Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Do the Jews control Hollywood? No, but…
Do the Jews control Hollywood? No, but…
JANUARY 6, 2017, 10:27 PM
This Sunday’s Golden Globes brings us to the heart of the awards season. See the nominees here. So this is as good a time as any to reflect on some of the films that have come out recently. In between funerals, services and brisses, I’ve managed to have seen a number of good ones and feel a need to add one more category to the awards mix, one emphasizing the Jewish content of the film.
I call these the “Jos-car Nominations.” Combines my name with “Oscar.” Get it?
By “Jewish content,” I’m not necessarily pointing to the contribution of particular Members of the Tribe, as stars, producers, directors, writers or, for that matter, gaffers of any given film.
Incidentally, have you noticed just how many gaffers, grips and best boys are Jewish?
Neither have I.
The criteria for a Jos-car nomination is simple: the Jewish aspect of a film can include Jewish subject matter, Jewish values, or Jewish participation. With these criteria, you can find something “Jewish” in almost every film.
Every film? Jewish? This brings to mind the classic anti-Semitic claim that “the Jews own Hollywood.” Of course that is ridiculous, but not for the reason you might think.
If the claim is that Jews are significantly represented at all levels in the production and dissemination of culture, which includes movies, books, music, drama, journalism, dance, the visual arts and the humanities, my response is “guilty as charged.” Jews have been disproportionately involved in these areas for a number of reasons, including the traditional values of inquiry and curiosity (think “Four Questions”), and an age-old preoccupation with social change, justice and engagement with this world (as opposed to a preoccupation with the afterlife). Add to that our unique historical position at the margins of society and our trans-national mobility, which has enabled us to bridge cultures across the world.
The ridiculous part is the use of the world “the” in relation to “Jews,” as if to imply that Jews are a single, coherent, conspiratorial group. If only Jews were united enough to smoothly conspire to run a lemonade stand, much less an entire cultural industrial complex! Anyone who tries to lump all Jews into one unified group clearly doesn’t know Jews. And you know, that’s precisely the problem.
Those who subscribe to grand Jewish conspiracy theories are typically those who have the least familiarity with real live Jews. The ADL’s Global survey of 100 nations discovered that people living in countries with larger Jewish populations are less likely to hold anti-Semitic views than people living in countries with smaller Jewish populations. The same is true of places in America. It’s true with other groups too: familiarity reduces bigotry. In this case, absence makes the heart grow hateful.
But I will say this — proudly. The influence of Jewish values, those principles Jews have long held sacred, has been most profound on the American cultural scene. If you want to see what values I’m talking about, see my Mensch Marks listing, based on the character traits (middot) found in the Talmud (Pirke Avot 6:6)
These values, which are neither exclusively left nor right, but Jewish through and through, include humility, love and freedom and dignity. They clash markedly against the “values” of the “traditional” anti-Semite, who, as defined by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, tends to be xenophobic, anti-intellectual, populist, racist, brutish and, if unchecked, ultimately genocidal.
And here’s the rub — the part that drives anti-Semites absolutely bananas. The influence of popular culture, in the US and throughout most of the world, continues to be far, far more pervasive than that of any government or branch of government. When Chief Justice Roberts (who is decidedly not an anti-Semite) wrote about the “undeniable appeal” of arguments of social fairness and equality in the 2015 same-sex marriage case, he was speaking of the undeniable influence of TV programs like “American Family” and current films like “Loving,” whose impact on the culture continue to be profound.
So when anti-Semites say “The Jews control Hollywood,” or “The Jews control the media,” they are really cursing the fact that their agenda can never achieve the ultimate triumph they seek until the instruments of culture are co-opted. And, yes, I can proudly say that Jews are continuing to hold up our end of the bargain, not by owning Hollywood, or by propagating any particular agenda, but by driving haters crazy.
Which brings me to my Jos-car nominations for 2016.
My nominees for “most Jewish film,” in no particular order are:
5) Sand Storm (Israel’s best picture winner this year — a Bedouin version of “Gett”)
10) A Tale of Love and Darkness (Israeli)
I recommend them all — several are top Oscar contenders. I also left out a number of movies that I really liked (e.g. “Fences,”) that just couldn’t make the cut from my subjective Jewish perspective. I’d also have loved to include “Woman in Gold,” and “Gett,” but they aren’t recent enough. But hey, that’s why they make Top Ten Lists — to force some hard choices.
I’ll explain what I found to be “Jewish” about these films as the Oscars approach. In the meantime, I invite you to share which film you think is the best — and the most Jewish — film of 2016. Israeli films like “Sand Storm,” BTW, are now plentiful on Netflix. And I reserve the right to alter this list, whether because I see another film that should be there (haven’t seen “Miss Sloan” or “Hidden Figures” yet) or because you convince me that I left something worthy out.