Author Archives: Joel Stamberg

About Joel Stamberg

Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.

The Jazz Singer

Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

By the time The Jazz Singer was remade for the second time in 1980, the Hollywood musical, with very few exceptions, was all but dead. If it had any life left in it at all, Neil Diamond and company seemed only too pleased to say “Toot, toot, tootsie good­bye.”

Once upon a time, the Hollywood musi­cal was as common as the nickel matinee. Between The Jazz Singer of 1927 and The Jazz Singer of 1980 more than 250 musicals were produced for the American cinema, both imports from Broadway and originals written directly for the screen. Very few of them concerned the Jewish experience or cel­ebrated its inimitable joys and daily challenges–and many of those that did have a certain Jewish flavor almost never made it to the screen.

The first Jazz Singer, for example, ran into trouble right away when George Jessel, who played the role on Broadway and was signed to reprise it on film, had a major disagreement with the studio, Warner Broth­ers. Yentl, Barbra Streisand’s personal film crusade about a young yeshiva student, was turned down so many times that the actress-director could almost have made a movie about Yentl as a grandmother instead.

That’s why a bomb (by most critical ac­counts) like the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer is especially troublesome. With that Jewish-flavored failure forever looming in the marketing minds of Ameri­can filmmakers, we can almost be assured that there is unlikely to be a major movie musical in the future from which Jewish audiences might shep a little nachas, that is, to derive some special pride from the story.

A Love Letter to Judaism

Still, it’s nice to know that in 1927, the original Jazz Singer, which featured Jewish characters with Jewish hearts and conflicts (and even a few Hebrew prayers) not only made a lot of money for its studio but made history as well. As the first motion picture to use several sequences of synchronized dia­logue and music (it was otherwise a silent film), The Jazz Singer is generally considered both the first talkie and the first movie mu­sical. That a movie of such importance is also in some respects a love letter to Juda­ism is certainly reason enough for Jewish au­diences to shep a little nachas of their own.

The Chosen

Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

To the uninitiated, the worlds of ultra-religious Hasidic and modern Orthodox Jews might seem close enough to be one. But to the Jews in The Chosen, based on the novel by Chaim Potok, they are indeed worlds apart.

The 1981 movie was adapted by Edwin Gordon and directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan,who is the son of a rabbi. Set in the mid­1940s, it is the story of a growing friend­ship between Danny Saunders, the son of the grand rebbe of a large Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, and Reuven Malter, the son of a more secularized writer and scholar. It is also an exploration of Zionism, family traditions, soul searching, parental influence, and the pursuit of personal goals.

Superb Casting

That’s quite a lot of serious and very Jewish content to load into one American mainstream movie, but The Chosen pulls it off. Part of the reason is its cast–Rod Steiger as Danny’s father, Maximilian Schell as Reuven’s father, Barry Miller as Reuven, and a surprisingly effec­tive turn by Robby Benson as Danny.

With characterizations and a production design so skilled and so complete, there is never any question about who these people are, where they are, or even why they are motivated to do the things they do.

Danny is expected to inherit the mantle from his respected fa­ther and one day become the next grand rebbe. The problem is that he wants to study psychology. “I get tired just studying Talmud,” he tells Reuven one day.

Ironically, Reuven, who is cu­rious and slightly skeptical of the ways of the Hasidim, thinks he may want to become a rabbi. “I never realized how full the life of a rabbi could be,” he tells Danny. “Babies to be blessed, boys to be bar mitzvah, disputes to be settled.” He also happens to no­tice the fire of passion in just about everything Danny’s father says and does, and it is a passion he himself would love to possess.

Zionism vs. Jewish Anti-Zionism

Reuven’s father has passion, too, but his is for the founding of a Jewish state, a topic for which Rebbe Saunders has little patience. Only the Messiah, he says, can be respon­sible for a new Jewish state. This major dif­ference of opinion almost destroys the friendship between Danny and Reuven–especially when Reuven’s father makes a public speech about the need for increased Zionist activities.

Schindler’s List

Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

Perhaps the most famous Holocaust film to date is Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece, which won Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay (Steven Zaillian), best cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), best original score (John Williams), best editing  (Michael Kahn),and best art direction (Ewa Tarnowska and Allan Starski).

Unlike some of its predecessors, which begin with clouds, birds, and other symbols of freedom, Schindler’s List begins with the somber lighting of candles and the Hebrew blessing over wine. Spielberg and screenwriter Zaillian, basing their work on Thomas Keneally’s book, did not really wish to con­cern themselves with lives before, but only lives during the Nazi horror. To have “opened it up” might have lessened its impact. Even a cloud would have been too glamorous.

“Who is that man?”

“Who is that man?” People in the story ask this question about Oskar Schindler more than once, making him as enigmatic a char­acter as Rick Blaine in Casablanca–although in quite a different milieu–and one of the most intriguing characters in all of Spielberg’s filmography. A womanizer, gambler, oppor­tunist, and member of the Nazi party, Schindler–skillfully played by Liam Neeson–hardly seems the type of man who would break down and cry, ever. But at the end, when he realizes that he could have saved even more lives than he did, that’s just what he does, shamelessly and uncontrollably.

Schindler saved hundreds of Jews by hir­ing them to work in an enamel factory, an industry that was relatively safe from the Nazi authorities because its products were needed for the war effort. But he needs help to run the factory, which the German au­thorities initially finance, and so he turns to a skilled Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, played with understated brilliance by Ben Kingsley.

“They put up the money and I do all the work,” Stern says to his new boss. “What, if you don’t mind my asking, would you do?”