History 299c

Modern Jewish History in Film


Spring Term, 2005

Skinner 0200

Tuesday 4-6


Bernard D. Cooperman

Taliaferro 2130




This one-credit course is offered in conjunction with HIST 283/JWST 235. It is intended to provide an opportunity for students to engage some of the main themes in the history course by watching and discussing movies and videos that document or fictionalize Jewish life in the modern era. Students will be asked to prepare short written assignments after at least ten of the showings. NOTE: Almost all of the films are available in Hornbake Library's Non-Print Media collection (4th floor). To check on how many you have handed in, click here.


Written assignments are expected to be typed, double-spaced, properly footnoted and documented (where relevant), and of approximately one page in length.


The schedule here is tentative. Alternate films may be substituted depending on availability. Assignments will be posted for each film. Please check back often.


Feb. 1           His People. (USA 1925). Silent with English subtitles. Directed by Edward Sloman. 91 minutes.


Written Assignment: How did this film portray Jewish acculturation in America? Did it intend to promote or decry assimilation? Justify your answer by references to specific aspects of the story. [Note: many Jewish films in both Europe and the USA portrayed a ̉prodigal sonÓ who leaves the community, achieves fame in the outside world, and then returns to be reconciled with his father. This early silent film interpreted that theme differently than most.]


Feb. 8          Fishke der Krumer. (USA 1939). Yiddish with English subtitles. Directed by Edgar Ulmer. 94 minutes.


Written Assignment:  Though the script was written in New York and though it was filmed in New Jersey during the summer of 1939, this film treatment draws on well-known characters and motifs first introduced into Yiddish literature by the famous East European author Sholom Yakov Abramowitz (1835-1917) as early as 1864. Abramowitz, better known by his pen-name, Mendele Mokher Seforim (Mendele the Book Peddlar), took the revolutionary step of using modern literary techniques to portray the world of the shtetl and to urge reform of the traditional Jewish world on modernist grounds. Much of this is still evident in the film version even though, by 1939, nostalgia for a lost world and worry over the uncertain fate of many European Jews may have made Mendele's reformist message less obvious and compelling to American Jewish audiences. How does the character of Mendele in the film represent a modernizing message, and in what ways can we say that he himself questions that reformist message?

Suggested Readings:

J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light. Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (New York: 1991).

Sylvia Paskin, "The Light Ahead," in S. Paskin, ed. When Joseph Met Molly. A Reader on Yiddish Film (Nottingham: 1999), pp. 119-129. [McK PN1995.9.Y54W44 1999]


Feb. 15        Ziemia Obiecana [Promised Land or Land of Promise]Polish, German, and Yiddish with English subtitles. (Poland 1975). Directed by Andrzej Wajda. 138 minutes.



Based on Wladyslaw S. Reymont's 1899 novel of the same name about the impact of industrialization on the rapidly growing Polish city of Lodz and the enormous fortunes that were quickly made and just as quickly lost by capitalists at the expense of the suffering masses. Wajda, who used film to explore large themes in Polish history, writes that making “Promised Land” was “a wonderful adventure with a city, where every day revealed to us new fragments of its unique past.” He emphasized the realism of Reymont’s novel and believed it to be an authentic portrayal of the people, the setting, and even the languages they spoke. Wajda was enthusiastic about both Reymont’s capitalists and his industrial workers without whom “today would not have been.” As for the three main characters, Wajda wrote that: “One of the three ... is a Pole, the second - a German, and the third - a Jew. These ethnic differences do not come between them. They found a factory together, and are linked by a shared business and by a sense of belonging to the group of "Lodzermensch" - the men of Lodz. This peculiar Polish-German-Jewish amalgam of Lodz population at that time is extremely interesting; it seduces with colour, variety of customs and of human types and attitudes.” (See his website.)
Nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film in 1975, “The Promised Land” was re-edited by Wajda after the fall of communism. Wajda himself was awarded an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2000. W. S. Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924; his novel, Promised Land, appeared in a 2-volume English edition in 1927.


