Cinema and Media Studies Jews in American Cinema and Media
by
Vincent Brook
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0218

Introduction

The outsized contribution of Jews to American entertainment precedes their rise to prominence in the Hollywood movie studios. Spurred by mass emigration from eastern Europe and Russia in the late 1800s, just as mass culture was emerging, immigrant and second-generation Jewish business owners, producers, and artists had already established themselves at the forefront of live theater and popular music by the time motion pictures caught on in the first decade of the 20th century. Not until the paradigm shift in film production from the East Coast to Los Angeles in the 1910s, however, and cinema’s ascendance from lowbrow fare to cultural phenomenon and lucrative enterprise, did Jewish numerical predominance in motion pictures become a “done deal.” Anti-Semitic reaction to this turn of events would become a fixture of the American entertainment scene, a reaction that Jews, from past experience, needed to take seriously. The upshot was hypersensitivity about the treatment of Jewish subjects on film and TV and the “too Jewishness” (in name and appearance) of Jewish actors. The sensitivity also extended to academia, delaying serious study of the subject of Jews and media. The identity politics movements of the mid-to-late 1960s, in general, and Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, specifically, radically changed the course of Jewish media representation and jump-started its scholarly treatment. Newfound ethnic pride expressed itself on the big screen in a late 1960s/early 1970s new wave of unprecedentedly Jewish-named and -“looking” stars (e.g., Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen) and led in the 1980s and 1990s to the first wave of books and articles on Jewish media images. Spurred by a younger generation of Jewish executives and increasing Jewish assimilation, a surge in television shows featuring explicitly Jewish main characters followed in the 1990s and 2000s. The televisual upswing also responded to an assimilation/multicultural dialectic generated, since the 1980s, by Jews’ widespread entry into the American mainstream and Israel’s post-1967 transformation from proverbial underdog to regional power. In problematizing diasporic Jews’ continuing desire but waning ability to be embraced by the multiculture, this dialectic opened the floodgates in the 1990s and 2000s to an exploration of all facets of Jews and the media, a process that burgeoning Jewish studies programs further encouraged.

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