Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The New Jew in Film: A Q&A with film historian Nathan Abrams


In advance of the film series Jewish Tales from Wales, which we are co-presenting with the Welsh Government with the support of Bangor University, Wales, U.K. next month, we asked one of the presenters, film historian Dr. Nathan Abrams, to chat with us about Jews in Wales and his new book, The New Jew in Film. As you can read, he had some fascinating things to say. You can hear him in person on March 11 and March 14 and pose your own questions.

MJH: How were Jews first depicted on film?

Dr.Nathan Abrams: The earliest representations of Jews were crude and overtly anti-Semitic racialized portrayals. The image of ‘the Jew’, which erased all intra-group differences (religious, regional, national, linguistic, class, socioeconomic, political), was that of a subhuman, avaricious, unrefined, venal, grasping, greedy, shifty and menacing cheat and/or dangerous subversive. He was defined physically by his swarthiness, hunched-back, hook nose, bald head, oversize feet, and paunch belly. The Jew was an ‘outsider’ and ‘invader’ to be feared.

MJH: How are Jewish characters different in very recent films compared to some of the iconic Jewish characters in Woody Allen and Mel Brooks films?

Dr. Abrams: Often, in the past, in order to see onscreen Jews and Jewishness, films with a significant and overt Jewish content had to be viewed. Today, though, a character’s Jewishness is something other than the main point of his or her presence in the story. Jewish cinematic characters today are unselfconscious, normalised, casual matter of fact even ordinary. Indeed, this is so much so that, at times, Jews frequently seem ‘gratuitous’ or ‘superfluous’. One can hardly see a mainstream US film these days without a Jewish character, reference or an in-joke appearing, often with no intrinsic value other than a nod and a wink to those members of the audience it is presumed will understand such insertions.

MJH: What does that say about how Jews are viewed in society?

Dr. Abrams: It says that Jews are accepted, comfortable and free, although in my book I am more interested in how Jews feel rather than in how they are viewed.

MJH: Who are some of your favorite New Jews in film both in front and behind the camera?

Dr. Abrams: The Coen brothers, Darren Aronofsky, David Mamet, David Cronenberg, Adam Sandler, Jason Biggs, Judd Apatow, Mathieu Kassovitz, the ‘Jew Tang Clan’, Sandra Goldbacher, Melanie Laurent. I like many Jewish characters too, often played by non-Jews such as Walter Sobchack in The Big Lebowski.

MJH: What is the most surprising thing that you discovered in writing this book?

Dr. Abrams: That the New Jew in Film is global, not just in Israel and the United States. The New Jew is bold and assertive and scatological.

MJH: Let’s switch to the topic of Jewish Tales from Wales. You’ve become a bit of an expert in the Jewish Welsh experience. Why is it compelling and how does it differ from other parts of the U.K.?

Dr. Abrams: The Welsh-Jewish experience stretches back to the medieval period and many Anglo-Norman castles are testament to this. It is compelling in that it is so little understood in the wider context of British- and European-Jewish history. Very little academic work has been done on the subject and that which has been done focuses largely on the South and anti-Semitism. Wales has its own distinctive culture, history, geography and language. These have combined to provide an experience for Jews that is similar to other parts of the UK but not the same. For example, the continuation of the Welsh language, which some believe derives from ancient Hebrew, provides a clear contrast to the other parts of the UK where other, indigenous languages, have all but died out. Wales, by and large, has a history of tolerance that England does not share. Wales, by and large, has a history of tolerance that England does not share. The dominant forms of religious non-conformism in Wales are also much more based on the Hebrew bible and one sees place names in Wales such as Nebo, Golan, Hebron, and so on. Finally, and on a personal note, Wales has provided a very accepting and congenial place for me to write this book over the past five and a half years.

MJH: What do you think viewers should think about when watching the films in the series?

Dr. Abrams: Viewers should consider the specificities of the Welsh experience and what this has provided for Jews. All three films focus on the small-town and rural Welsh experience in which Jews have lived. What is it about Wales that has motivated these three filmmakers to set their movies in that context? They should also look out simply for the beautiful Welsh landscape which these films feature. Finally, they should consider the Jewish sensibility of all three works which becomes progressively less explicit with each film. How might these films be considered as ‘Jewish’ movies?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In memory of Rabbi Gunther Plaut

Isn’t it strange (and embarrassing and humbling) when you know someone from one context only to discover that he or she has a much larger role in the world? When Shari came to tell me that W. Gunther Plaut died, my first reaction was, “The donor of the orphanage keys!”


