Steven Spielberg has always been on my radar since I was an NYU graduate student in cinema studies. Like many of my generation, I still remember sitting in a movie theater, shaken by surprise when the shark suddenly appears in “Jaws.” I can still picture Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when he didn’t engage with a swordsman — he pulls out his pistol and shoots him instead. Each time I watch “Always,” I get teary-eyed when Peter (Richard Dreyfuss), a dead spirit from beyond, connects his sweetheart Dorinda (Holly Hunter) with a new love to ensure her happiness. And many of Spielberg’s themes resonate with me, especially his emphasis on home. Remember when E.T. wants to phone home in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”? How about when Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has nowhere to go and sets up home at J.F.K. airport in “The Terminal”? Recall in “Munich,” when the Mossad commander Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) tells one of his operatives (Eric Bana), as they walk along New York City’s East River, to “Go home!” — to go back to Israel. The concept of home is so central to Jewish life!
To date, the accomplished Spielberg has produced more than 165 films and directed 58. How remarkable! But for me, he always held a special place because of his comfort as an American Jew, and readiness to create Jewish projects without fear or hesitation. In fact, at age 75, he has made movies that touch on three of the most pressing issues for American Jewry today— the Shoah, Israel, and antisemitism in America.
The Shoah: American cinema waited 13 years before truly tackling the Holocaust! Films like “The Young Lions,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” were released starting no earlier than 1958. Twenty years later, NBC’s miniseries “Holocaust” treated the subject more fully, though some criticized it as too Hollywood-like. When Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was produced in 1993, it exposed the world to a more realistic, raw look at the Shoah. Spielberg easily could have continued making lucrative pictures, but instead he was committed to telling this story. Equally important, he funneled the film’s profits toward the establishment of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, now called the USC Shoah Foundation. No less than 55,000 survivors and witnesses recorded their testimony for that foundation.
Israel: You would think that the story of Israel would warrant the production of many movies. In fact, very few have been made in the United States, largely because the subject has always been too contentious. When Leon Uris wrote “Exodus,” the Hollywood studio that owned the screen rights refused to make it; only when Otto Preminger bought those rights was the film made. After “Cast a Giant Shadow,” with stars like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Yul Brynner, lost money for its investors, producer/director Melville Shavelson advised future filmmakers, “Stay out of Israel — even if you’re Jewish!”
Over the years, it became increasingly problematic to make a film about Israel. There has been pressure to represent Israel in only a positive light. Indeed, several filmmakers who are supportive of Israel have been criticized for making films showing the challenges facing the country. Spielberg, too, was vilified when creating his 2005 “Munich,” because he portrayed both good Israelis and good Palestinians in the film. Always a lover and supporter of Israel, he stood firm in noting what he believed his movie required. Although he understood the risk of exposing Israel’s flaws on the screen, he ignored the criticism, especially because of his deep commitment to the Jewish state.
Antisemitism: Now the septuagenarian finally has chosen to tell his own story in the semi-autobiographical movie “The Fabelmans.” The protagonist is a teenaged American Jew who had never experienced antisemitism until he moves to the west coast. This film deals with Spielberg’s complex family dynamics while also evoking his sense of otherness. Leaving his protected bubble in New Jersey and Arizona, the youth finds himself bullied in northern California, simply because he’s Jewish. In these last several years, many of us who have not encountered antisemitism are facing a new America. Spielberg sets his evocative fable up on the screen so that all Americans and spectators around the world can be made aware of how that intolerance feels.
The growing atmosphere of bigotry and hate in this country compelled this master filmmaker to make a statement in the medium that he knows so well. The Steven Spielberg I have come to know, and whose work I largely adore, is a proud Jew, ready to take on issues of import for himself and for American Jewry. I am so inspired by what he has done. He justly is my new hero.
Eric A. Goldman of Teaneck is host of “Jewish Cinematheque,” televised and streamed on the Jewish Broadcasting Service (jbstv.org). He is the author of
“The America Jewish Story through Cinema” and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University.