When filmmakers warmed up to Jews
Questions for Eric Goldman
As a Conservative Jew from Philadelphia who attended a public high school after graduating from a Solomon Schechter day school, Eric Goldman has continued to maintain a religious passion and a secular one — Judaism and film scholarship.
After graduating from Temple University, he received master’s degrees from Brandeis in theater arts and Jewish studies, then a doctorate at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts while studying eastern European Jewish studies at the YIVO Institute.
“That is what got me interested in Jewish film,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview ahead of his Saturday evening, March 14, appearance at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
In 1986 Goldman founded Ergo Media, a distribution company that makes available quality film, video, and DVDs about Jewish life and culture, Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish tradition, and world Jewry. Its collection of over 300 titles includes children’s videos, documentaries, Israeli and Yiddish classics, educational programs, and music/art videos.
At TSTI, he will share a program called the “Saturday Night Film Experience” with another film scholar, Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University. Doherty will discuss Hollywood and the Jews during the 1930s through the 1950s; Goldman will cover the period after World War II into the late 1950s.
NJJN: What will be the elements of your talk?
Goldman: I am going to talk about Gentlemen’s Agreement, Crossfire, and the other postwar films about anti-Semitism made in the late 1940s. Then I will be talking about the impact of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement on Jewish movie-making.
NJJN: What impact did the Cold War have on Jewish movie-making?
Goldman: There was no issue with communism when Russia was our buddy in World War II, but after the war there was a reaction to social action films and equating them with communist films. After the Nazis, we needed a new enemy, and the enemy was Russia. Even though there were a few movies that were made that dealt with bigotry, like Gentlemen’s Agreement and Crossfire, other films that were scheduled to be made about anti-Semitism were suddenly dropped, such as Focus, a movie based on a novel by Arthur Miller.
In other films, Jewish elements were de-Judaized, such as in The Caine Mutiny. The book dealt with a very strong Jewish element in the character of Lt. Barney Greenwald. But when it was turned into a film, even though Greenwald was clearly Jewish, the whole element was largely removed. The studios were prepared to allow Jewish characters, but they had to be kept to a minimum.
Before the Cold War, many of the socialists and communists in the United States were Jews. The only two Americans executed as communist spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were Jews.
NJJN: As the Cold War began to slowly subside and the Civil Rights movement began to emerge, how did that change Jewish filmmaking?
Goldman: There was more of a sense on the part of the filmmakers that Jews understood their position was safer after World War II, but quotas, restrictions, and “gentlemen’s agreements” were still very real. There was no sense we had achieved an equal position yet. As the courts began to rule in favor of minorities, it was something Jews were very much aware of. Then, when President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock to enforce desegregation at Central High School, it was the major event of the decade.
NJJN: How does that tie in with Jewish films of that era?
Goldman: The Young Lions featured a Jewish character named Noah Ackerman, who deals with anti-Semitism in the U.S. military. But no filmmaker wanted to touch it smack in the middle of the Cold War, until it got picked up in 1958, a key year. They went into production on The Diary of Anne Frank and Exodus. You had a whole different atmosphere in Hollywood and across the United States as Jews were coming out of the McCarthy period and all of the walls were beginning to fall, largely because of the Civil Rights movement. There is no question that the Civil Rights movement helped Jews as well as blacks.