All teens (even Jewish ones), have music idols and Justin Bieber – with his circa 60s Beatle bangs – is Planet Earth’s child-icon of the moment. Justin is a “just-in” compared to most pop celebrities; he’s accrued nearly half a billion YouTube views, top ranks in Google searches, and skyrocketed to global fame in an amazingly short amount of time by tapping into the power of internet branding. All of this sets the stage for Never Say Never, a documentary film about Bieber’s 2010 concert tour and how low-tech, web-based marketing techniques created an opportunity to live “the dream”.
But it’s not just about Justin. Icons in the world of entertainment are a lot like the ancient pharaohs. They come and go, construct pyramids of fame for finite periods of time, and rely on trusted advisors whenever their pop cult dreams require interpretation or implementation. Enter Joseph, who turns out to be a really interesting side story in the life and times of Justin Bieber.
In this teen performer’s royal court, Joseph is another young phenomenon named Shmuel ben Eliezer, aka Scooter Braun.
The brains and Braun behind the Justin Bieber success story shares more than a few similarities with biblical Joseph; both gained the limelight at age 30 through an unusual set of circumstances, both are providers of ingenious feast/famine organic marketing strategies, both took a dream and correctly adapted it to real world circumstances, and both remained committed to their cultural identity even as their own stars rose in the secular world. Braun, acting as viceroy par excellence, doesn’t just manage his client; he’s also a mentor who’s gone to great lengths to establish a personal relationship with both Justin and his mother, Pattie.
Braun comes from a close-knit family of Hungarian Jews and was raised in a kosher home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Two grandparents, having survived Auschwitz and Dachau, inspired his project for a National History Day contest while he attended middle school. Using unsophisticated video equipment, Braun created a 10-minute presentation on ‘The Hungarian Conflict’, summarizing the plight of Hungary’s Jews before, during and after the Holocaust. The video won an award and was later submitted to Steven Spielberg. Today, that video can still be viewed at Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum.
Braun credits his grandparents and parents for his strong sense of Jewish identity; he takes great pride in his cultural heritage and reminisces about being the only Jew in the public school he attended while growing up:
“There are some Jews who don’t like to speak about who they are. I don’t believe in the post-war mentality of hiding my identity or being the type of Jew who’d walk quietly to the gas chambers. I took a special interest in the history of my grandparents, listening carefully to all of their life stories, even those memories that were difficult and painful. I remember an incident in high school where someone intentionally threw a swastika into a car I was riding in. These kinds of experiences, together with my family’s history, didn’t make me feel ashamed; they made me angry, but more importantly, they also made me strong.”
Braun points out a particular backstage scene captured in “Never Say Never” that includes the repetition of Shema during a prayer circle which precedes all of Bieber’s concert performances.
“When we looked at the final cut of the film, it had been edited out. I insisted it be put back in and Justin’s mother Pattie, a born again Christian, felt the same way. ‘Never Say Never’ isn’t meant to be a film exclusively for teens. Yes, it’s a story about a teen performer who made it big, but there are also some broader messages about hope, inspiration and inclusion. I don’t believe any one heritage is superior to another, although I’m very proud of mine; I think all individuals ought to be able to feel that way.”
Braun’s personal background and the fact that Justin Bieber is scheduled for an April concert in Tel Aviv, led to speculation about a visit to Yad Vashem:
“That’s really up to Justin and his mother”, Braun said, “But we were in Berlin last year, and our driver pointed out that we’d just passed the Jewish museum and Holocaust Memorial. Because there was time to spare, I said I wanted to go in, not asking or expecting Justin to accompany me, but he did. It was a powerful experience and I know he’d never seen anything like that before.”
Braun expects to spend time with his own family in Israel after Bieber’s performance; he has several relatives who live in Israel and served in the IDF, as well as a sibling who attends medical school in Tel Aviv.
“I’m planning to join a family seder during our tour, and Justin asked to share the experience. Justin, because of his Christian heritage, has a strong interest in the land of Israel”.
But Braun’s interests, by his own admission, encompass more than the glitz, glamour and lucrative financial prospects which accompany fame. He’s determined to take responsibility for his father-figure relationship with Bieber, and he professes a very Joseph-like attitude towards success:
“Look,” Scooter said, “…in many ways it comes down to this; with 20,000 people a night telling you that you are the greatest thing on earth, you better be very clear that there is something far more significant above you. Without that awareness, there is no chance of staying grounded.”
When asked about the Israel tour’s timing relative to Passover, Braun’s response was succinct,
“As we say, Next year in Jerusalem”
And to a modern day Joseph, the only possible response is:
Now there’s a dream … and we’ll Never Say Never to that.