Tag Archives: American Jewish History

American Jerusalem

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

American Jerusalem (2013) tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

Commentary: The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

Questions for Discussion:

1. Where are your Jewish roots? Do you have any connection with the Jewish community in San Francisco?

2. What are the roots of your current Jewish community? Who settled there, and when? Where did they immigrate from?

3. What circumstances contributed to the Jewish community of San Francisco being different from other American Jewish communities?

4. From this film, in what ways do you see the San Francisco Jewish community as distinct from your own Jewish community?

5. What questions did this film bring up for you?

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org

Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)

I’ve never written a post about two films at once before, but today I am writing about two films that cry out for that treatment.  Casino Jack (feature film, 2010) and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (documentary, 2010) cover much the same territory, and each of them is incomplete.  Together, however, they offer a disgusting but nevertheless fascinating trip into the world of Washington politics and the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Abramoff was a former College Republican who dabbled in screenwriting and movie production until he discovered the calling that would make him infamous:  he became a Washington lobbyist.  In 2004 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate his dealings on behalf of several American Indian tribes and casinos, and a sordid tale involving gambling, tribes, offshore sweatshops, lots and lots of money, murder, the Mob, and figures close to the Bush White House unravelled before the horrified members of Congress, many of whom had benefitted from Abramoff’s largesse.

Convicted in 2008 of trading meals, pricey gifts, and travel in exchange for political favors, Jack Abramoff made yet another trade in exchange for a prison sentence of only four years:  he agreed to cooperate with a massive bribery investigation of lawmakers, their staff, and figures in the Bush Administration.  Ultimately 21 people either plead guilty or were convicted in the subsequent trials.

The documentary, written and produced by Alex Gibney, is a meticulous account of l’affaire Abramoff, including interviews with all the players in that drama.  It lacks only one essential thing for real understanding:  Abramoff himself refused to be interviewed. His motives, and his reflections after the fact remain a question.  We are left to wonder why a person who initially had high ideals and remarkable gifts of persuasion chose to invest his gifts in a con.

The feature film, made at the same time as the documentary, looks precisely at that question:  what possessed the man?  It was directed by George Hickenlooper  a filmmaker whose greatest credits were his documentaries (he won an Emmy in 1992 for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the making of Apocalypse Now.)  Casino Jack sometimes has the feel of a documentary, especially in scenes like the Senate hearing, in which Kevin Spacey‘s performance  as Abramoff is intercut with real footage of the Senate hearing and the real John McCain.  However, in that scene, the film seques into a dream sequence in which Abramoff confronts the members of the panel with their own misdeeds (in the real hearing, he plead the fifth again and again and again.)

The weakness of the feature is that it attempts to stuff the voluminous details of a complicated political episode into 108 minutes of entertainment film.  Critics didn’t like it, and neither did the public, so the film appeared at the box office and faded from view almost immediately.  That’s a shame, really, because the story itself is an important one.

Commentary

The feature film left me with the impression that Abramoff did what he did because he got caught up in the game of finding ways to persuade people to give him their money.  He may also have been looking for validation of his own worth in money and in the respect or fear of important men.  Spacey’s performance gave me an impression of a vain, silly man who was good at intimidating others and impressing himself, but who was at heart an empty shell.

Abramoff justified his actions with his philanthropy, and his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. His view of himself as a virtuous man completely blinded him to his despicable acts. An interview since his release from prison in 2010 suggests that perhaps he now understands that studying Torah does not make up for a failure to live Torah.

One key to his side into criminal behavior is mentioned in the documentary:  during his years with the College Republicans, there was a belief that since they were on the side of right, any behavior on its behalf was therefore right.  “Politics is war,” and the winners would write history.  Abramoff was rewarded as a young man for winning at all costs, and so it never occurred to him to ask uncomfortable questions later, when “winning” had become defined by his bank account.

Taken together, these films provide a deeply disturbing picture of Washington.  They are also a description of how a well-meaning, idealistic man could go so horribly wrong.


