Projecting Prejudice: Depicting Anti-Semitism in American Movies

Lawrence Baron
San Diego State University

Although some American movies released before the 1930s featured plot lines about anti-Semitism in Europe, Hollywood studios avoided the subject of American anti-Semitism in order to represent an idealized image of religious toleration in the United States; they also sought to avoid censorship once the Production Code Administration was established. The portrayal of domestic anti-Jewish sentiment remained taboo until after the news of the Holocaust seeped into public consciousness through newsreel footage of the Nazi camps and press coverage of the Nuremberg Trials. During the next decade, several social problem films revealed contemporary discriminatory policies and bigotry against Jews. Gentlemen’s Agreement is the best-known of the pictures that aimed at discrediting native anti-Semitism.

With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, directors quickly focused on the plight of African-Americans. From the 1960s on, most American movies about anti-Semitism located the phenomenon in the past or abroad, implying it was no longer a force in the United States. Fearing controversy, American studios rarely have tackled the issues of Black-Jewish tensions or the increasing anti-Semitic overtones of opposition towards Israel.

The Exceptional Miss America: Bess Myerson, Beauty Standards, and American Jews

Ariella Brown
SUNY Farmingdale

In 1945, Bess Myerson was the first (and to date only) Jewish Miss America. Though she was not at all religious, she insisted on maintaining the name that proclaimed her Jewish identity. Her victory was viewed as a triumph for all Jewry, an affirmation that Jews in America had truly arrived. As it happened, Myerson possessed the attributes that were to redefine Miss America: she not only looked good in the Catalina swimsuit in which she was crowned, but exemplified talent and aspiration as the first college graduate to win. Beleaguered by first-hand experience of anti-Semitism, when denied the jobs of representing products of the pageant sponsors who did not want to be associated with Jews, she spoke out against hate against the advice of the contest sponsors. Myerson not only furthered her own self-definition but contributed to the redefinition of Miss America. Initially, the political ramifications of her actions were regarded as contradictory to the image of Miss America; subsequently, though, the contest came to mandate that the winner devote herself to a social issue.

Ironically, Myerson had a lasting impact on the pageant but not on redefining the self-image of Jews. Her achievement showed that a Jewish woman could exemplify the ultimate standard of American beauty. Nevertheless, for all the supposed celebration of ethnic difference in modern times, there is still a dominant beauty standard that is not altogether inclusive. The features qualified as “Jewish” are considered sub par, particularly by Jews themselves.

Hollywood, the Holocaust, and World War II

Steven Alan Carr
Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne

Though explicit references to the Holocaust in Hollywood films were relatively rare before the 1960s, a number of Hollywood films presented implicit and symptomatic responses to a shifting postwar cultural and institutional landscape that indicated a growing public awareness of the full extent and impact of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the significance of anti-Semitism and the Shoah in relation to important changes taking place in the American film industry between the 1930s and 1965 has remained largely ignored. This presentation, based on a larger research project, will address the relationship between the Holocaust and the American film industry examining cinematic representations, not just from a few explicit films, but from an array of references to the Holocaust that have appeared in American film. Using historical documents, including government transcripts, film industry memos and material published in newspapers and magazines, as well as film clips, we will consider the Holocaust and Nazi anti-Semitism as having far-reaching consequences for Hollywood before 1965, not just in terms of image and narrative, but for a set of institutional behaviors and practices that helped shape and justify the American film industry today.

From Mr. Hankey to the Hebrew Hammer: Hanukkah in Pop Culture

Dan W. Clanton, Jr.
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

This presentation examines the treatment of Hanukkah in popular television and film. More specifically, it addresses the historical circumstances surrounding the events in 1 Maccabees 4, and argues for three basic reactions during the 2nd century B.C.E. to the influence of Hellenism. Our sources show that Jews in the land engaged in a spectrum of behavior characterized by three primary responses: (a) assimilate; (b) acculturate; or (c) cling to ethnic and religious pride and resist. Following this, I will demonstrate that these three alternatives for Jews in terms of reaction(s) to the dominant culture in the U.S. are still presented to the viewing public via television shows and films dealing with Hanukkah. Through my examination of such series as South Park and Friends as well as the 2003 film The Hebrew Hammer, I will show that dominant cultural attitudes in the U.S. still expect Jews to make these choices in regard to their own religious identity.

