From Groucho Marx to Steven Spielberg, Hollywood in search of a narrative on Jewishness



Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) in “The Fabelmans”, by Steven Spielberg.

The Fabelmanswhich hits theaters on Wednesday February 22, is the first autobiography in good and due form – it is otherwise possible to review ET, the extraterrestrial – as Steven Spielberg allows himself. It includes, as such, a problem which the author does not avoid: that of his Jewishness. It is to be compared, in this respect, to two other films. One, which is contemporary to him, Armageddon Time (2022), by James Gray. The other, a little older, A Serious Man (2009), by Joel and Ethan Coen.

In other words, three surnames among the most sparkling in Hollywood, who, considering the motif in different ways in their work, approach it here in all its frontality. This outpouring is far, as one would be tempted to believe, from having always been evident in the United States and continues, in certain respects, not to be. Two reasons for this. an edifying work, Being Jewish in Classic Hollywood Cinemaby Lorenzo Leschi (Vrin, 2022), teaches us about the first.

The author describes Hollywood as this paradoxical place where the bosses of the studios, mostly Jewish immigrants, eager to assimilate, not to lend themselves to the anti-Semitism that became virulent in the 1930s, and to make their business work in Nazi Germany, do their best to have the question under the carpet in the films they produce. To put it in the way, less surreal than it seems, of Groucho Marx, who engaged with his siblings in a massive smuggling of Jewish spirit into American cinema: “I will never be part of a club that would accept me as a member. »

The Jazz Singer (1927), by Alan Crosland, the first talking picture, does precisely that, transforming the son of a Jewish singer into a jazz singer made up in black, thus paying, to use an expression of the German poet Heinrich Heine, from the century of the Lights, “his ticket into American society”. It will be necessary to wait for the aftermath of the Second World War for the American cinema – in films like Crossfireby Edward Dmytryk, or The Invisible Wallby Elia Kazan, both made in 1947 – begins to call a Jew a Jew and an anti-Semite an anti-Semite.

The second reason is more subtle. It is due, from this same period, to the rapid acculturation of the American Jewish community which, like European Judaism, moves away from the living sources, both religious and secular, of Eastern European Judaism, but , unlike him, does not feel in his flesh the identity marker of the genocide. However, it is one thing to consent to one’s disappearance after the crematory ovens, it is another, possibly more difficult, to proceed in the comfort of theamerican way of life. On both sides of the Atlantic, these Jews of effacement will soon have only Zionism in common, inaugurating the formidable era of Judaism by proxy. Todd Solondz, in 2009, will sign with Life During War Timekind of Madame Bovary Ashkenazi of New Jersey, a masterpiece of cruelty on the subject.

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