On the silver screen: Film as Jewish memoir: Spielberg’s fables & Fabelmans

By Bill Simons

Over the past half-century, Steven Spielberg arguably ranks as the most significant and influential American film director, as well as a protean producer. Spielberg has created more blockbusters than any other filmmaker, past or present. Embracing multiple genres, his movies have spanned escapist adventure, historical drama, farce, science fiction, love, race and ethnicity, terror and the musical. So many of Spielberg’s productions – amongst them “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Indiana Jones sequels, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” the Jurassic Park films, “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Lincoln” – achieved iconic status as they reflected and shaped the collective consciousness of America and the world. His first major film, “The Sugarland Express (1974),” established him as the 27-year-old wunderkind of American cinema. Now at 76, in the afterglow of “The Fabelmans” (2022), Spielberg is the legendary paterfamilias of the industry.

Spielberg is not a Jewish filmmaker in the same way as Woody Allen. Not only is Allen Jewish, but a Jewish ambiance provides content and perspective for most of his films. The quintessential Allen film is set geographically and socially within the milieu of Jewish New York. 

Conversely, most Spielberg films are devoid of overt Jewish themes or characters. Many of Spielberg’s template protagonists are American suburbanites of no particular ethnicity, menaced by a shark, supernatural forces, aliens and dinosaurs. But these middle-class Americans find within themselves a surprising resilience and strength. As for the serial escapism of the Indiana Jones pulp fiction, despite the pursuit of the lost ark and battle with Nazis, Indiana Jones does not engage Mosaic law or antisemitism. And Spielberg’s ambitious historical dramas generally lack a Jewish portal.  

However, by parentage, bar mitzvah, ethnic identification and adult domesticity, Spielberg is a Jewish film director. More to the point, while his creation of Jewish cinema is limited, three of Spielberg’s pre-eminent films – “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Munich” (2005), and “The Fabelmans” (2022) – constitute a Jewish trilogy. 

“Schindler’s List” confronts the central tragedy of Jewish history, the Holocaust with graphic details about life, cruelty, suffering and death in a Nazi concentration camp. An epic film that dramatizes history, it highlights the courage and compassion of a surprising hero, Oskar Schindler, a philanderer and Gentile industrialist whose factory manufactured enamelware. Morally outraged by atrocities against Jews that he personally witnesses, Schindler came up with a plot to rescue Jews. By falsification of business records at risk to his own life and the payment of bribes to Nazi officials, Schindler hired Polish Jewish workers, claiming that they were essential to production. Schindler saved approximately 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers and crematoriums, numbers of whom eventually settled in Israel. Yet, Spielberg’s Schindler is anguished by awareness of those he was powerless to help.

While “Schindler’s List” focused on the Jew as victim, “Munich” concerns the commitment of the modern state of Israel to exact a high price for the taking of Jewish life. In retaliation for the murder of 11 members of Team Israel at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics by Palestinian operatives of Black September, the Israeli government covertly authorized the hunting down and execution of the murderers, several of whom were killed. Spielberg’s “Munich” is graphic, violent, intense and realistic. It captures the moral ambiguity of collateral deaths, the conditions that drove the Palestinians to terrorism and the emotional toll on the Israeli avengers.

A fable is an instructive story with a lesson. Spielberg’s most memorable films are fables, none more so than “The Fabelmans,” the slightly fictionalized account of his Jewish American coming of age.

Sammy Fabelman and his three younger sisters grow up in a dysfunctional middle-class, postwar Jewish home. The mother Mitzi, creative and passionate, dreamed of pursuing virtuosity as a concert pianist, but she was socialized to marry, have children and find security as a housewife. The father Burt, an engineer who plays a key role in the development of personal computers, is benevolent, but emotionally absent to his family, and has relocated them from New Jersey to Arizona to Northern California, where they are the only Jewish family in their suburb and adolescent antisemites torment Sammy. Relatives, sensibility, Hanukkah, traditional foods, a few Yiddish phrases and perceptions of Gentiles mark the Jewishness of the secular Fabelmans. Ultimately, the Fabelman children are devastated when Mitzi leaves Burt for their ubiquitous family friend, the warm and extroverted Bennie. 

In 1952, his parents take young Sammy to his first move, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The film mesmerizes the boy, particularly the train wreck scene, which he attempts to recreate with his model set. Filmmaking becomes an obsession with Sammy. He wins recognition for his ever more sophisticated movies in Boy Scouts and high school, even from an antisemitic golden boy. However, Burt cannot recognize his son’s films as anything more than a hobby.

The visit of Great-Uncle Boris to sit shiva for his sister, Sammy’s maternal grandmother, provides the defining scene in “The Fabelmans.” The octogenarian Boris, a former lion tamer and character actor, is played with ferocious intensity by 86-year-old Judd Hirsch. Squeezing Sammy’s face so hard he nearly pulls it off, Boris warns his great-nephew that his heart will be torn asunder if he allows his family to thwart his dream of making films. In mourning, Boris rips apart his undershirt and screams that Mitzi’s depression comes from not living the life she wanted.

Sammy follows Uncle Boris’ counsel. Hating college and suffering from panic anxiety, he drops out to take entry level jobs on television shows in Hollywood. He gets to spend a minute or so in the office of his hero, the profane and profound John Ford, whom Sammy regards as the greatest director who ever lived. Sammy knows his calling. 

Spielberg is now in the late innings of his fabled directorial career. However, his mother and father lived to 97 and 103 respectively, and his passion for film remains undimmed. It may well be that Spielberg has more fables to share, Jewish and otherwise. 

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.