“Oh, Mama, Could This Really Be The End?” Bob Dylan Apocalyptically

Dereck Daschke
Truman State University

In the 1960s and ‘70s, a terrible anxiety settled on America. Many interpreted the incessant threat of war and total annihilation, from the start of the Cold War to the Cuban missile crisis to the war in Vietnam, as constant reminders that the end, the apocalypse, could very easily be at hand. In the early 1960s, a young artist became a major figure in the protest movement. In particular, his apocalyptic message, which drew from his isolated Jewish upbringing in a remote town in Minnesota and featured alternately unmistakable and obscure Biblical allusions and contemporary finger pointing, gained him a nearly unprecedented following and made him a cultural force. Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman) uniquely blended modern concerns with fundamental Jewish (and, briefly, fundamentalist Christian) themes, making himself an iconic figure in the process. By exploring Dylan’s use of Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic themes, from the 1960’s to the present (assisted by clips of his music), this presentation will illustrate the impact that his personal and religious history has had on the way that he—and to no small extent, America itself—came to view the country’s politics and history through his music.

From Sholem Aleichem to Harvey Fierstein: Love Makes a Family—and History—in Jewish-American Performance

Ben Furnish
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Fiddler on the Roof, adapted from the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem, shows a turn-of-the-century Russian Jewish peasant coping with modern romantic love as it overtakes each of his daughters in turn. Americans from the full range of ethnic backgrounds have come to see themselves in Tevye. Today, love continues to create social dislocation. Some key Jewish-American playwrights and filmmakers who are in some sense Sholem Aleichem’s artistic descendents have created works that help their audiences come to terms with complications of love that Tevye might never have been able to imagine. In the plays of Wendy Wasserstein, for example, Jewish women might choose to forego marriage altogether as an act of self-affirmation—while still choosing motherhood. And amid the current debate over gay marriage, it is timely to consider how Fierstein’s works, particularly Torch Song Trilogy, led the way for a number of plays and films that show how gay Jews form authentic families with love as their sanctifying bond. Contemporary Jewish-American performance has thus drawn upon its dual cultural inheritance to entertain audiences that—like Tevye—puzzle over the social dislocations wrought by romantic love.

“The Crowning of a “Jewish Jordan”: Tamir Goodman, the American Sports Media, and Modern Orthodox Jewry’s Fantasy World”

Jeffrey S. Gurock

This presentation is derived from my recently-completed book, Competing Cultures: Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. The focus of my is how in 1999-2001 myth-making in the popular sports media created in the person of Tamir Goodman a larger-than-life figure. This young Jewish athlete came to represent the fulfillment of a modern Orthodox fantasy as it exemplified the possibilities for full integration into American culture without surrendering core religious principles.

The Middle East Conflict as Presented in American Tabloids

Richard Hecht
University of California Santa Barbara

This presentation will largely focus on portions of a longer study on religion in the American tabloids. I have been following how religion is spoken and reported of in the tabloids for many years, and in this presentation will discuss how the tabloids have discussed the Israeli-Middle East conflicts and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in specific from the Oslo Agreement to the present.

