- The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema edited by Lawrence Baron
Given the fact that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe virtually created Hollywood, and certainly were also heavily involved in the establishment of film industries in Great Britain, France, Germany, the Benelux countries and much of Eastern Europe, it’s not surprising that Jews have been portrayed in the cinema since its earliest days. What is more surprising is how few films were actually made about Jewish life and culture, at least during the first seventy years of the cinema’s existence. Not only have antisemites considered the film industry a “Jewish” business, but also more than 60 percent of the American until recently public believed Hollywood to be controlled by Jews. The wish for assimilation, the need for profits from a mass market audience, and the desire to remain invisible politically, socially, or ethnically, all these factors conspired to eliminate any Jewish-themed films from the production slate. [End Page 157]
Hollywood, in particular, avoided Jewish-themed films like the plague, at least until ethnicity became fashionable in the 1970s, producing not more than a handful of films during the classical studio period from the 1920s to the 1960s. Ironically, American cinema produced many more films with Jewish characters and themes before the establishment of Hollywood ca. 1917, but most of those films have disappeared. Thus, except for the budding film production in prestate Israel and Yiddish film production in New York and Warsaw, Jews remained virtually invisible for decades in the world’s cinemas. The end of World War II and the Shoah led to further repression of Jewish themes, possibly because the Holocaust itself was wiped from collective memory for at least two decades after the war. In the last forty years, however, more Jewish-themed films have been produced than anyone can count, making Lawrence Baron’s job in the present anthology exceedingly difficult.
Having taught a course on Jewish themes in the cinema for eighteen years, and wishing to write the “definitive survey of the depiction of Jews and Judaism in world cinema,” Baron was quickly overwhelmed by the project. He therefore decided to put together an anthology as a teaching text, utilizing the massive amount of literature already available in print. Indeed the present anthology collects no less than fifty-four essays on fifty-nine films, in more than 400 pages of double-columned text, a veritable Walmart on Jewish cinema with something for everyone. And yet, because the editor has only chosen films that are easily available in this country on DVD, the anthology is far from inclusive. Significant gaps include the first thirty-five years of silent cinema, or any German, Russian, or English films made before 1960. But then again, if we look at the structure of the table of contents, the goal of the anthology seems to be to demonstrate how the history of Judism is reflected in modern cinema, not a history of Jewish cinema: “1. Advancement and Animosity in Western Europe 1874–1924, 2. Eastern Europe 1881–1921, 3. Americanization of Jewish Immigrants, 1880–1932, 4. Revolutionary Alternatives: Zionism and Communism, 5. The Holocaust and Its Repercussions, 6. Israel’s Heroic Years, 1947–1967, 7. Acceptance in Postwar America, 1945–1977, 8. A Diverse Dispora, 9. Contemporary Israeli Experiences, 10. Contemporary American Jewish Identities.” One could quibble about this somewhat arbitrary periodization of Jewish history, but Baron himself maintains in his introduction: “In addition to contexualizing films in terms of when and where they were produced, or gauging their historical verisimilitude or fidelity to the fictional works from which they were adapted, the authors in this anthology employ a variety of [End Page 158] approaches to examine how films distort, interpret, and reflect the events and trends they purport to portray” (6–7).
The extreme heterogeneity in critical approaches is a reflection of the broad palette of authors, many of whom are specialists in Jewish history and literature, but not in film studies. The intended readership also seems to run the gamut from an...