From ‘Schindler’s List’ to ‘Lincoln’: How Judaism shaped Steven Spielberg

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Click photo to download. Caption: Late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stands with American film director Steven Spielberg (right) on Sept. 16, 1994. Credit: Moshe Shai/FLASH90.

Steven Spielberg’s films, including his latest, “Lincoln,” continue to reflect his Jewish upbringing. Like most movies, the script of the legendary director’s life and career begins with some adversity—he was initially ashamed of his religious identity.

Born in Ohio to a Jewish family, Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, was a restaurateur and concert pianist, and his father Arnold was an electrical engineer involved in the development of computers. 

According to Lester Friedman, scholar-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of The Jewish Image in American Film, American Jewish Filmmakers, and Citizen Spielberg, there is more to Spielberg than meets the eye. 

“It’s indisputable he’s the most successful filmmaker in American history, but he’s much more than that,” Friedman told JNS.org. “His Jewish background is omnipresent. It cuts both ways.”

Friedman explained that Spielberg’s parents “lived in predominantly Christian areas” and that Spielberg was “was the subject of anti-Semitism, everything from swastikas on the windows to rolling a penny down the aisle in class and students saying ‘go get it Jew-boy.’”

Click photo to download. Caption: Director Steven Spielberg speaking at the Pentagon on August 11, 1999. Credit: Department of Defense.

Click photo to download. Caption: Director Steven Spielberg speaking at the Pentagon on August 11, 1999. Credit: Department of Defense.

“He was concerned about hiding his Judaism,” Friedman said. “His early films stayed far away from it. He doesn’t confront it until ‘An American Tail,’ where Fivel is the name of his grandfather. He confronts it in the most crucial and important way in two films. ‘Schindler’s List,’ in which he makes the archetypal Holocaust film, and 12 years later with ‘Munich.’”

In 1994, inspired by his experience making “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to gather video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. While most of those who gave testimony were Jews, the foundation also interviewed homosexual survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, liberators and liberation witnesses, political prisoners, rescuers and aid providers, Gypsy survivors, and others.

Within several years, the foundation’s Visual History Archive held nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages, representing 56 countries; it is the largest archive of its kind in the world.

Nigel Morris, author of The Cinema of Steven Spielberg, told JNS.org that some critics “carelessly dismiss him as a children’s director or maker of escapist fantasies.”

“They resent his enormous success, mistakenly focus on what they label as manipulation or sentimentality, or confuse him with George Lucas and naively blame either director or both for the blockbuster tendency that destroyed the freedom and creativity of early 1970s Hollywood, as if that were not an economic inevitability,” Morris said.  

Morris agrees with Friedman that Spielberg had little desire to embrace his Jewish ethnic identity or faith until he was profoundly affected by making “Schindler’s List” while in his late 40s.

“Being Jewish has influenced Spielberg’s craft and sensibility,” Morris said. “The characteristic ‘God light,’ as the director has called it, is central to both Spielberg’s visual style and the deeper meaning of his work, flows from his earliest memory of being pushed in a stroller through a Cincinnati synagogue aged just six months. The candles and dazzling reflections in candelabra became entwined with the awe of larger-than-life figures when he first saw a movie in a theatre, creating the quasi-religious wonder that is repeatedly associated with spectacle, and particularly film, through all his output.”   

Morris said Spielberg, as a child, was displaced to various strange new locations across the U.S. as his father changed jobs, suffering bullying and anti-Semitism. One coping strategy was to seek popularity by casting his oppressors in the movies he made outside school hours. 

“Spielberg was quoted as saying that being ‘Jewish and wimpy made me part of a major minority,’” Morris said. “This helped the fledgling director empathize with the Civil Rights cause and arguably led to his much later adoption of two African American children, as well as the interest in black culture manifested seriously and respectfully in several of his films.”

Morris said “Schindler’s List,” coinciding with the Holocaust’s 50th anniversary, catalyzed arguments surrounding the new Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, resurgent neo-fascism and attempted genocide around the world, and the impetus such events gave to recording a dwindling number of survivors’ testimony.

“Spielberg partly established the context, and tone, for many of the attacks that were made as much against him as the film,” said. “When he imperiously declared, ‘If it takes my name to get people to see Schindler’s List, so be it,’ he suggested the project might not have been viable without him and implied higher aspirations than ‘mere’ entertainment. Certainly, a black-and-white film, over three hours long and without major stars, seemed unlikely to appeal to youthful blockbuster audiences, 60 per cent of whom were unaware of the Holocaust. Publicity portrayed Spielberg, who—it was understood at the time—waived his profits until the movie broke even, as pursuing a mission.”

According to Morris, Schindler’s redemption paralleled Spielberg’s transformation from shallow crowd-pleaser to serious Jewish artist. 

“Promotion and interviews stressed his return to ethnic roots and newfound faith,” Morris said, “as well as identification with Schindler. Spielberg repeatedly spoke of his own anti-Semitic experiences, thereby identifying himself, descended from German Jews, with Holocaust victims. Equating seriousness, solemnity and quality, industry names finally recognized Spielberg, bestowing Academy Awards at the exact time that media coverage was distancing him from Hollywood entertainment values.”

With “Lincoln,” Hollywood has another popular film, but Spielberg has more. He has his finger on the heartbeat of a historic American dilemma—with applications to modern times—by dealing with President Lincoln’s moral question of whether or not to prolong a Civil War to get an important amendment passed. 

Perhaps columnist Clarence Page best answered Spielberg’s (and Lincoln’s) question in the Chicago Tribune when he wrote, “Democratic governance of a large, diverse republic requires compromises. You can’t always get what you want, but we can work together across partisan lines to get what we need.”

Posted on December 24, 2012 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..