Jewish Studies Film
by
Ari Y. Kelman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0015

Introduction

The relationship between Jews and film cannot be limited to any single narrative. It is not only the story of powerful Hollywood moguls, for good or ill. Nor is it only the story of unflattering portrayals or failed attempts to represent the horrors of the Holocaust. It also does not hew to the narratives of a national cinema, whether Israeli, Yiddish, or diasporic. Rather, the relationship between Jews and film is as multifaceted as the communities who become audiences when the lights go down, and as complex as the processes that bring films to them. The reason for this is simply that the relationship between Jews and film is fueled by more than a mere accounting of Jewish directors, Jewish characters, or Jewish audiences. The variety of languages, countries, themes, stories, performers, and politics represented in the relationship between Jews and film both captures the diversity of Jewish experience and represents the challenges inherent in discussing Jews and film as a coherent body of work. Resultant scholarship reflects this diversity and lights on the variety of ways the relationship between Jews and film has manifested itself. Sometimes it meant veiling the Jewishness of a particular performer or character (see almost all of the Marx Brothers’ films). Other times, it seemed that Jewish producers felt that the best way to tell a Jewish story was to have a non-Jew tell it (see, for example, Schindler’s List or Crossfire). Some saw films as ciphers for Jewish themes even though they contained no overt Jewish context (such as ET), while others (including Israeli films like Behind the Walls) reveal the limitations of what a “Jewish narrative” could be. The significance and limitations of the relationships among consumers, producers, themes, and images shape negotiations over film’s meaning, and, both on screen and off, these negotiations reveal deeper issues about Jewishness, politics, culture, and community. This article highlights some of the key resources in mapping out and thinking through this dynamic relationship as it plays out across the globe, both on screen and off.

General Overviews

These works attempt to provide comprehensive accounts of the relationship between Jews and film. While some (Bartov 2005, Gabler 1988, and Carr 2001) offer more synthetic accounts of this relationship, others (Erens 1984 and Friedman 1987) read more like long annotated filmographies wrapped around less well-developed analyses of films featuring Jewish characters. Cohen 1983 bridges the gap between stage and screen, and Whitfield 1999 offers a more integrated account of film in conversation with other venues for American Jewish culture. Hoberman and Shandler 2003 offers a beautiful, readable, and wide-ranging account that places film in the broader context of Jewish participation in mass media. More critically, Bartov 2005 offers a crucial corrective to two classic accounts of representation in American film, Friedman 1987 and Erens 1984, by expanding its account to include films from outside the United States and by redefining who “counts” as a Jew onscreen. Carr 2001 also begins with classic narratives of Jewish media control and places them in some much-needed historical context, reframing and problematizing Gabler’s heroic narrative. The National Center for Jewish Film continues to be the most valuable source for reissues of films that would have been lost, forgotten, or otherwise unavailable to audiences.

  • Bartov, Omer. The “Jew” in Cinema: From The Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Bartov focuses on the image of the Jew, extending it to include anyone with “Jewish characteristics.” Complex and sophisticated, the book focuses on global cinema, with an emphasis on Israeli and Holocaust films.

  • Carr, Steven Alan. Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History, 1880–1941. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612633E-mail Citation »

    The finest scholarly analysis of anti-Semitism in and around Hollywood. Invaluable for anyone interested in understanding what happens behind the scenes, not just on screen.

  • Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the first collections to connect Jewish stage and screen. A bit uneven, but an important resource in the historiography, including some good articles.

  • Erens, Patricia. The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    An extensive account of Jewish figures in American film. Thorough and held together by a thin chronology, it focuses almost entirely on Jews on screen.

  • Friedman, Lester D. The Jewish Image in American Film. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Another extensive account of images of Jews in American film. Friedman argues for a decade-based account of the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of Jews on screen.

  • Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. New York: Crown, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic, if problematic, account of Jewish influence in Hollywood, arguing that the America of classic Hollywood is essentially a Jewish invention.

  • Hoberman, J., and Jeffrey Shandler, eds. Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rich and richly illustrated volume that extends beyond movies. Includes great essays, short biographies, and some important context about Jews and film.

  • The National Center for Jewish Film.

    E-mail Citation »

    A vital and vibrant source and resource for Jewish films both new and old. Responsible for restoring old and nearly lost films and for documenting the ongoing production of new Jewish films, The National Center for Jewish Film is a crucial resource for Jewish films outside of Hollywood.

  • Whitfield, Stephen J. In Search of American Jewish Culture. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Whitfield’s wide-ranging and sometimes peculiarly organized book is essential to understanding the relationships between film and other media in Jewish American life.

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