Written Assignment: Remembering that this film was made in Communist Poland 30 years after the end of the German occupation of Poland and of the Holocaust which eliminated the vast majority of Poland's Jewish community, what do you see as the point of Wajda's portrayal of German, Jewish, and Polish ethnicity in this historical film? Is he glorifying or attacking the various groups that shaped 19th-century Lodz? Did he believe that Poles had shaped their own history or did he see them as victims of alien elements?

Suggested Reading: Israel Joshua Singer. The Brothers Ashkenazi. First appearing in a three-volumeYiddish version (Warsaw: 1936) [PJ5129.S5 B7 1936], this novel about the industrialization of Lodz as seen from the point of view of a Jewish family was translated by Maurice Samuel in 1936 [PZ3.S6166Br] and then again by the author's son, Joseph Singer, in 1980 [PJ5129.S5B7 1936]. There is a convenient Penguin paperback edition available.

Please note: the dvd and vhs versions of this film are available at the reserve desk in Hornbake even though they are not yet catalogued.


February 22 The Fixer (USA 1968) Directed by John Frankenheimer. 132 min.


Written Assignment: This film is based on a novel by the same name written by Bernard Malamud. The novel itself was loosely based on the trial of Mendel Beilis, accused of murdering a Christian boy in Kiev in order to use his blood for Jewish ritual purposes. Find out the details of the Beilis trial from an encyclopedia (the Encyclopedia Judaica in McKeldin is a good source; another is The American Jewish Yearbook 5675 [1914-1915], which has a report on the trial [pp. 213-218] as well as a special article [pp. 19–89]) and then decide how and why Malamud and the film changed the story. There is a copy of the video in the non-print area on the fourth floor of Hornbake Library; ask at the reserve desk. Please handle it with care. It is very hard to replace.


March 1 Frisco Kid (USA 1979)Directed by Robert Aldrich. 122 minutes.


Written Assignment: How does this film perceive of the transfer ofJewish traditional culture from Eastern Europe to America? What were the major factors leading to cultural change? Do you think this presentation is historically accurate? Identify one scholarly article and one scholarly book on the history of San Francisco Jewry in this period. Make sure you provide full and accurate bibliographical information.


Please note: I am trying to find a copy of this film to place in Hornbake. So far no luck! Sorry!


March 8  Joshua Then and Now. (Canada 1985). Directed by Ted Kotcheff 103 minutes.


Written Assignment: Who is the bearer of Jewish tradition in this film? Why, in your opinion, did the writer decide to give this role to that character? (Hint: You might try to find out about some of the other novels and films written by Mordecai Richler. Think also about the character Benya Krik in the works of the famous Russian Jewish writer, Isaac Babel.) There is a copy of the video in the non-print area on the fourth floor of Hornbake Library; ask at the reserve desk. Please handle it with care.


March 15 Capturing the Friedmans (USA 2003). Directed by Andrew Jarecki. 107 minutes.


Written Assignment: Do you think the director ignored or highlighted the Jewishness of the Friedmans? What difference do you think it made to the film? At some point over the break, I will put a copy of the dvd as well as a second dvd of home movies, etc. in the non-print area on the fourth floor of Hornbake Library; ask at the reserve desk.


March 22    Spring Break. No Class.


March 29    Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog] (France:1955). Directed by Alain Resnais. French with English subtitles. 32 minutes. Together with Imaginary Witness. Hollywood and the Holocaust. (USA 2004). Directed by Daniel Anker. 92 minutes..


