Stars of David over Hollywood

From ‘The Jazz Singer’ to ‘You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,’ the way Jews are portrayed on the silver screen reflects their acceptance into American society, says author Eric A. Goldman

Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer.'
Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer.'

NEW YORK — “Look at what the images are saying.” So implored professor, film distribution entrepreneur, festival programmer and, now, author Eric A. Goldman at a recent book launch event at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Goldman, who holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University, has just published “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema” through the University of Texas Press, and it is an extraordinary look at the way mainstream cinema has represented the Jewish people for popular consumption.

The book is part history lesson and part art criticism, with chapters divided into decades, focusing on a small band of essential titles. Goldman does not shy away from stories about the business of Hollywood, either, discussing how the predominantly Jewish-led movie studios were of very different mindsets concerning Jewish representation at different periods of time.

Goldman reminds us just how striking it is that “The Jazz Singer,” accepted now as the first widely seen “talking picture,” is an undisguised Jewish story. While wholly relatable as another “immigrant’s tale” (a very popular form for early cinema’s poorer audiences), the film’s climax concerns the singing of the Kol Nidre on Erev Yom Kippur.

Star Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelsen) must decide whether to continue on his path toward American assimilation or embrace his family heritage. As he wrestles with his conscience during a climactic scene, a tallit is held off the center of the frame, like a lure, or a fork in the road, a visual representation of an internal Jewish dialogue.

(photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)

“The Jazz Singer”  was produced by the original Warner Bros. — three of the four were born in the Old Country — and is essentially their story of struggling with assimilation writ large. Goldman’s book details how changes to the ending of the original short story and play are indicative of the compromise many professionals of the time were making.

As in a classroom (but, you know, a fun one), Goldman took advantage of the 92nd St. Y setting to show clips that illuminated key points in his book. In addition to this scene from “The Jazz Singer” we watched a famous moment from “Gentleman’s Agreement” starring Gregory Peck.

The Academy Award-winning film about a journalist going “undercover” as a Jew to root out anti-Semitism is a fine example of how cinema can tell a story with more than just dialogue. As Peck first approaches a restricted resort, the doors are wide-open, seemingly inviting to all. It ends, of course, with a door slammed shut.

Interestingly, it took non-Jews to get this movie made. Starting in 1934, according to Goldman, there is hardly any mention of Jews or Jewish characters in any Hollywood film. As soon as Nazism began gathering steam, the Jewish studio heads decided to lay low. Despite Paul Muni (born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund) starring in 1937’s “Life of Emile Zola” you need very sharp hearing, eagle eyes and a detective’s powers of observation to recognize the Dreyfus Affair was a case about anti-Semitism.

Eric Goldman (photo credit: courtesy)
Eric Goldman (photo credit: courtesy)

“The American Jewish Story Through Cinema” continues through to modern times with observations about the behind the scenes players as well as what is up there on the screen. One of Goldman’s key points is that even if a film is set during an earlier time period, it is also a reflection of when the film is made. At the book launch event specific scenes set in the 1940s from 1958’s “The Young Lions” and 1990’s “Avalon” were contrasted to show the different attitudes toward America’s acceptance of Jews.

Goldman’s remarkable edge as a writer and presenter, however, lays in more than just laying out a history. As with most who have a doctorate in Cinema Studies, he is attuned to the visual storytelling elements of film that, many argue, work on us in on a subconscious level. Certain shots of Montgomery Clift in “The Young Lions” are through a fence, suggesting that he is trapped in society’s prison. In “Avalon,” Elizabeth Perkins’ American-born Jewish character tries to glean half-understood Yiddish about distant cousins surviving World War II as we cut to a Thanksgiving turkey (representing America) shoved in an oven (representing the Holocaust).

For those who don’t often read academic criticism, this book may prove an enlightening way of rethinking how to experience a film. Goldman’s style isn’t too Ivory Tower as to not be inclusive, plus the stories of Jewish icons like Barbra Streisand and Jewish film producers are good and juicy. Most interesting how the “Jewish story” is still evolving. A final chapter centered around Liev Schreiber’s overlooked “Everything is Illuminated” couldn’t be a more different shtetl story than “The Jazz Singer,” proving that fascinating Jewish movies are in no danger of becoming extinct.

A scene from 'Avalon' (photo credit: courtesy)
A scene from ‘Avalon’ (photo credit: courtesy)
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