Celluloid truths

Celluloid truths

Viewing Jewish life through films can be revealing, Eric Goldman says

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Moviegoers lined up to see Al Joson in “The Jazz Singer.”

We Jews are particularly good at text study.

We can take a source, examine each word, individually and in relation to the others surrounding it. We can squint, we can change the angle and the light, and then look again. We can investigate each word’s history, play with the spelling, change the verb tense, listen to the rhythm, follow the allusions. We can consider the period in which it was written and the personalities of generations of its explicators.

So who said we can do that only to written text?

Just as the study of Talmud, say, can teach a great deal about the periods during which the various commentators lived, and how ideas evolved over time, close study of film can teach a great deal about Jewish life when that film was made.

Eric Goldman of Teaneck has taken the traditional method of text study and applied it to the area of his expertise and passion – the movies. “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema,” his new book, published by the University of Texas Press, looks at nine American Jewish films.

“If you read a movie, you can get a lot of information from it, just as you do when you read a book,” Goldman said. “And when there is Jewish material, you get a lot of information about the period when the film was made.”

That isn’t true only about Jews, of course.

“If you were to watch, say, ‘Lincoln’ today, it’s as much about dysfunction in Congress today as it was about dysfunction in Congress then,” he said. Because the way movies mirror life can be so clear, “I decided to delve into films; to research their production history, and look at why they were made. Films get made for a variety of reasons, which can shed a lot of light on what was going on with Jewish life at the time.”

He starts at the beginning of modern American film history, with “The Jazz Singer,” famously the first movie to include the human voice – and that of the legendary chazzan, Yossele Rosenblatt, no less. (Movies never actually were silent; music, performed live in the theater, was part of the experience.)

“The Jazz Singer” was created as a stage play; it opened in 1926. “In the original ending, he” – the protagonist, the great singer who also was a cantor’s son – ” goes home,” Goldman said. “He sings in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, and then he gives up his career.

“In the movie, in 1927, he goes home, he sings in the synagogue – but then he goes back and is successful on stage. which was written for a Jewish audience by a playwright who felt that Jewish life was important.”

That playwright was Samson Raphaelson, who later went to Hollywood and became a successful screenwriter, creating dialogue for such sophisticated players as Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, and for such brilliant directors as Ernst Lubitsch. “But Raphaelson came out of the Lower East Side, and he had strong feelings about his Jewishness,” Goldman said. “In the play, you have to struggle, that’s American, and you have to give in a bit, but you don’t have to give up.”

He chose a jazz singer because American jazz, he believed, was a secular version of the cantor’s art; the true jazz singer had the same tear in his voice, Raphaelson explained at the time, as the chazzan.

Raphaelson refused to make the changes that the Warner Brothers – four Jews, sons of an observant father – demanded of him, so they dropped him from the project, replacing him with a more pliant Jew, Alfred Cohn. Similarly, the play’s Broadway star, George Jessel, for whom Raphaelson created the role, was replaced in the film with the less strongly Jewishly identified Al Jolson, who actually was a cantor’s son.

Next, Goldman looked at the film itself. “There are some terrific visuals,” he said. “When he returns home to pay a sick call on his dying father, and ‘the kibitzer’ – that’s the name of the role – he walks in carrying a tallis.

“It’s all done brilliantly. There he is, holding the tallis, and his mama, behind, who walks in, and on Jolson’s other side is his non-Jewish woman friend and his manager, who also wasn’t Jewish.

“In a certain sense, that captures the situation of American Jewry at just that time.”

There have been remakes of “The Jazz Singer,” each one revealing in its own way. There was a Yiddish-language adaptation in 1936, called, “The Cantor’s Son,” and another in 1940 called “Overture to Glory.” In “The Cantor’s Son,” the title character eventually gives up the stage for the bimah. “Overture to Glory,” taking it further, posits a cantor’s son who leaves the community for a glamorous career. “Then God punishes him,” Goldman said. “His daughter dies; he loses his voice; he dies. The message is that if you leave the community, you’ll pay for it.”

There was a 1952 version starring Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee – neither actor was Jewish. “It’s postwar, and they’re making it,” Goldman said. “He’s a Korean war veteran, and a Yale graduate like his dad.” The 1980 version, with Neil Diamond in the title role, starred Lawrence Olivier as the father, a survivor of the Shoah. Lucie Arnaz played the girlfriend/wife/manager, who makes an effort to learn about Judaism, and in one scene even lights Shabbat candles. Diamond’s version of the character is the most conflicted of the iterations. The film ends after Yom Kippur, when Olivier goes a to jazz concert and kvells at his son’s performance. Next, said Goldman, “there was a Simpsons remake,” Goldman said. “Each time, it adapts to the period.”

Goldman next turned to “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” the 1947 movie about anti-Semitism, based on the book written by Laura Z. Hobson, who was Jewish, and directed by Elia Kazan, who was not.

“The backstory is that the Jewish community did its best to keep the film from being made,” Goldman said. Anti-Semitism – surprisingly, it seems to us now, given that World War II and its horrors had just ended – was acknowledged as a problem, but “They wanted to take a ‘sha, shtill’ approach – ‘We’ll do it ourselves, quietly. If you raise too much of a stink, it’ll be bad for us.’

“That indicated that the Jews were still scared. It was the time of the Rosenbergs, of the Red Scare, but still, it was fascinating for what it showed about the structure of the Jewish community, where the Jews were after the war.”

The film had an impact. “Following its screening, studies were done that showed that anti-Semitism began to drop because of this movie and because of ‘Crossfire,'” a movie that “slipped through the cracks largely because its screenwriter and director were included in the Hollywood 10.” (The Hollywood 10 were a group of film professionals who were blacklisted because of their real, perceived, and at times invented ties to Communist organizations.)

Goldman is particularly taken with one visual image. Gregory Peck, the non-Jewish reporter whose masquerade as a Jew is at the movie’s heart, “comes to the hotel where he and his fiancée were supposed to spend their honeymoon,” Goldman said. “He walks into a gorgeous resort in New Hampshire. The doors are wide open. This is America.” But he eventually learns that the hotel is restricted, and as the manager’s Rolodex turns, so too the doors turn him out. The open, beckoning doors are shown to be an illusion; actually, these are revolving doors, moving Jews out of places where they are unwelcome and cannot stay.

Goldman, who grew up in Philadelphia, entered Temple University in the early 1970s as a pre-med math major. He and two close friends, who had been active together in Young Judaea, worked on the school’s radio station, playing Israeli music. “I realized that I liked this stuff,” he said. Temple has a very good communications program, so Goldman switched his major; he went on to get a dual masters at Brandeis, in Jewish studies and film production, and then earned a doctorate in cinema history at NYU. For a decade, he worked for the precursor agency to the Jewish Community Centers of America., helping Jewish communities across North America. His dissertation, “The World History of Yiddish Cinema,” became a book, and he parlayed that into a career. For a decade he worked for the precursor agency to the Jewish Community Centers of America, helping Jewish communities across North America establish film festivals and educational media centers. Next, he launched his own company, Ergo Media, and he has reviewed films for this newspaper for many years.

Goldman has taught Jewish film history at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and the Academy for the Jewish Religion, and he now teaches at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has embarked on a speaking tour to promote his new book; on April 17, he will be at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

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