The success he achieves is beyond belief, and launches the career of a Hollywood juggernaut. Somehow, even if it’s not true, we’d like to believe it was the blessing of a great rabbi which set this in motion.

Now, it would not be as far-fetched to happen as it sounds. You see, Steven’s mother, the late Leah Adler, actually met the Lubavitcher Rebbe and considered herself a Lubavitcher chosida. For years, she ran a kosher dairy restaurant in Los Angeles called the Milky Way and she would schmooze with her customers as if they were old friends. My father got a special nickname since she had a granddaughter in the same playgroup as my nephew and as two-year-olds, someone jokingly suggested a shidduch. When my father came in, she called him, “Mechutan.”

As I said, I’ve never actually verified the story. However, that story was the reason I watched an interview with Steven Spielberg discussing the making of that hit movie, Jaws. Perhaps I hoped he’d make reference to the Rebbe, but he didn’t. More on that soon. Apparently, much of the premise of the movie depended on an insanely expensive mechanical shark which was supposed to be the terrifying star of the show. I say “supposed to” because that’s not what happened.

What actually happened was that this “shark” suffered all sorts of mechanical difficulties. They couldn’t get it to work properly, it needed to be fixed daily, and it simply wasn’t going to work. Finally, they realized they had to come up with another angle, and that’s exactly what they did. (I am not referring to the new technique invented by a cameraman on set, of placing the camera into a glass-fronted box which was waterproof and allowed them to film sequences at water level which added to the realism for which the film was lauded, but that is worth mentioning as well.)

What happened was that Mr. Spielberg realized the mechanical shark wouldn’t work, and decided instead to merely “suggest” the presence of the shark, through menacing musical scores and views of people being dragged below the waterline. It turns out that people’s imaginations of a terrifying shark attack created more drama than an actual depiction of the shark ever could. Jaws was considered a watershed moment in film history and compared to the classic thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.

But to me, more exciting than the imagination’s view of a shark, and more thrilling than the story’s potential truth, was what I saw Steven Spielberg say in that interview. Here it is:

He related that when the shark didn’t work out, he realized that G-d had a different plan for him. He acknowledged Divine intervention as having changed his work from a simple horror flick into an artistic masterpiece.(!!!)

Did the story with the Chabad shliach really happen? We may never know. But did someone somehow influence this man who was hailed as a monumental filmmaker to publicly recognize the source of his success? Absolutely. Maybe it was his mother, maybe someone else, but in my mind, Spielberg’s watershed moment was the one when he recognized the hand of Hashem and acquiesced.

He realized he wasn’t going to get his way, having a scary mechanical shark rushing through the water, and he said, “OK. G-d has a plan that’s greater than mine.” If for no other reason than that, Jaws deserved to be a success. And indeed, it was.

If all of us could internalize that lesson, that when things don’t go our way it’s not because Hashem is laughing at us, but because He’s saying, “Psst… I’ve got a better idea,” I think we’d start to see things turn around a lot more. We’d start to see successes we only imagined, or maybe couldn’t even imagine, because we understand that the Director sees things we don’t, and if we trust His vision, the end result will be a masterpiece.


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