- American Jewish Films: The Search for Jewish Identity by Lawrence J. Epstein and The American Jewish Story Through Cinema by Eric A. Goldman
Just as the villain frequently provides more entertainment value for audiences than the good guy, problematic books often offer more grist for critical analysis than unassailable ones. Such a dichotomy separates the two studies of Jewish representation in American cinema on review here. To be fair, both the “villain,” in this case Lawrence J. Epstein’s American Jewish Films: The Search for Jewish Identity, and the “good guy,” Eric A. Goldman’s The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, had their work cut out for them. The authors faced two major challenges. First, how, without sounding like an echo chamber, to build on the definitive surveys of American Jewish filmic representation through the mid-1980s: Patricia Erens’s The Jew in American Cinema (1984) and Lester Friedman’s The Jewish Image in American Film (1987). Second, how to distinguish their efforts from a flurry of recent attempts to update Erens’s and Friedman’s classics, including two authored books: Nathan Abrams’s The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (2012) and Omer Bartov’s The “Jew” in Cinema: From ‘The Golem’ to ‘Don’t Touch My Holocaust’ (2005); and two anthologies: Lawrence Baron’s The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (2012) and Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson’s Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema (2013). I myself shelved a like-themed project due to the mounting glut.
Both Epstein and Goldman overcame the first obstacle, Epstein via a thesis-driven tack (the subtitle’s “search for Jewish identity”) and Goldman via a case-study approach (nine films in all). Only Goldman, however, managed to add to the better of the post-Erens/Friedman contingent another book that enriches our understanding of Jewishness in American cinema. Goldman’s work shines for several reasons. Beyond the technical command—solid writing and research, perceptive textual and formal analysis—the book deftly integrates historical context with [End Page 71] production and reception studies (partly gleaned from personal interviews with the filmmakers) to sensitively chart the shifting sands and precarious shoals of Jewish cinematic identity. Epstein’s effort falters by comparison with Goldman’s (not to mention his own earlier, far superior The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians ) on all fronts. The blame for the uneven writing, rife with redundancies and sophomoric pronouncements—“Jews are not always good” (164); “there is a growing amount of evidence that cinema as a form has its limits” (173)—partly lies with McFarland’s editorial staff. But this is only part of the problem. The book’s premise, that American Jewish movies are duty-bound to produce a model for Jewish identity and that such a model should be based exclusively in a (never adequately defined) religious Judaism, is simplistic at best, offensive at worst.
The “search for” narrative does have its benefits. As with the whodunit or hero’s journey, Epstein’s quest for the holy grail of American Jewish identity generates its share of suspense. However dubious and delimiting his criteria for such an identity may be, one can’t help wondering which film(s) will come to satisfy them. And as one film after another is tested, some dismissed out of hand, others edging closer to the prized goal, the tension mounts—as does the frustration. As the funeral pyre of fallen films grows, so does the stench of contrivance. The films, rather than be taken seriously, serve as straw men. Anti-Semitism, for example, as seminally (if tentatively) treated in Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire (both 1947), “won’t work as the foundation of American Jewish identity” because it either victimizes Jews or “distorts a genuine Jewish identity” (61). The Holocaust, as boldly (if morally equivocally) confronted in The Pawnbroker (1964), falls short “because most American...