Birth of the ForceBirth of the Force

The Jewish roots of ‘Star Wars’

For director J.J. Abrams, ‘The Force Awakens’ is like a ‘second bar mitzvah,’ according to Steven Spielberg

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Legions of Star Wars fans will debate the Judeo-Christian themes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the long-awaited sequel of the franchise, but we’d rather play Jewish geography with the cast and crew.

Let’s start with the director, J.J. Abrams (his full name is Jeffrey Jacob), who back in July described himself to talk-show host Jon Stewart as the “most nebbishy Jewish director, ever.”

Abrams wasn’t describing his wiry body or aquiline nose, but rather a penchant for science fiction and fantasy creations that grew out of his childhood interest in mysteries and puzzle-solving.

As Steven Spielberg joked a few days ago on the red carpet, the latest in the Star Wars series is like Abrams’s second bar mitzvah.

Jewish-American filmmaker J.J. Abrams on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens in May 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/Star Wars)
Jewish-American filmmaker J.J. Abrams on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in May 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/Star Wars)

“J.J. is terrified,” Spielberg, 68, told 60 Minutes during an interview. “There’s a lot of pressure on J.J. — to start paying Disney back for, you know, the franchise they bought from George Lucas.”

Spielberg would know; he’s been friends with Abrams since the latter was a teen. At the time, Abrams was profiled in a newspaper article about his participation in a young filmmaker’s festival. Reading the article, Spielberg hired Abrams and a friend to repair some 8-mm reels sitting around his house.

Foreshadowing, anyone?

Abrams’s mother, Carol, has often described her horror at finding the pile of Spielberg’s film reels on the floor of J.J.’s bedroom, yelling that the already famous director would sue them for everything they had.

No worries, there, as Abrams finished the job and split the $300 fee with his friend.

It wasn’t until years later that Abrams called Spielberg to work on Super 8, based on his own collection of 8-mm tapes.

Abrams is a fast-talking, quick-thinking New Yorker, reported The Guardian in 2011, born in New York but raised in Los Angeles, the child of TV series executive producer Gerald Abrams and Carol Ann Abrams.

It was back in New York that he discovered the wonders of magic, at a small midtown store called Lou Tannen’s Magic, where his grandfather bought him a magic box, one he still hasn’t opened more than 40 years later.

As a kid, Abrams loved figuring out the inner workings of things, a love passed on to him by his maternal grandfather, who owned an electronics company. He described his grandfather in a TED talk he gave in 2008 called “The mystery box.”

It was also his grandfather who bought Abrams that first camera, a Super 8, when he was just 10 years old, which ultimately inspired the eponymous film he made with Spielberg.

But first Abrams started out writing and directing feature films such as Regarding Henry (starring Harrison Ford and in which a 25-year-old Abrams had his own cameo); Forever Young; and Cloverfield, about a giant, fictional monster.

It was in television that the Sarah Lawrence College-educated Abrams (he decided to attend college after his father advised him that he learn what to make movies about, rather than merely how to make movies) found his true niche.

He created several successful, long-running series, including Felicity, about a college student in New York City; Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as a double agent for the CIA; Lost, about survivors of a plane crash who land on a mysterious island; and Fringe, about a fictional fringe department of the FBI.

In between, he directed Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III and from there moved into the fantasy genre with 2009’s Star Trek and its 2013 sequel, Star Trek into Darkness.

Now, as Abrams sets out to celebrate the accolades he’ll receive for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we’re reminded of the decades-old connection with Harrison Ford, another member of the tribe by way of his mother, radio actress Dorothy Nidelman, as well as Carrie Fischer, daughter of 1950s pop star Eddie Fisher.

It’s all in the family, right? May the force be with them.

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