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) is a documentary telling the story of Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg.  Writer and director Aviva Kempner used interviews with Greenberg during the last year of his life, interviews with friends and family, as well as extensive archival footage and stills to tell the story.  She also used interviews with fans to great effect.

It’s a baseball story, of course, and there is plenty for a fan to enjoy.  Greenberg was a genuine star, a Hall of Famer who in 1938 came close to breaking Babe Ruth‘s home run record.  Greenberg is still the record holder for RBI’s (runs batted in) in a single season by a right-handed batter (1938).  Strictly as a sports biography, this is a rich and satisfying little film.

Commentary

Kempner delved into the wider significance of Greenberg’s career as the first American Jewish sports superstar.  Even though he was personally not a “religious” Jew, his Jewish identity was an important symbol for many fans, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  The film details the anti-Semitism he faced, and the adoration of many Jewish fans.  It goes into some detail over his famous decision in 1934 to stay away from a World Series game held on Yom Kippur, instead attending synagogue services.

This big, tall, handsome Jewish sports star played for the Tigers in the city of Detroit, home base for prominent American anti-Semites Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.  Greenberg began his career just as the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe became German policy. His presence and play flew in the face of anti-Semitic stereotypes.  Kempner used clips from other films like Gentleman’s Agreement to illustrate the atmosphere in America at the time.

Questions for discussion:

1.  Hank Greenberg believed he had responsibilities as a role model for young fans, and as a Jew in the public eye.  Do you think that a public figure has such  responsibilities?  Does every Jew in the public eye need to represent “the Jews”?  Why or why not?

2.  Many things about professional sports have changed since Greenberg’s day, and some things have not changed at all.  Ballplayers can become “free agents” and make much more money than they used to.  What other things are different about pro sports then and now?  What’s the same?

Funny Girl

Funny Girl is a highly fictionalized account of the rise to stardom of the great Jewish American clown Fanny Brice.  It was a hugely successful film musical in 1968, made from the equally successful Broadway show, and it introduced Barbra Streisand to American moviegoers.  It is above all else a premier star vehicle, and it still holds the moment of recognition:  a star really was born in that film.

It follows Brice from humble beginnings on the Lower East Side of New York, and it offers romanticized glimpses of that legendary home to Jewish immigrants and their children.  In the film, Brice is pictured as the only child of a single mother who struggles to make ends meet.  Fanny is a talented singer and comic who is not sufficiently pretty to make it as a chorus girl.  She parlays mishaps in her one chance on a burlesque stage into a show-stopping song that inspires the boss to hire the hapless chorus girl as a singer.  That same night she meets Nicky Arnstein, (Omar Sharif) a professional gambler with whom she falls madly in love.

As her career soars, his luck falters.  At the end of the film, Fanny is alone but still strong, still singing as only Streisand can.

Commentary

I have tagged  Funny Girl as “US History,” but that has to do with the film’s place in history, not with the film as history.  It was the Oscar-winning debut of a great American Jewish entertainer, Barbra Streisand.  It was made during the same period as the Six Day War, and the kiss between Streisand (a Jew, and vocal supporter of Israel) and Sharif (an Egyptian actor) was very controversial at the time.

As biography, the film is nearly pure fiction:  do not take it as a bio-pic about Fanny Brice.  The film and the play from which it was made were produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law.  Nick Arnstein was still living, and still his father-in-law.  The real Arnstein was a con man who had done time in Sing Sing prison before he and Fanny were married, and who in real life sponged cheerfully from her, eventually dumping her when it suited him to do so.

Brice, on the other hand, is made a lot ditzier and less professional in the interest of entertainment.  The real-life Brice may have had very poor judgment about men, but she was a consummate professional who would not have quit a show to run off and get married, or given Ziegfeld an ulcer with her antics.  For more about the differences between the film and reality, check out John Kenrick’s excellent article on Musicals101.com.

Some things about this film haven’t aged well; I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that, “It is impossible to praise Miss Streisand too highly; hard to find much to praise about the rest of the film.”   If you want to see why baby-boomers get crazy about Barbra Streisand, see this film.  The great movie that could be made about the true story of Fanny Brice is, alas, yet to be made.

