Sheryl Pockrose latest

Movie-made Jews: an American tradition, by Helene Meyers

 

When the topic of Jews in the movies and entertainment is covered in books and magazines, often the main focus is on performers who are Jewish but have changed their names to something that sounds more commercial. The Jewish immigrants who were influential in creating the Hollywood studio system in the mid-20th century have also been featured in literature, perhaps most notably in the 1988 book “An empire of their own: how the Jews invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler. 

“Movie-made Jews” takes a look at Jews and movies from a different angle, considering how the portrayal of Jews in the movies affects the attitudes of the audience towards Jews. The title of the book is a play on words referencing Robert Sklar’s “Movie-made America,” and Meyers wanted to follow up on Sklar’s look at the depiction of Americans in general on the screen with a similar look at American Jewishness in particular. Stating that “We are what we watch,” Meyers sees the act of watching movies together and then discussing them as crucial in forming our attitudes about ourselves if we are Jewish, or, attitudes about Jews in general, if those watching are non-Jews. 

The book has 8 chapters, each one based on a major theme, and within each chapter, four or five films are considered in terms of the theme. There are both feature films and documentaries, and while the emphasis is on the past quarter century or so, some older films that are considered “seminal works” in the depiction of Jews on the screen are also included. There are some familiar titles, such as “Yentl” and “Crimes and misdemeanors,” but many of the documentaries in particular are not likely to be widely known. That has changed somewhat with the availability of digital access and the ability even to distribute content totally online, and the author touches on the subject of whether this is a good or bad thing for the movie industry. She concludes that when it comes to Jewish content, the ability to distribute a film without having to get physical theaters to show it is allowing many more productions that don’t have mass audience appeal to find those who are interested. Documentaries focusing on one individual, or on one aspect of life, can now reach the smaller audiences that want a more in-depth look at a specific topic. 

When it comes to stereotypes about Jews, one cannot ignore the influence of Woody Allen, and the author acknowledges that people now see his movies differently, after learning about some of his personal behavior. His recurring themes of the neurotic Jew plagued by guilty feelings, and the older man interested in a younger woman, don’t seem as humorous, knowing how close to his own personal life those themes are. More generally, there is the issue of how negatively a stereotypical depiction of Jews might impact the attitude of non-Jews who see the film and may think it is an accurate portrayal. Negative imagery or antisemitism could also cause some Jews to want to escape from that by assimilating more in real life in ways that they feel will make them less obviously Jewish to others. 

More recent film creators sometimes make a particular effort to depict Jews accurately, going as far as hiring knowledgeable consultants to advise them about details, as was the case for the 2010 feature film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” in which the main character is a Satmar Hasid youth.

There are festivals devoted specifically to Jewish films, but, the major general film festivals such as the Sundance festival also have often been enthusiastic about including films with Jewish themes. “Keeping up with the Steins” made its debut at the Tribeca festival. Because the major festivals have related activities such as panel discussions, they are a good opportunity for interfaith conversations about differing cultures. 

The most recent famous Jew to be examined in detail was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in “RBG” (2018), covered in this book, as well as many other documentaries and books. Her challenges in her career stemmed more from being female than from being Jewish, but her outlook on life owed much to her Jewish upbringing, and having the name of Ginsburg kept the fact of her Jewishness in the forefront of people’s minds. Meyer thinks it would be progress if Jews in both daily life and in feature films were normalized to the extent that it doesn’t have to be an integral part of the plot, just as being a member of a particular Christian denomination is seen as ordinary. 

This book is more scholarly than entertaining in tone, with 34 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Whether you want an in-depth look at the portrayal of Jews in film, or just a guide to some films you might want to seek out based on your interests, this book is well-researched and presents some intriguing ideas for thought and discussion. 

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