From Al Jolson to Woody Allen

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.

Looking at “The Jazz Singer,” you have that classic story in a different way: a learned man who did find parnasa, as a chazzan. His son, Jakie Rabinowitz, also has an incredible voice, which his father feels should be used in the shul as well, continuing that tradition. It’s a waste to use it anywhere else. But Jakie’s landed the opportunity of a lifetime. He’s worked small clubs all around the country and will now finally appear on Broadway. It just so happens that opening night is also Erev Yom Kippur.

For Jakie, that’s a non-issue. He’s made that choice, as did a whole generation of Jews, to be able to survive in America. It’s clear he’s going to appear in the theater. But then his father, who normally would conduct the Yom Kippur service, is ill—perhaps dying. Jakie’s mother and the shamesh of the shul come to him and say, “Come home, maybe if you sing, your father will feel better. You’re a product of chazanut – you could lead the service yourself without preparation.”

Ostensibly, he’s going to just pay a quick bikur cholim visit to his farther and return to the stage later that night. But when Jakie arrives, the shamesh is there with a talis in his hand, saying, “Okay, Jack, we’re ready for you. Everyone’s going to shul now. Take the talis and go.” Next to him is Jakie’s mother, also rooting for him to go to shul. Then in walks his manager from the theater and his non-Jewish girlfriend. Jakie’s stuck in the middle. In secular terms, it’s his community saying, “Jack, take your father’s mantle and join us, you’ve come home,” versus his manager saying, ‘You’re crazy if you give up your career for this.’ It’s a very striking visual.

What I try to do in the book is to point out how various visual moments capture the essence of what was happening to America’s Jews at that point in time. The tug between generations. What America offered and what the expectations in the home were. Samuel Raphaelson, the author of “The Jazz Singer,” grew up on the Lower East Side and this whole issue was central to his life, his desire to be a writer in the secular world.

What impact did the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s have on Hollywood, then a very Jewish industry?

There was a great concern on the part of these Jewish movie moguls that they not be perceived as foreigners, outsiders, Jews. They did everything in their power to move away from that. Circumstance in Hollywood still treated them as Jews—the country clubs of Los Angeles wouldn’t admit them. But what they did in their enterprise was create an industry that catered to everyone, and went out of their way, not only in their personal lives to gain acceptance—what level of assimilation are you ready to accept upon yourself?—but they also chose not to have Jewish subjects in their films. By the 30s, Jewish subject matter had all but disappeared from film.

The amazing thing about “The Jazz Singer,” which was made in 1927, was that it was made by Warner Brothers, a Jewish studio. It happened by accident, and after that they went out of their way to ensure it never happened again. It was a little bit of an embarrassment. “What is this, the first film with talking in it is going to be about Jews?”

Many of the big Jewish moguls of the time also divorced their Jewish wives to marry gentile women– their own way of assimilating into American society.

In the 1930s, though, the Nazi government said to a lot of American studios, “If you want to have a company representative here in Berlin”—which you have to understand had become in the 1920s a center of art, commerce and intellectual striving, so major representatives from all over were placed there—“they can’t be Jewish.” In 1936, a Jewish representative of Warner Brothers was murdered there by a Nazi thug. Some companies withdrew their representatives completely, while others replaced their Jews with non-Jews, because they were more interested in keeping their films playing in Germany.

In this country, nobody wanted anything Jewish. Jews didn’t want to bring attention to themselves. There was something called “the Production Code,” where the Catholic Church put pressure on movie-makers to be clean and pure and not ethnic. Also, it was the Great Depression. People wanted to be entertained with giant musicals, and there was a movement toward adapting the great classics of literature for the screen. The Jewish producers simply did not want Jewish stories.

How did Jewish presence reintroduce itself in American cinema after World War II?

Anti-Semitism was unfortunately just as strong here after the war as it had been before. Here we had fought this war, we had defeated the Nazis and America saw what they had done, and yet many still disliked Jews. That was kind of scary. It incited Laura Z. Hobson to write her novel “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” She had seen anti-Semitic slurs in Congress which shocked the heck out of her.

The Jewish Defense agencies along with Hollywood’s Jews were frightened by the idea of attacking anti-Semitism and said, “If we make too much of a big deal about things, it’s not going to be good for us. Let’s fight anti-Semitism in our own quiet ways.”

