Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting

With the publication last month (April 2009) of Jeffrey Shandler’s book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (more on this another time), it is a good moment to re-publish my review of Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (Jewish Museum, New York & Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003), which appeared in the Australian Jewish News in late 2003.

In all of my years of writing film reviews for the Australian Jewish News, I thought I had seen just about every possible book that could be written on Jewish film.  I am thrilled that I was wrong, because Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler is without doubt the most interesting, accessible, complete and – indeed – entertaining Jewish film book of them all.  The thesis may not be as original as Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood or as encyclopaedic as Patricia Erens’ The Jew in American Cinema or Lester Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, but Entertaining America is truly unique in its scope.

Hoberman (film critic for The Village Voice and author of a noted book on Yiddish film) and Shandler (a Rutgers University professor and expert on Holocaust film, amongst other topics) have put together a book which operates as lavishly illustrated social and film history (more than 400 pictures in 334 pages), coffee table enjoyment with the capacity to dip in and dip out for even a moment or two and academic rigour with contributions from eleven other scholars and film writers.  The book also simultaneously acts as a catalogue of the 2003 “Entertaining America” exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum and the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.  (Click here for the online version of the exhibition.)

This is a book which takes popular culture seriously, but appreciates its role in society.  Why are we Jews so desperately interested in our own screen images and how has this portrayal changed over the course of the last 100 years?  After a few articles on the early nickelodeons, this book gallops through the Hollywood moguls (Gabler territory), Jewish radio (the first time I have seen this seriously discussed in a book), individual stars, Jewish characters and themes, Jewish television (a particularly wonderful article on Seinfeld) and a 35-page “timeline”.  This is the first book (and may be the last) which has complete articles on Theda Bara, the Marx brothers, Betty Boop, Superman, Anne Frank, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern and Gertrude Berg & the Goldbergs on radio, TV & stage.  Shandler has an article about how Chabad has effectively used electronic communications media to disseminate its messages, and Hoberman has compiled a “Bill Clinton Hollywood President chronology”, charting Clinton’s engagement with (predominantly Jewish and liberal) Hollywood figures.

Aside from great pictures and excellent writing, Entertaining America is so successful in part because of its sense of fun.  These people are having a good time, and they want to share it with us, the readers.  There are extensive surprises; here are a few of my favourites: a reproduction of The Jazz Singer 1927 original souvenir program; The Jazz Singer chronology from 1886 when Al Jolson was born to 1998, when the original film placed ninetieth on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best American movies; Deborah Dash Moore’s articulate re-counting of bringing the book Exodus to screen; (my) discovery of former screenwriter/producer Dori Carter’s Hollywood novel entitled Beautiful WASPs Having Sex (I promptly searched out a remaindered copy in a Boston book warehouse); the map of nickelodeon theatres on New York’s Lower East Side in 1910; and a delightful article by Susan Wender about Marilyn Monroe’s Jewish conversion – including a copy of her July 1st 1956 Certificate of Conversion, duly witnessed by husband and playwright Arthur Miller.  (The original appeared in the Jewish Museum exhibition.)

The view of this book, of course, is unashamedly American (hey, they invented Hollywood, so who can blame them?), but only a few topics and personalities will be unfamiliar to readers in Australia and elsewhere.  With its extraodinary research and archival treasures, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting is a breathtaking and inspiring achievement.  This book does the almost impossible:  it is capable of being assigned as a required text for university courses on Jewish film, of sitting comfortably on film critics’ bookshelves or in the lounge rooms of Jewish households around the world.

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