Video Bonus

2001 Re-Issue Trailer for Funny Girl

Rare footage of a performance by Fanny Brice

Driving Miss Daisy

200px-Driving_Miss_Daisy_Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is an Oscar winning movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by by Alfred Uhry.  It recounts a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman (Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy) and an elderly African-American man (Houk, played by Morgan Freeman) in Atlanta, GA.  Their story begins uneasily, as Miss Daisy’s son (played by Dan Aykroyd) decides she can no longer drive her own car, and hires Houk to drive her.   Gradually they negotiate a working relationship which over time becomes a friendship.  The film spans the years from 1948 until 1973, years of tremendous social change in America.

Wikipedia notes that this was the last PG-rated film to receive the Best Picture Oscar (at this writing, in 2009).

Commentary

Some readers may be surprised that I list this film as a “must see” when I didn’t give that designation to Schindler’s List.  I list it because this is a movie that nearly anyone can watch without having nightmares about it, and at the same time it portrays anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in both their overt and their more subtle forms.

At one key point in the film, a Alabama state trooper comments to his partner out of earshot of Daisy and Houk that she is an “old Jew woman” being driven by an “old n—r man.”  The menace in that scene, and in a later scene of the Temple bombing in Atlanta make it clear that Daisy and Houk have more in common than may have been apparent at the outset.  Complicating the matter, though, is the fact that Daisy is very much a product of her time:  her own racist and classist inclinations are a barrier between the two almost to the end of the film.  The greatness of this film lies in its focus on the humanity of Houk and Daisy as they navigate their times and make discoveries about one another, without a need to sugarcoat Daisy.

This film also serves as a reminder that while some American Jews did indeed support the civil rights movement at great risk to themselves and their communities, that history of risk does not obviate the need, then and now, for each individual to examine his or her own attitudes and behavior, and to make teshuvah (a profound change) if need be.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Driving Miss Daisy is that it deals with all these very serious issues with a light hand and a great deal of humor.    A must see!

Gentleman’s Agreement

gentlemans-agreement-DVDcoverGentleman’s Agreement (1947) was a groundbreaking film in its day, and it is still a powerful story about prejudice in America.  Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, based on Laura Z. Hobson‘s bestselling novel.  The movie stars Gregory Peck as a journalist assigned to write a series of magazine articles about anti-Semitism.   Searching for a “personal angle” on the story, he decides to pose as Jew, and soon discovers what it is to be on the receiving end of intolerance.

Darryl F. Zanuck produced it, and Elia Kazan directed.  In addition to Peck, the film stars Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell, Celeste Holm, and June Havoc.  Gentleman’s Agreement won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Ms. Holm.

Commentary

The situation of American Jewry in the 21st century is without parallel in world history:  we are better integrated and more welcome in U.S. society than Jews have been in any other time and place.  This movie is a reminder that only sixty years ago, things were quite different.  It catalogs many of the ways, large and small, that it was tough to be Jewish in America.

There is a curious art-imitates-life element to the film, in that Daryl F. Zanuck, a gentile, felt very strongly about bringing Hobson’s novel to the screen as a major film because he believed it was important to speak out against the anti-Semitism in society.  The story goes that prominent Jews in Hollywood strongly discouraged him against making the film because they feared backlash.  In the movie, the boss who assigns the magazine article about anti-Semitism is a gentile who wants to raise consciousness about the subject, just as Zanuck did.

The film is remarkably current in its depiction of “soft” bigotry.  The journalist discovers in the course of his research that many well-meaning people hold him at arm’s length with protestations of innocence: ‘Some of my best friends…”  A true mensch watching this film must ask him or herself, “Is there anyone I patronize with behavior and words like those?”

Double Feature

Watch Gentleman’s Agreement before or after watching Exodus.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.

Video Bonus

You Tube has a vintage video summary of the film and its Oscar nominations and awards.