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Fiddler on the Roof;Gentleman's Agreement;Yentl;Avalon;Hester Street;Crossing Delancey

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This week is an important one, a serious one, for Jews. But except for maybe public- school kids in New York City who get the days off from school, nobody else knows what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, forget about how to pronounce them. It’s no wonder: Most people seem to learn everything from the movies, which means they don’t get much of a chance to learn about Jews. Ten thousand movies a week are made, and every time I talk about the fact you never see a Jew in the movies, somebody mentions Fiddler on the Roof (1971, FoxVideo). That had to be a hit for 40 years on Broadway and break every record all over America and in every theatrical company, lake, summer resort, and high school before they had the nerve to make a movie out of it. When you do see a Jew in a movie, it’s for comic effect-and it’s often the most serious Jews, the Hasids, that are depicted comically. The strange thing is, Jewish filmmakers are the most guilty of this. In Woody Allen’s pictures- and I’m a great admirer of Woody Allen-when he depicts the Hasidic people, they’re idiots and maniacs. And it’s the same thing with Mel Brooks’ pictures. There’s a Hasidic Jew, and he’s a schmuck of a character. A cornball lunatic. Has there ever been a movie that shows Jews in a sensible light? There is one picture, made many years ago, that is really a crusade against anti- Semitism: Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, FoxVideo). That’s a landmark film because until it was made there hardly was any picture depicting Jews in a sympathetic way. Until then, Jews had never been allowed to be major characters-I mean, the protagonists or the heroes-in any major Hollywood movie. Suddenly, there was a character facing down anti-Semitism-and he was Gregory Peck. This was a big deal, that a Jew could look like Gregory Peck. Yentl (1983, MGM/UA) is another example of those rare Jewish pictures that got made. But it took Barbra Streisand, somebody with so much unusual power, to get it made. It wasn’t the normal course of situations. More recently, there have been more films that deal with Jews as normal, interesting people. Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990, Columbia TriStar) depicts a Jewish family in a way that is very, very realistic. There are sympathetic characters that you appreciated as human beings. Many of the Neil Simon movies are also very sensitive about Jewish families. He does an in-depth kind of study of the Jewish family that transcends any view of them as queer ducks. Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975, Vestron) and Crossing Delancey (1988, Warner) are also beautiful movies with Jewish themes. These films reflect the predicament of the Jew as a person. They don’t necessarily venerate or idolize the Jew or try to somehow put him above reproach, but they see the Jew as a human being, and they reflect the realities of the Jewish existence in this country. The pain and the anguish of being a minority, of feeling alienated. The ironic thing is that Jews were the creators of the whole movie business and virtually owned the whole movie business almost exclusively, and yet they almost never had a Jew as a major person in any movie. It’s unconscionable: If there was no such thing as Jewish executives in Hollywood, I would have been a star in movies 20 years ago.