Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Book Review


The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, by Eric A. Goldman.

As the title suggests, this book explores American Jewish history by examining movies as reflections of the experiences encountered by American Jews. Author Goldman is a teacher in the field of film studies, lecturing at Queens College, Yeshiva University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

After an over-view introduction, Goldman devotes six chapters to looking indepth at nine films, beginning with the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, in which the stresses and strains between American Jews and their immigrant parents are explored. Later versions appeared that featured Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis, and Neil Diamond. Yiddish variations of “The Jazz Singer” were also produced. The immigrant generation is personified in the father, a cantor who is ill or dying just before Yom Kippur. The American Jew has inherited his father’s singing ability but is using it to become a Broadway star and the conflict focuses on whether or not he will take his father’s place in the synagogue for Kol Nidre.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire,” both released in 1947, explored anti-Semitism in the United States. Interestingly, several leaders of American Jewish organizations and Hollywood moguls, mostly Jews, were opposed to making these films. It was a non-Jewish producer, Daryl F. Zanuck, who successfully advocated making “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Both films were well received and, according to Goldman, they “were part of a coming of age for America’s Jews.”

A chapter on Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions” ably examines how this film represents American Jews in the period following World War II. This is followed by a chapter on Barbra Streisand, focusing on “The Way We Were” and “The Prince of Tides.” The last two chapters discuss “Avalon,” “Liberty Heights,” and “Everything Is Illuminated,” concluding rather abruptly without any effort to summarize what has been so ably presented. This surprisingly unexpected ending detracts from what is otherwise a thoughtful consideration of how American Jewish life has been depicted on the screen. Goldman leaves the door wide open for a sequel on the contemporary Hollywood scene in which he might examine the contribution of the Coen brothers, Steven Spielberg, Holocaust films, Jewish actors today and other manifestations of Jewish influence in the world of film.

Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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