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Spielberg tells his — and Hollywood’s — Jewish story

Understanding his new film as a history of Jews and the entertainment business.

Steven Spielberg walks the red carpet as he arrives to receive a lifetime achievement prize, at the David Donatello awards ceremony in Rome, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia,file)

(RNS) — There is a piece of me that is still stuck on Dave Chappelle’s performance several weeks ago on “Saturday Night Live,” and his opening rant — er, uh, monologue — about the Jews.

Especially that bit about the Jews and Hollywood.

That bit was on my mind as I watched Steven Spielberg’s new film, “The Fabelmans.” The story is loosely based on Spielberg’s adolescence and first years as a movie director, told through the story of the fictional Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring filmmaker.

 

The movie is not only a story of a young man coming to age. It is not only about making movies. It is about a young man falling in love with a craft, which he insists is not merely a hobby. In that insistence, he was right.

This is a story by, and of, Steven Spielberg, and it is a Jewish story.

More precisely: It is the story of Jewish otherness. In the opening scene, the Fabelman family drives through their New Jersey neighborhood in December to their house — the only one that is dark, without Christmas lights.

It is a stark, seasonal definition of Jewish identity. To be a Jew in December is to have a dark house. 

The Fabelmans move to Phoenix, then to California, where Sammy finds himself as the only Jew in his high school. He is taunted; his last name rendered as Bagelman; a bagel left hanging in his locker is decorated with the words “Jew hole.” He is beaten up for being Jewish. The girl who takes a romantic interest in him not only wants him to like her; she wants him to love Jesus, whom Sammy has been accused of (personally) killing.

In fact, Spielberg encountered vicious antisemitism as a youth — enough, he says, to make him want to shrink, and to make the Jewish piece of himself disappear.

Sammy learns to look at the world from behind a movie camera. He learns to edit films — really edit, as in cutting out pieces of celluloid. He learns what to leave out and to put on a spool in a drawer — the more sensitive, painful pieces of his family tale.

Moreover, he learns what to leave in. In perhaps the most moving part of the film, he makes a film about his senior class, “Cut Day,” and rather than embarrass the golden boy who has been tormenting him for being Jewish, he chooses to make him the hero of the film.

Why? Sammy says that he just wanted to be left alone and accepted. I immediately wonder: Is this a metaphor for how a small group of Jewish newcomers invented the film industry — as an act of simply wanting to escape the hatred, to belong to America?

Why didn’t this Jew simply fight back against the bully?

Ah, but he did — Jewishly. Sammy’s resistance was in his refusal to portray the bully as a total a-hole. In that act of restraint, we see an act of chesed. The young auteur as mensch. 

I like to go deeper. This film is a midrash on Spielberg’s career, and beyond that, on the Jewish condition in the modern world.

First, the film begins with young Sammy’s first experience at the movies, seeing “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and being horrified by the train wreck it depicts. Sammy must process that trauma, which he does by enacting miniature train wrecks with his Lionel trains (at that point in the film, anyone who had model trains is sighing and/or crying), and then filming those wrecks.

For Jews, dramatizing and retelling the story is how we process both the pain and the joy of our history.

Second, the Fabelmans move a lot, all to further the father’s career ambitions. (The real life Spielbergs originated in Cincinnati.)

Consider, therefore, Spielberg’s movies that deal with homelessness, exile and longing for home: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “An American Tail,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestial,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Amistad,” even “Munich,” which, like “The Fabelmans,” was co-written by Tony Kushner.

In that sense, all of those movies are “Jewish.” Did Spielberg use his movies as a way of processing his own stories of moving, of wandering and exile?

Finally, there are Spielberg’s films that deal with World War II (notably, “Saving Private Ryan,” whose cinematic “ancestor” we can see in young Sammy’s rudimentary war film in “The Fabelmans”) and, of course, “Schindler’s List.”

The Holocaust was a huge part of Steven Spielberg’s life. In a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Spielberg talks about growing up “occasionally Orthodox when his grandparents came to visit” in Cincinnati. He says that he first learned math from the arms of Holocaust survivors, as some of them taught him numbers by pointing to the tattoos on their arms. 

Take young Sammy’s experiences of violent antisemitism. Add those experiences to his first job opportunity — working on the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.” 

Hogan’s Stalag 13 was not — as we say in Hebrew, l’havdil, to make a huge distinction — a concentration camp.

But, it got me wondering. The possible biographical math equation: Sammy’s/Steven’s youthful experiences with antisemitism + “Hogan’s Heroes” = “Schindler’s List.”

All of which brings me back to the whispers and speculation about the Jewish influence on Hollywood, for which Steven Spielberg would be both poster child and Exhibit A.

How did that happen? It was not only coincidence. It was not only the fact that cinema was a new industry, which no one wanted to engage in, and therefore was a vacuum available left to fill. Nor was it the fact that Los Angeles was a new city, ripe for a new industry.

No. As Neal Gabler would put it, Jews invented an “empire” of their own, and in the process of creating movies, they helped create an American national identity, one that was in some ways more mythic than real.

It was not only Jewish ambition and financial savvy. Jews are not the only people to know such blessings. It was our proclivity at telling and shaping stories. We have been in the narrative production business. Motion pictures were simply about creating a new text.

All of which brings me back to Sammy’s editing of his films. He knew what to leave in, and he knew what to take out. As have Jews throughout the ages. Some might even suggest that the very act of midrash, of rabbinic storytelling, begins as pieces of the text that somehow got left on, well, God’s cutting room floor.

“The Fabelmans” is not only about a young man’s passion. It is about the Jewish passion for processing and creating realities.

We are (forgive me) the fable people.

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