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Cinema Studies/Jewish Studies, 2011–2013

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 May 2014

Naomi Sokoloff*
University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
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In an era of massive university budget cuts and pervasive malaise regarding the future of the humanities, cinema and media studies continue to be a growth industry. Many academic fields have been paying increasing attention to film, in terms of both curriculum development and research. Jewish studies is no exception. Since 2011, a boom in publications has included a range of new books that deal with Jews on screen, Jewish themes in cinema, and the construction of Jewish identity through film. To assess what these recent titles contribute to Jewish cinema studies, though, requires assessing the parameters of the field—and that is no easy task. The definition of what belongs is as elastic as the boundaries of Jewish identity and as perplexing as the perennial question, who is a Jew? Consequently, the field is wildly expansive, potentially encompassing the many geographical locales where films on Jewish topics have been produced as well as the multiple languages and cinematic traditions within which such films have emerged. At issue are not just numerous national cinemas, but also transnational productions and international histories. Yiddish film, for instance, was produced in Poland, the Soviet Union, the US, Argentina, and other places as well. Compounding the challenge of assessing the field of Jewish film is the fact that Jewish studies overlaps with Holocaust studies, itself a vast enterprise that has grown dramatically over the past two decades. A simple WorldCat search, restricted to scholarly books from respectable academic presses, turns up dozens of titles on cinema and the Holocaust published since the year 2000. Not surprisingly, the long-standing debates on “what is Jewish literature?” have morphed into controversy over “what is Jewish cinema”?

Review Essay
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 2014 

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1. For overviews of Yiddish film history, see among others Goldberg, Judith N., Laughter through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema (East Brunswick, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Hoberman, J., Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds, updated and expanded ed. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2010)Google Scholar; Goldman, Eric, Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film, Past and present, rev. ed. (Teaneck, NJ: Holmes and Meier, 2010)Google Scholar.

2. Baron, Lawrence includes a detailed bibliography in his book, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: the Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Lanham, MD : Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)Google Scholar. Since 2005 many more films on Holocaust topics have been released, and many new scholarly publications have come along. The recent books deserve a review essay of their own.

3. To get a sense of the debates on literature, see Wirth-Nesher, Hana, ed., What is Jewish Literature? (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994)Google Scholar; Wisse, Ruth, The Modern Jewish Canon (New York: Free Press, 2000)Google Scholar; and Cammy, Justin et al. , eds., Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon (Cambridge, MA: Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, 2008)Google Scholar.

4. Prooftexts 22, nos. 1 & 2 (Winter & Spring 2002). The introduction by the editors, Joel Rosenberg and Stephen J. Whitfield, 1–10, heavily emphasizes the Holocaust as a central preoccupation, but the editors include a long list of desiderata to expand the field beyond Holocaust studies. The topics they urge scholars to consider include Yiddish cinema; Jewish video archives; the role of independent filmmaking in Jewish cinema; films on Jewish experience in postwar Europe, Latin America, Africa, and other lands; films on black Jewish life in America, Israel, and Africa; films about homosexual Jews; and films exploring Jewish music, Jewish spirituality, Jewish orthodoxy and Hasidism, Jewish humor, and the Jewish underworld. Ten years later many, though not all, of the topics they suggested had indeed come under scrutiny in scholarly discussion.

5. Baron, Lawrence, The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

6. The journal is published by Wayne State University Press.

7. Abrams, Nathan and Cohen, Nir, “Introduction,” Jewish Film & New Media 1 no. 1 (Spring 2013)Google Scholar. Available at: Among the editors' helpful suggested readings is the bibliography on television studies.

8. Erens, Patricia, The Jew in American Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Friedman, Lester D., The Jewish Image in American Film: 70 Years of Hollywood's Vision of Jewish Characters and Themes (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1987)Google Scholar.

9. Gabler, Neal, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown, 1988)Google Scholar.

10. Rosenberg, Joel, “Jewish Experience on Film – An American Overview,” American Jewish Yearbook 96 (1996): 350Google Scholar.