Written Assignment: Alain Resnais used newsreel footage about the Nazi extermination camps as well as photos taken a decade later to produce this first major film exploration of the implications of the Holocaust. In a significant sense, therefore, Resnais determined how people would see, remember and interpret the Holocaust. Widely hailed when it first came out, the film is still considered a major landmark in the history of documentary film. Daniel Anker's documentary explains some of the problematic of making films about the Holocaust in America. Please examine what you think are significant elements in Resnais' representation of the Holocaust in this film and point out how and why Hollywood treatments continue or differ from Resnais' approach.There is a VHS copy of "Night and Fog" in Hornbake (D805.G3 N54 1983) and a DVD copy on order. I have put a DVD of Anker's film on reserve at the desk.


April 5         Lucky Star (Canada: 1980). Directed by Max Fischer. 113 minutes.


Written Assignment: This film presents a careful, stylized telling of many standard film, and Holocaust film, stereotypes. The story of a young boy coming of age consciously cites narrative film conventions like the gunslingers of the Old West and reinforces its referential style by typecasting Rod Steiger as the German officer and Lou Jacobi as the Jewish father. The cumulative affect of so many narrative conventions and Hollywood clichés piled one on top of the other is to force the viewer to ask about the relation between literature/film and the Holocaust -- is it possible to represent the horrors of the Holocaust through artistic media like the movies? Please discuss what you consider the film maker's position was on this question. Back up your answer by specific reference to events or scenes in the film. Please note: this film will be available only very briefly in Hornbake library. I have to return it to the company.


April 12      Birthplace (Miejsce urodzenia) (Poland 1992). Directed by Pawel Lozinski. Polish with English subtitles. 47 minutes.


Written Assignment:This film records the return of Henryk Grynberg, a Polish Jew living in the United States, to Poland to find out who murdered his father during World War II. Unbelievable confrontations are documented, as the villagers deny guilt and implicate one another. How does the film understand the ways in which Polish (that is, non-German) Christians reacted to the German invasion, Nazi anti-Jewish policies, and the war-time situation?


April 19      Heir to an Execution. A Granddaughter's Story (USA 2002) Directed by Ivy Meeropol. English. 99 minutes.


Written Assignment: This film tells the story of one American Jewish family that was caught up in the cold war and in the atomic arms race in a dramatic way. You will notice that almost all of the people involved in the story are Jewish. To what extent would you argue that the Rosenberg case and the prominence of Jews in radical politics in the US during the period is a part of Jewish history, and to what extent would you say that ethnic origins are irrelevant to the story? As background, you m ight also want to look at the video "Strange Fruit" (directed by Joel Katz) that focuses on the Abel Meeropol, the man who adopted the Rosenberg boys and also composed the song about lynching that was made famous by Billie Holiday and did much to enlist public opinion in support of civil rights efforts. That video is in Hornbake HV6457 .S73 2002.


April 26      Hill 24 Doesn't Answer


Written Assignment: How does this film create Israeli identity for its audience? What elements are emphasized? What counter-narratives of identity are downplayed or ignored?


May 3         Kippur (Israel 2000). Hebrew with English subtitles. Directed by Amos Gitai. 123 minutes. Note: this showing was cancelled because of equipment failure. I will try to get the dvd over to Hornbake.


Written Assignment: Read the interview with Gitai by Ray Privett. If the film marks the end of a utopianism in Israel's self-perception, as the intereview suggests, then what are the roots of that utopianism, and what are its assumptions? What does Gitai's film say about the director's attitude to contemporary Israel? Is the film anti-Israel? Is it an attack on the policies of the government? (It might be useful to compare this picture of Israel at war with the view presented in last week's film.)


May 10       Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi Hebrew with English subtitles. (Israel 2004). Directed by Shemi Zarhin. 94 minutes.


Written Assignment: How does Jewish "ethnicity" appear in this film? What status markers are associated with specific ethnicities?Why does the film use ethnic categories: to criticize social distinctions within Israeli society? to suggest that social distinctions can be overcome? Think of an American film in which ethnic (or racial) differences are part of the story line, suggest similarities and/or differences in the way the two movies treat the theme, and suggest reasons for any differences you perceive.