On the silver screen: Filming Jewish history

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

On Sunday, August 14, at 2 pm, nearly 50 of us gathered in the sanctuary of Congregation Bnai Israel, a simple, but beautiful, 100-year-old wooden synagogue in the picturesque Catskill village of Fleischmanns, NY. Punctuating a lecture by Dr. Eric Goldman on “The American Jewish Story through Cinema,” scenes from iconic films were shown. An ethnic audience composed of film aficionados paired with an erudite and enthusiastic presenter made for a notable exploration of Jewish film history. 

Recipient of a Ph.D. in cinema studies from New York University, Goldman has taught film studies at Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A prolific author, Goldman writes for academic and journalistic publications. With his affinity for rendering Jewish film scholarship accessible and engaging to lay audiences, Goldman has lectured in many venues outside of academia. 

A central argument threaded through Goldman’s presentation: prior to the late 1960s, Jewish studio heads, with a few notable exceptions, avoided subject matter that reflected their own religious backgrounds. They did this because antisemitism thrived on canards that conspiratorial Jews controlled basic industries. For example, The Dearborn Independent, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s influential newspaper, asserted, “The chief financial controllers of the country are Jews;” and “If you fight filth, the fight carries you straight into the Jewish camp because the majority of the [film] producers are there.” In the case of the film industry, acknowledges Goldman, Jewish studio heads were prevalent as references to Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers underline. 

Prejudice blocked Jews from many established industries, and film in the days of the early nickelodeons was a fluid enterprise, requiring relatively little capital. Disproportionately popular in immigrant neighborhoods, early cinema, notes Goldman, appeared disreputable to elite Anglo-American financiers. Moreover, the skill set that numbers of Jews had acquired in the business side of vaudeville and the garment trade lent themselves to the nascent movie industry. Thus, the outsized Jewish role in the movie industry was a circumstance of time and place. Novelist E.L. Doctorow dramatizes this ascent in his classic novel “Ragtime,” depicting Tateh, a poor Jewish Lower East Side hawker of silhouette figures, recreating himself as Baron Ashkenazy, aspirant mogul of the Buffalo Nickel Photoplay.

Several times during this presentation, Goldman put his fingers to his lips and made the “shhh” sound in commenting on how Jewish filmmakers, apprehensive about bringing Gentile attention to themselves, dodged the issues, lifestyles and concerns of their American landsman. 

Nonetheless, a few landmark films broke through the ethnic silence. 

The original version of “The Jazz Singer” (1927) – loosely paralleling the biography of its star, Al Jolson (Jakie Rabinowitz) – created a sensation as the first film to intermittently synchronize sound dialogue. Filmed in part on the Lower East Side and in synagogue interiors, the film depicts Jakie rebelling against the expectations of his father to follow the family tradition and become a cantor. Jakie runs away to pursue a career as a jazz singer. Adopting the name Jack Robin, he falls in love with a beautiful Gentile headliner. In the dramatic climax, Jakie is pulled by conflicting demands – perform the Kol Nidre in his dying father’s place on Yom Kippur or debut in the opening night of a show in tandem with his girlfriend. Even after he chooses synagogue over show, the tension reaches an apex when he cries out to God performing the Kol Nidre. Only in a closing scene, set in the future, showing Jack reunited with his girlfriend and starring in a musical extravaganza, is catharsis achieved. Despite the schmaltz, “The Jazz Singer” dealt powerfully with one of the central challenges of the Jewish-American experience, the struggle between ethnic tradition and American assimilation. 

“The Jazz Singer,” emphasized Goldman, was not a harbinger for films focusing on the Jewish experience. Despite rising antisemitism, Holocaust, assimilation and Israel’s rebirth in the decades that followed, movies rarely penetrated the “shhh” of Jewish filmmakers. However, Goldman gave attention, albeit with omissions, to certain movies from the limited cadre of pre-1968 films with Jewish focus. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) skewered the Nazi leader, a lookalike for Hitler, with satire. Several World War II films placed a Jewish soldier in the platoon. In “Crossfire” (1947), antisemitism prompts a brutal murder. A Gentile, Darryl Zanuck, produced “Gentleman’s Agreement “(1947), chronicling a WASP reporter posing as a Jew to investigate antisemitism. “The Young Lions” addresses military antisemitism and intermarriage. Many Jewish actors – Kirk Douglas (Izzy Demsky), Tony Curtis (Bernie Schwartz), Jill Oppenheim (Jill St. John) – adopted Anglo-American names to obscure their ethnicity. 

Chronological distance from mass immigration, assimilation, attainment of the American Dream by many Jews, the execution of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and pride in Israeli military prowess created a new Jewish-American confidence. Starting with “Funny Girl” (1968), actress-singer Barbra Streisand starred in a succession of blockbuster films that emphasized her Jewishness. The 1969 film “Goodbye, Columbus,” based on the Philip Roth novella of the same name, marked a watershed. It announced that Jews now felt confident enough about their place in America to dramatize their conflicts, laugh at their foibles and reveal their secrets. Soon, Jewish-oriented films of all genres proliferated. 

During the discussion session that followed Goldman’s formal presentation, personal reflection about Jewish identity emerged. One gentleman noted that he was an immigrant, an accent suggested Eastern European origins. Drafted during the Vietnam War, he encountered a fellow soldier from Tennessee who confided to never having met a Jew before. Under fire in a Vietnamese jungle, a soldier from Ohio castigated him with profane antisemitic epithets. He nearly turned an M16 rifle on the bigot. A pause preceded resumption of discussion. 

Caveats primarily stem from the time restraints imposed on the lecture. The format precluded comprehensiveness. Goldman’s thesis was clear: Jewish-American filmmakers long feared bringing attention to themselves and to their co-religionists. Goldman’s analysis and evidence, albeit selective, provided telling support for his argument. To drill deeper, read his articles and books. Goldman informed, challenged and entertained his audience.

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.