There was a guy named Daryl F. Zanuck who had been a producer on “The Jazz Singer” and then went on to become head of a studio and chose to make a film about the Rothschilds in the early 30s—at the height of Nazi propaganda about Jews, he had made a film about one of the great Jewish bankers in the world! He wasn’t scared of anyone. He also wasn’t Jewish. He wanted to attack anti-Semitism. He was ready to take on his fellow producers and the establishment. He was very capable and also made a lot of money for his investors. So he went ahead and decided to buy the rights to “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

The Jewish community said to him, “You can’t do this. This is bad for the Jews.” But Zanuck said, “I’m an American and not to do this would be bad for America. Anti-Semitism is unacceptable, bigotry has no place in the world, and I’m not scared to go ahead and make this movie.”

How did Israel start to get screen time and how did movies like Exodus shape the identities of American Jews watching?

That could be a book of its own. We just talked about Israel this week in my Stern class. Major studios weren’t interested in dealing with the subject of Israel. It was perceived to be too Jewish or niche. In the early 50s, there were a couple of independent producers who did tackle it in their films and the examples are few but important. There was a terrific 1953 film with Kirk Douglas before he emerged as a major actor, about a Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel, called “The Juggler.” That was beautiful and rare.

But in general, as a Hollywood moviemaker at this time, you didn’t touch on the Holocaust because the feeling was that it didn’t have significance for Americans and you also didn’t deal with Israel.

Finally you have this screenplay written by Leon Uris which no one wanted to make. He transformed it into a book instead. That became a bestseller, and Otto Preminger makes “Exodus” out of it, which was a major success.

Until 1958, Jewish subjects had largely been avoided in American cinema. Then it changed for a variety of reasons—because of sociological changes in America, because of civil rights activities and as a result of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. Segregation was no longer acceptable—that had a very positive effect on Jews. Jews started coming out more, discussing Jewish subjects, talking about Israel. Before this, how could you support another country, like Israel, if you’re a good American? Someone might claim you were disloyal. Suddenly, in the late 1950s, Jews could be Jewish, they could wear kippot in public… It was the coming out party for American Jewry.

How does someone like Woody Allen fit into the picture?

You see an evolution in his body of work. He’s representative of the ambivalent American Jew of the late 20th century. His early films are about wanting to be somebody else, the desire to give up his Judaism. In “Love and Death and Sleeper,” Allen is thrust into a different period where he doesn’t quite fit in, and it’s the story of how this young, talented Jewish man doesn’t feel comfortable in America because he is the “other.” His early work revolves around this whole need to fit in, climaxing in “Annie Hall.” The classic scene there has him sitting at Easter dinner with Annie Hall, this wonderful Protestant woman. Through her, he’s going to gain acceptance into America. But then there is her grandmother who issitting at the end of the table. He turns to the camera, in a historic cinematic moment, and speaking to us says, “There’s the classic anti-Semite at the end of the table,” and you see him picturing himself as a Hasid. He may shave, but he’s still this yucky Jew who doesn’t belong at the table. Allen’s saying, “It’s time I sat at the American table. I’m tired of being ostracized.”

By the 80s and 90s there’s an acceptance on his part of the fact that he’s finally found comfort in his being a Jew. You see this with his struggle with the rabbi in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” To have a rabbi in a Woody Allen film that Allen isn’t making fun of—wow! That’s a powerful statement. In a film like 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry, you have a wonderful debate where Allen’s sister is frum and he’s debating her. And you see an articulate rebuttal about being frum in the modern world, which is of course also written by Woody Allen. And his ex-wife in this film is also frum. This is the first time Allen is entering the debate about what it means to be a traditional Jew in today’s world.

What is the American Jewish story being told in film right now?

What has happened in 2013, especially by young, Jewish filmmakers, is there’s a comfort zone with being Jewish. We’re not going to stand for any anti-Semitic sentiment. And that’s exciting. Several generations ago we had moviemakers who were afraid to be seen as Jews. Now filmmakers are not only totally comfortable being Jewish, it’s who they are. You see this in Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow. There’s a wonderful moment in “Knocked Up” when Seth Rogen is in a bar with four Jewish guys and one non-Jew. Rogen talks about how he just saw the film “Munich” and wasn’t it great how the Jews showed strength and were powerful in that movie. To have a dialogue like that in a contemporary movie—when you talk about today, that’s what’s exciting about today.

How will the American Jewish story be told in 10 to 20 years from now?

In Israeli cinema you’re starting to see movies made by frum and haredi filmmakers, which is fascinating. One of my big desires at YU is to also see our graduates making films about subjects which are important to them, have powerful Jewish themes, and can impact America and American Jewry.

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