The Plaut family is featured in To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope. Jonas and Selma Plaut, Gunther’s parents, ran an orphanage in Berlin from 1922 to 1939. They were progressive educators, believing that society’s “least important” –its orphans—deserved the best of everything: the best living conditions, the best teachers, and an emotionally stable, supportive, and loving environment. Gunther, who had a brother, Walter, was among the last Jewish students to earn a doctorate at the University of Berlin before the banning of Jewish students and the firing of Jewish professors. Gunther came to America in 1935 to study at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.


In February 1939, the orphanage was dissolved. Forty children were placed with the OSE, the French Jewish relief organization. Another small group of boys was entrusted to a Quaker organization, which successfully brought them to the U.S. Two months later the Plauts sent their household items to the U.S., where Gunther was living with his wife Elizabeth. Gunther enlisted as a chaplain in the US Army and served with the 104th Infantry unit that liberated the Dora-Nordhausen Concentration Camp complex in Germany.


Rabbi Plaut is perhaps best known for “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” his magnum opus, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization for Reform Jewish congregations in North America. The Plaut Torah has sold nearly 120,000 copies, according to its publisher. It is used today in many Reform synagogues, as well as in some Conservative and Reconstructionist ones, throughout the United States and Canada.


The New York Times obit painted Rabbi Plaut as a rabbi of the people and some would say his experiences with his “brothers” would help explain that. Clearly, my Plaut frame of reference was much more narrow, but no less important. To me, he was the man who grew up in an orphanage run by his parents, and who donated the keys to that very special place.


May his memory be a blessing.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Red Carpet Ready


This blog comes from Gabriel Sanders, who, like Cupid, hopes to entice you with his offerings.

With the Grammys behind us, it’s time to turn to the next big event of the award season – the biggest of them all: the Oscars.

And, as you can see from our newly-released March-April calendar, we have celluloid on the brain.

Over a half-week in mid-March we’re planning to unspool three films devoted to chronicling the Welsh-Jewish experience, a series we’ve dubbed Jewish Tales from Wales. March 11 will offer a double-bill featuring the (Oscar-nominated) Romeo-and-Juliet story Solomon and Gaenor. Later that day, we’ll have the 2010 documentary Sleep Furiously, about the remote Welsh village where director Gideon Koppel’s parents found refuge from the Nazis. To round things out, on Wednesday March 14, we’ll screen the 2001 comedy Very Annie Mary, which will be introduced by director Sara Sugarman.

Later in March, we continue on in a cinematic mode as we open the new exhibition Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg, an exploration of how the war shaped — and how images of the war were to an extent shaped by — the filmmakers John Ford, George Stevens and Sam Fuller.

On March 21, the eve of the exhibition opening, curator Christian Delage will explore the lives of the three directors in word and film.

The following Sunday, March 25, Delage will be joined by the film scholar Stuart Liebman for a discussion that compares and contrasts the ways the Eastern and Western allies documented the liberation of the camps.

We’ll also be celebrating Passover in our next season. To set the stage, on March 28,Sephardic master Gerard Edery will offer a pre-holiday program that draws from the musical traditions of Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, and beyond.

The following Sunday, April 1, we welcome back storytelling duo Play Me a Story for a retelling of the Exodus story for children 3 through 10.

April — T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month” — is also National Poetry Month, which we’ll be marking with our ongoing celebration of poet Emma Lazarus. On April 11, smack in the middle of Passover, we’ll welcome a number of poets to the stage for readings and reflections on the themes of immigration and exodus.

The poet will also be the focus of a lecture by biographer Esther Schor on April 29.

On March 18, the focus will be less Lazarus’ life and more her afterlife. Three scholars and activists convened by the Jewish Women’s Archive will explore what the poet’s legacy was in the 20th century and what it is today.

But, like I said, what’s foremost on our minds these days is film, and there are few films generating more buzz these days than the forthcoming Hunger Games movie. To help get us into the apocalyptic spirit, on March 4, we’ll have a conversation with novelists Joshua Cohen and Ben Marcus on their most recent books, both of which depict distinctly Jewish dystopias.

image: Still from Solomon and Gaenor, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What We're Reading Now: In the Garden of Beasts


This month, the staff book club had a special guest, our director, Dr. David G. Marwell, who filled us in on some behind-the-scenes intrigues and bigger-than-life personas featured in Erik Larson’s new narrative non-fiction book, In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

The book is about William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, her father telegraphed his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watched with alarm as Jews were attacked, the press was censored, and drafts of frightening new laws began to circulate.

At our book club meeting, David helped draw an even fuller picture of the time period and of some of the men the Dodds encountered, including Ernst “Putzi” Hafstaengl, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Hafstaengl, whom David met in the course of his research, was once a confidant of Hitler.

It was a fascinating conversation about a compelling subject, but even if you don’t have your own in-house expert, you can read along with us next month. We’ll be diving into a work of fiction, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons.