Eric Goldman’s Newest Book Charts the American Jewish Story through the History of Cinema

From Al Jolson to Woody Allen, Jews have played a significant role in the American film industry even as their role in larger American society has constantly shifted and evolved. But how much of their changing experience made it to the big screen? In his new book, The American Jewish Story through Cinema (University of Texas Press, April 2013), Dr. Eric Goldman, adjunct associate professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, explores the surprising visual history of American Jewry revealed in some of America’s most classic films.

Book CoverYU News: How did you become interested in the idea of American cinema as lens to study the Jewish American experience?

Goldman: I was classically trained in cinema studies, but I always had an interest in combining the Jewish with the American. My first book was a history of Yiddish cinema. As I came in contact with different people from different fields—sociology, history, semiotics—I realized that in terms of trying to understand the changing American Jew and the evolving situation of Jews in America, cinema could be used as an incredible text to see those changes right on the screen.

How is the early Jewish immigrant story reflected in early 20th century cinema, with movies like “The Jazz Singer?”

In my “Sociology of Mass Media” class at Stern College for Women, I screen “The Jazz Singer” and a silent film called “His People” together. They were made in the 1920s, within a year and a half of each other. “His People” is about the generational gap between the immigrants who came here with deep Jewish learning and found they couldn’t turn it into a living. In this movie, the father, a man of great learning, has to become a peddler on the street. And the question clearly is what will happen to the next generation? You feel the pull of assimilation. Read the rest of this entry…