The notion that cinema holds an important place in a culture has taken hold in Israel, which now has 13 film schools, says a renowned film academic.
By Cindy Mindell
When Eric Goldman was a science and math major at Temple University in the early ‘70s, the fields of Judaic studies and film studies were in their respective infancies, with few universities offering degrees in either. A course during sophomore year, on the history of the Middle East through film, would turn Goldman into a pioneer as one of the first academics to connect the dots between Judaic studies and film.
The distinguished expert and lecturer on Yiddish, Israeli, and Jewish film will lead a day-long seminar on American Jewish history through cinema on Sunday, Nov. 2 at Westport Town Hall.
A film reviewer for The Jewish Standard of Teaneck, N.J., Goldman is founder and president of Ergo Media, a New Jersey-based video publishing company specializing in Jewish and Israeli video. In September, he curated and co-hosted “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” a weekly showcase on Turner Classic Movies.
Goldman received a PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University and was a fellow of the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at Columbia University. He holds graduate degrees in Contemporary Jewish Studies and Theater Arts from Brandeis University. He is an adjunct associate professor of film studies at Yeshiva University.
Goldman is author of the revised and expanded Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 2011) and The American Jewish Story through Cinema (University of Texas Press, 2013). He has also produced and directed for radio, television, film, and video and has authored and produced more than a dozen DVDs, including Yidl mitn Fidl, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, and Lies My Father Told Me. He won a Special Jury Award at the 1996 International Jewish Video Competition. He has been involved in many Jewish and Israeli film symposia and festivals in North America and Israel, as curator, director, and juror. He was curator of film for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and for many years curated and moderated the film program at the Center for Jewish History and Yeshiva University in New York. Goldman was also a member of the Educational Advisory Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Goldman spoke with the Ledger about the power of film, both as storyteller and catalyst.
Q: What drew you to film as an academic specialization?
A: I went to a Solomon Schechter school from third through seventh grades, where I was introduced to Israeli culture by Israeli teachers. I was a member of Young Judaea, went to their camps, and went back to be a counselor, unit head, and head counselor. I then spent a year in Israel between high school and college on the Young Judaea Year Course. So Israel was a very strong piece of my upbringing.
My work with film grew out of two interests that I developed during my college days at Temple University. I always had a strong interest in Jewish studies. During sophomore year, I took a course on the history of the Middle East through film. I discovered I was a visual person and that I had an affinity and love for film that I never really had an opportunity to be connected with when I was younger. It was history through film that drew me in to the medium.
Over the course of continuing my education, in the second phase of my graduate work at NYU, I pulled these two areas together and did concurrent studies in Judaic studies and film studies. At that point, there was no one that I was aware of who was doing this kind of work, except for the film critic and acting editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, who was one of the early pioneers.
Q: One of your areas of expertise is how the Holocaust has been addressed in film. How have early examples of this genre been used to address and raise awareness about the Holocaust?
A: While filmmakers in some countries – most notably, in Central and Eastern Europe – made films about the Holocaust immediately after the war, American filmmakers were largely in denial. The earliest example in American cinema is Orson Welles’s 1946 film, The Stranger, the story of a Nazi war criminal who comes to the U.S. and changes his identity. Welles actually shows some footage from the Holocaust, shot by American cinematographers.
Then you have a quiet period: American filmmakers stayed away from the Holocaust until The Young Lions in 1958, and that was the major gate-opener. There’s a scene where Americans liberate a concentration camp and as they break into this barracks, you see the victims on the recreated beds. Then you have a couple of other films that touch on aspects of the Holocaust – The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, Exodus in 1960, and Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. The Pawnbroker  is the first film to look at the psyche of a survivor of the Holocaust and the effect of being a survivor of the Holocaust.
Holocaust cinema played a major role in raising awareness among the American public of what had happened during the Holocaust. These films provided an introduction, but I also see the 1978 NBC mini-series, Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss, as having an incredible impact on most Americans, though there were some in the Jewish community who criticized the series as trivializing the Holocaust.
When the mini-series was shown in West Germany the following year, it really changed the attitude and increased the interest of a whole generation of West Germans about the Holocaust and led to increased historical awareness in West German politics.
Schindler’s List  also clearly had an incredible impact. Holocaust cinema is key, Holocaust cinema television is key in being the catalysts that really affected a lot of things, including the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, dedicated in 1993, and the fact that the Holocaust is taught in public schools across the country and its teaching is mandated in many states.
Q: How did you become involved in Israeli film and how has the medium evolved over time?
A: When I finished graduate school, I was given two opportunities: to go into academia or to work in the Jewish community. I chose the latter because it was a better way to merge my two interests.
I became director of Jewish Media Service, a national clearinghouse of film and television for the North American Jewish community, part of the National Jewish Welfare Board and funded by a variety of national Jewish organizations.
I always had a strong love for Israeli culture and this position gave me an opportunity to move toward Israeli cinema. I worked on making more and more Israeli films available for screenings at Jewish and non-Jewish communities and universities. No American distributor was interested in distributing a lot of these films, so it fell to us to bring them to the U.S. and Canada.
Over the decade I spent with the organization, I developed a strong relationship with Israeli film producers and directors and organized screenings, which helped spur what we can now call the Jewish film festival movement, making sure that Israeli films would be part of those programs.
I started my own distribution company and for the last 25-plus years, have continued distributing Israeli and Yiddish films and films with other Jewish content and interest. Fortunately for Israel and maybe unfortunately for me, the Israeli films have gotten better and you are now finding major distributors in this country like Sony and Fox Classic picking up Israeli films for distribution. I’m doing less distribution of Israeli films these days but I’m working on a third book about Israeli society through its cinema.
Israeli films have improved for two main reasons: there is a growing realization worldwide that cinema has an important place in a culture, an idea that has taken hold in Israel, which now has 13 film schools. Twenty years ago, there was a recognition that Israeli filmmakers needed encouragement, and government funding became available. In 2000, additional funds became available and they had a tremendous impact: a lot of young film school graduates are able to make films and not have to wait seven, eight, nine years between movies because they couldn’t find funding. So the product is that much better.
You have all this talent graduating in a small country and a lot of them can’t make feature films so they go to television. Israel used to have just one channel and now has multiple cable stations that are funding filmmakers as well.
Q: What will you cover in the Nov. 2 Westport event, “American Jewish History through Cinema?”
A: I will focus on a certain number of films that represent the evolution of the American Jew, starting with the beginning of the sound era and moving through four or five film clips that illustrate the change that took place: The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, with sound and brief talking; Gentleman’s Agreement; The Young Lions; if there’s time, I’ll bring in something from the ‘60s up to the ‘90s and a 21st century example.
I will also screen Focus, a film that people have largely not seen or heard of, because it was released a few weeks after 9/11, opened and closed very quickly, and slipped through the cracks.
It’s a pity, because this is an important film, based on Arthur Miller’s novel, Focus, which he wrote in 1945. The novel did not get great response and at that point, Miller chose to do something different and began writing plays.
I’m a strong believer that films reflect the times in which they are made much more than about the time they’re telling a story about. The novel is set during the years leading up to World War II, when there was a lot of antisemitism and prejudice in this country. Why was the film made in 2001 and what’s it all about in a more modern context?
“American Jewish History through Cinema” seminar and screening with Eric A. Goldman: Sunday, Nov. 2, 10 a.m., Westport Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport | Tickets/info: (203) 226-8197 / ujafederation.org.
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