Lawrence Epstein's new book, "American Jewish Films: The Search For Identity," assesses American cinema's presentation of Jewish people via Jewish filmmakers. Discussing Jewish-themed films from the 1920s into the current century, Epstein looks at humor, the search for identity, anti-semitism, and criminality, among his subjects. Perhaps the most interesting essays deal with the "invisible Jew," examining affiliation in movies from The Marx Brothers, to Mel Brooks, to Woody Allen.
Epstein's approach utilizes several different perspectives. His chapters do not examine the films chronologically, but he does offer a chronological list of films in the books appendix, realizing the historical evolution of cinema is significant to his study. He has a chapter dealing with Jewish history early in the book ("The Past is Prologue"). Epstein also covers the different levels of Jewish entertainment staples within the context of cinema. In this case, the chapter discussing the Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills, where several Jewish comedians got their start on stage, many of whom migrated to films. While Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984) is discussed here, Billy Crystal's "Mr. Saturday Night," is curiously absent.
The significance of the American Jewish culture in cinema is enormous. Jewish people were not only attracted to movies and performers and craftsmen, but also as businessmen. Many of the great studio moguls (Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, et. al.) were Jewish. When Epstein utilizes his thematic approach, it allows us to understand how the impact of the American's Jewish culture's perspective has enhanced some of the most significant Hollywood movies.
Epstein seems most comfortable discussing comedy and comedians, his previous studies having discussed the impact Jewish humor has had on American entertainment. But his entire study is intelligent, informative, enlightening, and entertaining. Perhaps its only real drawback is its limited photo illustrations. But the text is invaluable for libraries and study centers. "American Jewish Films: The Search For Identity" is an outstanding achievement about a very significant area of cinema and of American culture.