Eric A. Goldman, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 2013. $55 hardcover, $25 paperback, 264 pages.
In his new book, The American Jewish Story through Cinema, Eric A. Goldman attempts to explore the American Jewish story by looking at film. Note the word story: not history, not experience, but story. This is of central importance for the work since it is this point that makes an assessment of it so difficult. The scholarship on American Jews and film is and has been rather strong at least since the 1980s. At first glance, Goldman’s book seems to be another addition to this scholarship of which Patricia Erens’ The Jew in American Cinema (Indiana, 1985) is perhaps the most noteworthy. Goldman has, however, carved out a niche for himself, looking at the collective Jewish story not on film but through film, essentially making movies the building blocks for his narrative. It is an intriguing and engaging narrative. In some ways Goldman’s book reads like a lecture – in a good sense, as he is able to write engagingly and has a talent for weaving a narrative.
The main problem with Goldman’s book is his explicit goal to use “the medium of cinema to provide an understanding of the changing situation of the American Jew over the last century” (ix). Goldman makes it clear that he is not looking to tell the story of how Jews are presented on the silver screen over the 20th century, nor is he seemingly interested in writing the history of the Jewish community in America in the 20th century while incorporating cinema in his analysis. Rather, he goes to great lengths to separate his work from these alternatives by arguing that he is telling the story of the collective Jewish experience in 20th century America with the help of film representations, in a way making the movies themselves nothing more than illustrations of the themes and attitudes he is trying to portray. As he puts it, cinema is “a way of telling the story, a Haggadah of what has transpired for Jews in America” (xii). As Goldman earlier defines Haggadah as the “traditional ‘telling’ of the story” (ix) one is left with the sense that he is not writing an academic history but rather a story. In fact, the reason the book reads like a lecture is that the analysis is informal: Goldman seems more interested in presenting a point with movie clips than in actually exploring a scholarly question in an open and methodologically sound way. Nevertheless, it is clear that Goldman possesses a deep understanding of the subject matter and the book is inarguably well written.
Goldman chooses nine films for his analysis, each either individually or in pairs representing a certain decade, or period. While his selections are intriguing, he offers little insight into his criteria of selection, stating only that “I have chosen select films that I consider representative of specific historical periods” (xii). As a result, the nine films are a motley crew, including some of the most important films of Jews in America and some more obscure, though not unknown, films. Among the former are The Jazz Singer (1927), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), The Young Lions (1958), The Way We Were (1973) and arguably The Prince of Tides (1991) while Crossfire (1947), Avalon (1990), Liberty Heights (1999) and Everything is Illuminated (2005) fall into the latter category. The unexplained decision by Goldman to limit himself to only nine films mean that many important films are left out, perhaps most notably The Fiddler on the Roof (1971), The Chosen (1981), and the work of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers. The unclear criteria of selection of the films naturally affects the work; while it makes for enjoyable and often informative reading, his assessment of Barbra Streisand’s career and two of her films does not adequately support the conclusion that “the 1970s Jew wanted to be loved and accepted by America” (142), while “by the 1990s, the American Jew was firmly entrenched” (151). The conclusions about the Jewish story seem too dependent on Goldman’s...