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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Filming Jewry’s greatest stories

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Hollywood was largely founded by Jews, who to this day constitute a large percentage of America’s mainstream filmmaking community. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Jews are conspicuously powerful in the moviemaking industry and have been since its inception over a century ago.

Consider our Jewish screenwriters, whose outstanding talents emerged and/or flourished in every decade in the last hundred years:

In the 1920s, Ben Hecht (The Front Page); in the 1930s, Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night) and Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca); in the 1940s, Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain), Melvin Frank (White Christmas), and Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes); in the 1950s, Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music), I. A. L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot), Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), Norman Corwin (Lust for Life), and Paddy Chayefsky (Network); in the 1960s, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); in the 1970s, Woody Allen (Annie Hall); in the 1980s, Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (The Remains of the Day), and Robert J. Avrech (A Stranger Among Us); in the 1990s, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men), Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), and Joel & Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where art Thou?); and in the 2000s, David Benioff (Troy) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation).

These are perhaps Hollywood's most noteworthy Jewish screenwriters, though they are hardly all of them. Moreover, the abundance and ability of Jewish studio executives, producers, directors, performers, agents, and managers are similarly impressive throughout Hollywood’s history.

It is therefore all the more confounding that an overwhelming majority of the Jewish People’s greatest tales have yet to be given the full silver screen treatment.

An objective observer would perforce conclude that, according to Hollywood, there have been just two seminal events in 4,000 years of Jewish history: the Exodus (our greatest triumph) and the Holocaust (our greatest trauma), with nothing doing in between. Both the Exodus (c. 1250 BCE) and the Holocaust (1933-1945) are historic events of the first magnitude and obviously deserve telling and retelling. But these are far from the only dramatic episodes in the raveled scroll of Jewish history, and it would be a tremendous disservice to our collective heritage and identity to focus solely on them to the exclusion of many other dramas worthy of their own limelight.  

What rationales account for this glaring reluctance to produce Jewry’s many remarkable stories? Two explanations come to mind, one psychological and the other commercial: a) the Jewish filmmaking community’s desire to downplay its influence in Hollywood; b) profitability concerns.

From a communal perspective, the first issue is a real problem. Dead or suffering Jews have never lacked onscreen depiction; living Jews—let alone proud, traditional, thriving Jews—haven’t fared anywhere near as well. This pathological fetishization of victimhood—appeasement through displays of weakness—is a salient aspect of the exile mentality. Diasporic Jews are only ever supposed to be persecuted and oppressed, never strong, confident, heroic, or patriotic. Never victors.

Thus, if actual Jews succeed and attain prominence, they instinctively yet misguidedly seek to minimize this earned feat by emphasizing the helplessness and misery in Jewish history, as repeatedly portrayed on the big screen.

This is a key factor which helps explain why the saga of the Maccabees, for instance, has been indefensibly deprived of filmic rendering. It took Mel Gibson, of all people, just to get their story in development (ultimately to no end). Naturally, for authenticity’s sake, a people’s greatest stories should be told by its own members, and not forsaken by them so as to be culturally appropriated by outsiders. Orphaned narratives may be adopted by unsympathetic caretakers.

But the Maccabees’ story is only one among very many awaiting the cinematic spotlight. What about the eventful reigns of Hezekiah or Josiah, or the transformational Babylonian Captivity, or the momentous struggles of Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the Jewish state, or the legendary and faraway Khazar kingdom? Where are the compelling biopics about Queen Helena of Adiabene, Meir Baal HaNess, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Bishop Bodo, Nahmanides, Pablo Christiani, Don Isaac Abravanel, Joseph Karo, Isaac Luria, the Maharal of Prague and the Golem, Shabbetai Zvi, the Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, Moses Montefiore, Henrietta Szold, Hannah Szenes, or lovebirds David and Paula Ben-Gurion, to cite but a sample?

To be perfectly clear, these stories should be told neither because of the strident self-centeredness of identity politics, nor for propaganda, nor to meet any Jewish content quota in the movie marketplace, but simply because they are captivating and memorable stories that deserve mass audiences.

A few historical Jewish films (non-Exodus, non-Holocaust) have managed to surpass the Hollywood gauntlet over the decades, most notably Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), Norman Corwin’s The Story of Ruth (1960), Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), King David (1985), and One Night with the King (2006), although several of these were generated outside of Jewish Hollywood and all of these generally represent exceptions to the rule. They also tend to revisit the same Jewish personages to the exclusion of myriad others never represented in feature films.

As for the question of profitability—the primary concern of commercial producers—precedents proving financial viability exist, validating the further production of Jewish stories. Among the major Jewish stories that have been filmed, The Ten Commandments (budget: $13 million/domestic gross: $80 million), Schindler’s List (budget: $22 million/worldwide gross: $321 million), The Prince of Egypt (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $218 million), Munich (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $130 million), and Exodus: Gods & Kings (budget: $140 million/worldwide gross: $268 million), for example, convincingly attest to the lucrative possibilities.

Until Jewry’s untold tales are given their due, Jewish Hollywood will be unjustifiably marginalizing its own and perpetuating excessive self-effacement, missing opportunities in so doing.

Until then, Jews the world over will continually hope for the cinematic recognition of their rich heritage, and privately wonder of their kindred in Hollywood, “Ayekah? Where are you?”

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