In his thoughtful and provocative new book, “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema” (University of Texas Press), Eric A. Goldman refers to Hollywood films about American Jewish life as “a Haggadah,” the Passover text that is savored and studied annually.
“The Haggadah is a unique book in Judaism,” Goldman says. “It’s not a prayer book, it’s the retelling of a story; we read it every year and every year the text is the same. But we get more out of it with every repetition.”
He’s sitting in an Upper West Side café, sipping coffee and displaying an easy, winning smile. An adjunct associate professor at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Goldman’s company Ergo Media (jewishvideo.com) was one of the very first distributors of Jewish film on video; it was founded in 1986 and is still one of the favored destinations for people seeking Jewish-themed films.
“Film needs to be viewed as a text,” he says. “Like the Haggadah it tells a story, can be revisited repeatedly, is unchanging. ”
There have been other books on the Jew in American film. Goldman is quick to acknowledge the pioneering work of Lester Friedman and Patricia Erens. But their groundbreaking volumes were surveys that attempted to cover the whole range of American film history, and they dealt in general outlines.
By contrast, Goldman has chosen to focus on nine films, chosen in part for their representative qualities, and he has used those titles largely as case studies of how filmmakers chose to deal with issues of assimilation, the construction of Jewish identity and the often-thorny relationship between Jew and gentile in the New World. While one could argue with his choice of films — “The Jazz Singer,” “Crossfire,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” “The Young Lions,” “The Way We Were,” “Prince of Tides,” “Avalon,” “Liberty Heights” and “Everything Is Illuminated” — his recounting of the making of these films is admirably complete and highly instructive.
In a sense, the book’s real theme is the tension between a Jewish-dominated industry — the one that manufactures American popular film — and the reality of a vastly Christian country that supports it financially. It is no accident that several of the films under examination were directed by non-Jews and championed by non-Jews. (The importance of Darryl Zanuck, a Protestant from Wahoo, Neb., and 20th-Century Fox, “the goyishe studio,” cannot be overstated.)
“Zanuck got it,” Goldman says with a smile. “It was his American sensitivity to prejudice that got ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ made. There are plenty of Jews who don’t get it. Jewish organizations were adamantly opposed to films like this.”
That same quietist position manifested itself differently in the 1960s when Jewish filmmakers began to explore the crass and vulgar side of the American Jewish dream in movies like “Goodbye Columbus.”
“The organization heads said, ‘Don’t wash the [community’s] laundry in public,’ but that’s precisely what an artist must do,” Goldman says. “These are aspects of Jewish life and American life and shouldn’t be denied or ignored. Everything should be out there.”