The Amer­i­can Jew­ish Sto­ry through Cinema

  • Review
April 9, 2013
In his book on Jew­ish Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty and film, Eric A. Gold­man offers his read­ers a sam­pling of impor­tant films from the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that reflect the ways Jews gen­er­al­ly per­ceived them­selves, and were per­ceived by oth­ers, in Amer­i­can soci­ety at the time. He begins with The Jazz Singer (1927), a film that would go down in his­to­ry as the first talk­ing pic­ture, but one that has also gar­nered a lot of crit­i­cal atten­tion for its depic­tion of the clas­sic Jew­ish sto­ry of assim­i­la­tion.” Much has already been writ­ten about this movie, as well as many of the oth­ers cov­ered in Goldman’s work – includ­ing Gentleman’s Agree­ment (1947), Cross­fire (1947), The Young Lions (1958), The Way We Were (1973), The Prince of Tides (1991), Aval­on (1990), Lib­er­ty Heights (1999), and Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed (2005). What sets this study apart is Goldman’s atten­tion to the pro­duc­tion his­to­ry of these var­i­ous cin­e­mat­ic achieve­ments. The author spends con­sid­er­able time ana­lyz­ing plots and visu­al sym­bols from the films, but he does so only after com­pre­hen­sive­ly dis­cussing their polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic back­drops. The Young Lions, for exam­ple, was first a nov­el, pub­lished in 1948 to great acclaim. The film would pre­mier only ten years lat­er, and the process and prod­uct of this adap­ta­tion would reveal, among oth­er things, a shift in the ways that Amer­i­cans had come to respond to images of the Holo­caust. As anoth­er exam­ple, the actor Liev Schreiber’s adap­ta­tion of Jonathan Safran Foers nov­el, Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed, pub­lished in 2002, would expose both the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences of what it means to return to an unknown Euro­pean past for an Amer­i­can Jew with a grand­par­ent who had sur­vived the Holo­caust and for one with­out any imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to the Shoah. Goldman’s work pro­vides an absorb­ing nar­ra­tive of the ways that cer­tain cin­e­mat­ic moments are part and par­cel of a long and com­plex his­to­ry of Jew­ish Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty-mak­ing and storytelling.

Discussion Questions