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Contemplating a Canon of Jewish American Movies


“Liberty Heights,” set a short time later, looks at one other Jewish family, the Kurtzmans, but is less insular. It occasionally, clumsily, explores a budding romance between their teenage son (Ben Foster) and a Black classmate (Rebekah Johnson) at his newly integrated school, unpacking the several variations of discrimination they encounter and the intolerance of their families.

The Coen brothers, true to form, go in a more philosophical direction, with their apocalyptic story of a Jewish professor in Minnesota, “A Serious Man” (2009). Opening with an anecdotal sequence featuring an evil spirit often called a dybbuk, the Coens couch their story — the existential quest of a schmuck (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife wants a ritual divorce often called a “get” — in folklore, though it’s set in 1967, uniting Jewish spirituality with a darkly comic take a look at Jewish existence in Middle America.

As for Gray and Spielberg, this isn’t the primary time either director has made a movie about Jews before. But their latest dramas examine their very own Jewish upbringings, even casting versions of themselves. To Goldman, it’s an indication of the times. “I feel what you’re seeing is the change that we’ve been feeling since I might say 2015 and the sense of vulnerability that I might posit most American Jews didn’t feel prior to that,” he said in an interview. “I feel that’s had an incredible impact by way of forcing artists typically, but filmmakers to take a look at themselves inside a broad American society.”

In presenting similar-looking families a few generation apart, the 2 movies come to wildly different conclusions. Gray, an inherently more pessimistic filmmaker, indicts himself, viewing his nascent adolescence through the prism of a friendship between his stand-in, Paul (Banks Repeta), and a Black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb).

Spielberg’s response to the antisemitism he encountered in his youth is messy but ultimately more hopeful. A teenage Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) encounters bullies, but armed with a camera at Senior Ditch Day, he paints one among them as an Aryan dreamboat, a golden god. The jock is shaken. He doesn’t understand why Sam would try this, and Sam’s not so sure either, but Spielberg recognizes the ability a camera has to alter hearts with imagery.

Throughout his profession Spielberg has constructed images which are synonymous with Americana — from Indiana Jones to suburban kids on bikes in “E.T.” In “The Fabelmans” he uses a few of those self same tricks. However the Fabelmans aren’t like every other all-American family. Their home is the one dark one on the block in Latest Jersey at Christmas time.

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