- Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema ed. by Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, eds. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013, 270 pp.
It is rare when a collection of seemingly disparate essays written by authors across a variety of disciplines comes together with a single, overarching resonant theme. It is even more rare when the totality of the experience inspires within the dedicated reader more questions than answers and a willingness to engage in a larger dialogue. This is the heady, ultimately satisfying terrain offered up in this smart yet all too brief assembly in Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema. [End Page 60]
Unlike a typical compendium, where one is encouraged to dip in and out according to interest and curiosity, this volume is best read as an immersive experience. Through diverse points of entry, the individual authors swirl around the thorny issues of cultural, ethnic, and religious identity and examine the dangers and wonder of a dual, perhaps liminal existence. They appear to respond to one another in a robust dialectic as they explore the ambiguous proposition of what it means to be Jewish in America and, more specifically, in and around the Hollywood dream machine. The editors have done a laudatory job of presenting here a lucid, coherent mosaic that affords readers an opportunity to contemplate a vast landscape of issues without a feeling of being overwhelmed.
The editors acknowledge the ambitious scope of this slim volume (the essays average but seventeen pages) by offering a succinct history of Jews in America in order to lend context to a 350-year conflict between traditions and religious ritual and the process of assimilation. Layered on top, of course, is the central issue of the Jews as creators of mass culture, including their place in the founding of the studio system.
Of the twelve essays, only two wander off the identity trail, and unsurprisingly, they concern the Holocaust. It’s as if no collection on Jewish Americans is complete without at least some discussion on this profoundly formative tragedy that has consumed the dark recesses of our collective psyche (and who am I to argue?). Peter Kramer offers up an interesting and thorough history of bringing Oskar Schindler’s story to the screen—many are unaware, for instance, of the involvement of both Howard Koch and Fritz Lang along the way. Then David Sterritt extends the discussion to the depiction of the Holocaust on the screen, ground that has been exhaustively covered elsewhere, but he gives it a unique twist through juxtaposition with September 11 and an interesting comparative analysis of mass media responses and representation.
Catherine Portuges also uses Nazi terror as a point of departure, but only in the exploration of the unintended consequence of driving a treasure trove of cinematic talent to Hollywood. Far from making an easy transition, directors such as Billy Wilder, who lost three-quarters of his family to the horrors of Auschwitz, harness their cultural “in-betweenness” as immigrants and as Jews in a gentile world to fashion an indelible stamp on American film.
The remaining essays consider the inherent tensions in reconciling “Jewish” with “American.” As if to underline this theme, the editors choose as their first essay Lester Friedman’s affectionate discussion of Edward Sloman’s His People (1925), which is built around the collision of old-world traditions and values with new-world realities and desires. What is remarkable is how contemporary this film sounds; it is a “major-minor” studio release (Universal) with Jewish protagonists struggling with problems stemming from distinctly Jewish dilemmas such as appearance, masculinity, and religious observance. As Friedman notes, Jewish characters and themes were so omnipresent in the formative years of the American film industry that screen Jews became “icon[s] of the ritual of Americanization” (34). The irony here is how quickly this icon disappeared, for as the Jewish-dominated studio system consolidated and coalesced into a powerful media entity, overt Jews, both on and off the screen, appeared to...