Absolutely Kosher Music: The Story of American Jews in Rock and Roll

Steve Horowitz
University of Iowa

Jewish Americans have played an important role in the growth and development of rock and roll from its earliest days in their roles as record company executives, promoters, and songwriters (i.e. Morris Levy, Alan Freed, Mike Leiber, and Jerry Stoller). Identifiable Jewish American stars such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon became popular during the 1960s and were known for their combination of literate lyricism and social and moral concerns. Other Jewish American artists like Carly Simon and Randy Newman prospered during the 1970s as the singer/songwriter style became one of rock’s best selling genres. The appearance of punk rock during the late seventies and eighties introduced a whole new style of Jewish rock and roller as the authentic street rebel (for example, Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer). These were soon joined by a host of Jewish American rap artists (The Beastie Boys and Blood of Abraham, to name just two) who proudly proclaimed their Jewish heritage. These trends in Jewish American rock continued through the 20th century, producing brilliant new work by a host of self-proclaimed Jewish American rockers working in a wide range of rock fields.

Today, identifiably Jewish American rock musicians continue to emerge and produce great music, especially on the independent music scene. Record labels like Absolutely Kosher and artists like The Silver Jews proclaim their Jewish heritage as part of their essential rock and roll identity. This presentation will use video and audio tape segments to trace the roots of Jews in rock and roll to reveal what it has meant and currently means to be a Jewish American rock and roller.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, Princeton University


A Passion for Words for the Witty: S. J. Perelman, Jewish-American Satirist”

Thomas A. Kuhlman
Creighton University

This year is the centenary of the birth of Sidney Joseph Perelman (1904-1979), whose humor filled the pages of the New Yorker Magazine, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood films through much of the twentieth century. His friends and associates included Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Daryll Zanuck, and many other popular culture celebrities. Greatly admired by literary figures like E.B. White and Paul Theroux, and an acknowledged influence on Woody Allen and Steve Martin, Perelman consistently exhibited an uproarious, almost anarchic erudition, balancing his love of Yiddishisms with an Ivy League Anglophilia. Ogden Nash wrote of his work, “Perelman, like [Alexander] Pope, is not for high school dropouts. It is not essential that to savor him fully, you be reasonably well up on modern art, the Rover Boys, Proust, the promotional material of the Morticians Association, the Georgics of Virgil, the lore of the Safari and the exotic customs of the mystical East. But it helps.”

Perelman’s Jewish background in his native Providence, Rhode Island, influenced both his character and his writing. At Brown University, his humor writing for The Brown Jug was identified by his initials rather than his obviously Jewish full name; in the 1920’s he knew the sting of anti-Semitism at an elite institution. But with his brother-in-law novelist Nathaniel West (born Nathan Weinstein in New York 101 years ago), whom he met when both were Brown students, he used his background and subsequent New York and Hollywood Jewish cultural experiences to bring a mordant sophistication to decades of American popular culture creations. He won an Oscar for his script for “Around the World in 80 Days” and a National Book Award in 1978. The point of view in all his works is that of the urban and urbane Jew; his love of language and civilization and the hatred of sham can still endear him to all who are wise and human.

Tchotchkes: Patterns of Acculturation/Enculturation in Popular Culture

Judith Neulander
Case Western Reserve University

This presentation will open by defining “popular culture” as it is understood in folkloristic terms. Within this broad classification, the category “tchotchke” will be defined, along with its subset “shmata.” Using slides from the Tchotchkes! exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (2000), we will examine a topic not addressed by the exhibition: 350 years of anxious reporting on the Americanization of Judaism versus the less frequently monitored Hebraization of America. We will gauge the winning side according to tradition and transformation in popular commonplace objects such as home, car, decor, trinkets and gadgets, baubles, curios and souvenirs, toys and other novelty items. While these visual images maintain an extremely high delight quotient, their interpretation will address the highly serious business of illuminating the ethnic past to explain the ethnic present, and to indicate directions for the ethnic future. We will examine the role of tchotchkes as indicators of social transition within American culture: from mere subsistence to working class consumer, the first tier of economic ability required for tchochke consumption. We will observe tchotchkes as great democratizers through mass production, and the mass distribution, of elite art and sculpture on easily accessible objects from calendars to coffee mugs, paperweights to placemats.