11. A path breaking book on Jews and the performing arts, broadly conceived, was Cohen, Sarah Blacher's From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; for more recent treatments of the entertainment industry, see Hoberman, J. and Shandler, Jeffrey, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (New York: Jewish Museum, JTSA, and Princeton University Press, 2003)Google Scholar. See also Desser, David and Friedman, Lester D., American Jewish Filmmakers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004)Google Scholar. In a recent book review (On Bernardi et al.'s Hollywood's Chosen People,” Jewish Film & New Media 1 no.1 [Spring 2013]Google Scholar), Lawrence Baron provides an updated list of recommended reading on American Jewish cinema. He mentions Jon Stratton, Coming Out Jewish (2000), Steven Carr, Hollywood and Anti-Semitism (2001), Henry Bial, Acting Jewish (2005), Donald Eber, Haunted in the New World (2005), and several titles that deal with censorship in Hollywood.

12. Baron, Lawrence, The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

13. Bernardi, Daniel, Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava, and Pomerance, Murray, eds., Hollywood's Chosen People (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

14. Goldman, Eric, The American Jewish Story through Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

15. L.Reznik, David, New Jews?: Race and American Jewish Identity in 21st-Century Film (Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012)Google Scholar.

16. Abrams, Nathan, The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

17. UK (2008). Released in the US as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

18. Shohat, Ella, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989; London: I.B. Tauris, 2010)Google Scholar.

19. See, for example, several chapters on cinema in Gertz, Nurith, Myths in Israeli Culture, Captives of a Dream (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2000)Google Scholar and her article Space and Gender in the New Israeli and Palestinian Cinema,” Prooftexts 22, nos.1 & 2 (Winter & Spring 2002): 157185CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20. Loshitzky, Yosefa, Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

21. It bears noting that a documentary called A History of Israeli Cinema (2010) is available now on DVD, with English subtitles. The great advantage of this source is that it provides not just discussion and a survey of the topic, but also extensive clips from the films it discusses.

22. Talmon, Miri and Peleg, Yaron, eds., Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

23. LGBT topics have had particular visibility in English, with the publication of two monographs—Yosef, Raz, Beyond Flesh: Queer Masculinities and Nationalism in Israeli Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004)Google Scholar and Cohen, Nir, Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representation in Israeli Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011)Google Scholar—as well as discussion of film within cultural studies publications by Lee Walzer, Rebecca Stein, and others.

24. Shemer, Yaron, Identity, Place, and Subversion in Contemporary Mizrahi Cinema in Israel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25. Shemer builds on the work of, among others, Ella Shohat. Of particular pertinence to the discussion of mizraḥi space and identity are the comments she includes in the section called “Postscript” in her expanded, revised edition of Israeli Cinema (2010).

26. Yosef, Raz, The Politics of Loss and Trauma in Contemporary Israeli Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 2011)Google Scholar.

27. Feldestein, Ariel L., Cinema and Zionism: The Development of a Nation through Film (Middlesex and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2012)Google Scholar.

28. One notable book-length study in English is Tryster, Hillel's Israel before Israel: Silent Cinema in the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Central Zionist Archives, 1995)Google Scholar.

29. Zanger, Anat Y., Place, Memory and Myth in Contemporary Israeli Cinema (Middlesex and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2012)Google Scholar.

30. Most American scholars are unlikely to read in Hebrew, whereas Israeli academics are more likely to read English-language scholarship and to be aware of American cinema as well. In recent years a number of publications have appeared in Hebrew that compare Israeli and American film. See, for example, Rivlin, Yuval's Ha-‘akhbar she-sha'ag: zehut yehudit be-kolno’a ha-’amerikani ve-ha-yisraeli [The Mouse that Roared: Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Cinema] (Jerusalem: Toby Press, 2009)Google Scholar. For an articulate review of some prominent trends in Israeli film studies, focusing on English-language publications, see Bernstein, Marc S., “Scofflaws, Prophets, and Other Criminals: New Scholarship on Israeli Cinema,” Israel Studies Review 27, no. 2 (Winter 2012): 213225CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31. It should be noted that Avisar doesn't withhold his own views; he finds the film painfully biased against the Israeli military and evasive in its treatment of large political issues.

32. Avisar points out that many Israeli films of the 1980s and 1990s were produced with European funding. He sees a correlation between the source of funding and the prevalence of protest films during that period.

33. Some articles on religion have indeed begun to appear; see for instance the pieces by Nava Dushi and by David Volach in Talmon and Peleg's collection. Also of interest: Jacobson, David, “The Ma‘ale School: Catalyst for the Entrance of Religious Zionists into the World of Media Production,” Israel Studies 9, no.1 (Spring 2004): 3160CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34. In a review of Abrams's The New Jew in Film, Shai Ginsburg suggests directions in which future studies of stereotype might develop so as to engage more deeply with theory. H-JUDAIC, H-Net Reviews, June 2013,

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