Treasure trove of books on Jews in film

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Over the past few decades, a plethora of excellent books have been published that cover nearly all aspects of Jews in film, from how Jews are depicted, to the role Jews played in building the film industry, to the contributions of Jewish directors, actors and actresses, to how the Holocaust has been depicted and so on.  Below is a sampling of some of the best among the many books on Jews in film.  Nearly all of them are available at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, 12 Millstone Campus Drive. 

“The ‘Jew’ in Cinema:  From The Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust,” by Omer Bartov, (Indiana University Press, $24.94, paper, 2005).  Noted historian Bartov, professor of European history at Brown University, analyzes more than 70 films made in the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, East and West Germany, France and Italy.  Bartov argues that depictions of the “Jew” in film have been fed by, or have reacted to, certain stereotypical depictions of Jews arising from age-old perspectives. These images, Bartov asserts, both reflect and help shape public attitudes.  He points to Mel Gibson’s infamous film “The Passion of the Christ” as a recent example of this ongoing phenomenon.


“The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies:  A Critic’s Ranking of the Very Best,” by Kathryn Bernheime, (Birch Lane Press $21.95, cloth, 1998).  Longtime film critic Bernheimer, who is associated with the Denver Jewish Film Festival, has compiled a very readable guide to 50 films she considers the “all-time best.”  She lists “The Chosen,” the film version of Chaim Potok’s novel about a friendship between a Modern Orthodox boy and the son of a revered but distant Hasidic rebbe, at the top of her list.   An excellent compendium also includes films as diverse as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Great Dictator” and “Blazing Saddles, along with “Annie Hall.”  This is a book that cries out for a revised edition.

“Acting Jewish:  Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen,” by Henry Bial (University of Michigan Press, paper, 2005). Bial, an assistant professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas, covers a wide span of Hollywood history and personalities, including Arthur Miller, Woody Allen, Gertrude Berg, John Garfield, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand.  He documents this entire sweep of history, looking at the work of Jewish writers, directors and actors in the American entertainment industry with particular attention to the ways in which these artists offer “behavioral models for Jewish-American audiences.”  The book spans the period from 1947 to 2005. He also takes a look at TV shows with Jewish themes and actors, from “The Goldbergs” to “Seinfeld.”

“From Hester Street to Hollywood:  The Jewish-American Stage and Screen,” Edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen (Indiana University Press, 1984).  Cohen, who previously published “Jewish Wry,” which explores Jewish contributions to American comedy, examines the influence of Jewish American dramatists, nightclub and vaudeville performers and filmmakers from 1920 through the mid-1980s.  Director Sidney Lumet praised this book as “a superb and much-needed contribution” to film history.

“The Jew in American Cinema,” by Patricia Erens, (Indiana University Press, 1984, $16.95).  Erens, who has served as associate professor in communications at Rosary College in Forest River, Ill., compiled what deserves to be the “definitive” book on Jews in film.  It is a historical survey and analysis of over 800 feature films with Jewish characters and themes, covering films released both by Hollywood studios and independent producers, from the “primitive” years of the movie industry to the mid-1980s.  She charts the rise and fall of an extensive list of specific types, genres and themes and analyzes their persistence, modification or disappearance from decade to decade.  

“Hollywood’s Image of the Jew” and “The Jewish Image in American Film,” by Lester D. Friedman.  In “Hollywood’s Image of the Jew,” (Frederick Unger Publishing, 1982), Friedman, who has taught film at Syracuse University, explores what he calls the “sinister shysters, pathetic victims, lofty idealists, brave soldiers, star-crossed lovers and sadistic gangsters,” noting that “screen Jews” have been as varied as the movies themselves.  The many films he examines regarding how Jews are depicted range from “His People” (1925); “The Jazz Singer” (1927 and 1971), through “Disraeli” (1929); “Annie Hall (1977) and “Private Benjamin” (1980). All the films he covers document the changing attitudes of both Jews and non-Jews.  He also explores the same  issues in a revised, coffee-table edition, “The Jewish Image in American Film,” (Citadel Press, 1987, $19.95).

“An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” by Neal Gabler, (Crown Publishers, $24.95).  Noted critic Gabler has compiled a penetrating examination of the role of the great Jewish “moguls” who controlled the major Hollywood studios for much of the 20th century.  Most of these men were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century, including Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer; Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios; Carl Laemmle of Universal and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers.  Both Friedman and Gabler note that Harry Cohn talked the young, handsome Yiddish theater actor Julie Garfinkle into changing his name to the “less Jewish” sounding John Garfield.  Jewish actors like Edward G. Robinson could play Italian gangsters, and Jeff Chandler could portray the Indian Chief Cochise, but seldom could play Jewish characters.  

“Entertaining America:  Jews, Movies and Broadcasting,” by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, (Princeton University Press, 2003Hoberman, senior film critic for the Village Voice and adjunct professor at New York University, and Shandler, assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, have produced a volume that is both coffee-table handsome and scholarly.  “Entertaining America” brings together a wide range of questions about the role of Jews in the entertainment media as well as offers valuable new insights and perspectives on both familiar and little-known aspects of its central theme.  The book is written in a lively tone and is lavishly illustrated with vintage movie and stage stills from the entire range of Jewish contributions to American entertainment.

Reel Jewish:  A Century of Jewish Movies; Comedy, Tragedy, Musicals, Dramas,” by Joel Samberg, (Jonathan David Publishers, 2000). Samberg, author of “The Book  of Jewish Lists,” and a graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in theater and journalism, surveys numerous memorable movies about the Jewish experience or featuring a Jewish character.  Samberg not only selects his own list of “the best Jewish movies of all time,” covering diverse films from Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” to Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” but he pauses to sprinkle in engaging anecdotes and sidebars that give clues into the minds of studio heads.  He includes the “inside scoop” on why the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was cast as Fanny Brice’s companion Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl,” revealing that Barbra Streisand wanted Marlon Brando.