Above all, we will examine the tchotchke as an advertent, and sometimes inadvertent, ethnic marker, at once Americanizing the traditionally Jewish, and Hebraizing the traditionally American, always reflecting—and powerfully reinforcing—lines of cultural confluence and distinction. In this way, we will come to understand the means, methods, and motivations by which tchotchkes impart. Jewish identity from generation to generation, as well as the Jewish identity they steadily impart, in the ever-changing flow of the American mainstream.

Hang Hitler: The Three Stooges Take Potshots at Nazis

Lynn Rapaport
Pomona College

Until the late 1930s, the American movie industry was economically dependent on a world market for the success of its products. Movies that dealt realistically with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were likely to be banned overseas. Hollywood feared that unless they avoided social and political issues, and only produced films considered “wholesome” and “pure entertainment,” the federal government would censor the movies or break up the industry. The United States, in the throes of the Great Depression, followed an isolationist foreign policy to keep out of the war. Most Americans were unwilling to be drawn into European power struggles or to take sides between Hitler and his intended victims. Despite the widespread presence and significant influence of Jews in the American film industry in the 1930s, Hollywood discretely avoided making overtly anti-Nazi films.

However, two-reelers—the “shorts” that were shown before the feature film—were not regulated in the same way as feature films. My presentation explores a pair of Three Stooges shorts, “You Nazty Spy” (1940) and “I’ll Never Heil Again” (1941), that were produced and released in this political climate. In fact, Moe Howard was the first American actor to impersonate Hitler (preceding Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by nine months), which landed him on Hitler’s death list.

I explore aspects of historical accuracy, the role of slapstick comedy as social commentary, and the controversies surrounding Holocaust representation in popular culture. I argue that the Three Stooges were anti-heroes, flaunting their Jewishness at a time when assimilation and ethnic self-denial were integral to the American film industry. I also show how the Stooges, using comedy, shatter the image of Hitler and the Nazis, and in a small way helped bring the Nazi threat to the forefront of moviegoers’ attention.

“Muggers in Black Coats”: Contemporary Jewish American Ta1es of Oppression and Liberation in Ultra-Orthodox Communities

Nora L. Rubel
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

This presentation examines popular representations of u1tra-Orthodox Jewish women and men in contemporary novels and film, tales coinciding with a growing polarization between Orthodox Judaism and the more liberal Jewish movements. Directed or written by non-Orthodox Jews, these works typically feature women being oppressed or repressed by a father, a husband, or (usually male) religious leaders. The blame also falls at the feet of the societal structure of the ultra-Orthodox community, with other women occasionally reinforcing the patriarchal nature of these closed communities.

These narratives—part romance, part escape tale—follow a formula that highlights the gender inequalities in these communities as well as demonstrates growing anxieties regarding the rise of fundamentalism within contemporary Judaism. I argue that the bulk of these narratives, usually written by Jewish, non-Orthodox outsiders, come about and are successful due to changes in the political and cultural world of both American and Israeli Jewry. Using contemporary novels and film from the last two decades, I will discuss popular imaginings of the ultra-Orthodox as they reflect anxieties of the non-Orthodox about gender and religious authority, as well as the fear of the rea1 or imagined growing political power of the Orthodox.

David of Hollywood: Israelite King or American Superhero?

G. Andrew Tooze
Rockville, Maryland

This presentation will examine the different depictions of David’s Jewishness found in a number of films, including David and Bathsheba, David and Goliath, and David. Although it is inappropriate to speak of King David as a “Jew” in any modern sense of the term, this lack of appropriateness does not diminish his identity or importance as a paradigmatic figure of Judaism. However, David is claimed not only by Judaism, but also by Christianity, because of his place in the New Testament’s lineage of Jesus. These dual claims on David mean that any artistic representations of him must chose from elements of potentially conflicting identities. The films examined in this presentation paint a portrait of David, a portrait that includes his identity as a Jew. Because these cinematic portraits reflect their cultural and historical locations, careful analysis of both the way they negotiate the multiple claims to David’s identity and the way they depict David as a Jew, offers a window into the attitudes towards Judaism and its place in American culture when the film was produced.