Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century

By Peter Y. Medding | Go to book overview
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Making Fragmentation Familiar:
Barry Levinson's Avalon
Stephen J. Whitfield
(brandeis university)

The travail of the Jewish family has rarely been explored in a serious fashion in American film; in recording how succeeding generations felt the pressures of modernity, few movies have been animated either by ethnographic interest or by attentive artistry. That indifference is what makes Barry Levinson's Avalon (1990) so striking—and so worthy of critical and scholarly consideration. No other work is quite so deliberate, indeed self-conscious, in its effort to narrate a representative history, to provide a paradigmatic treatment of the fate of the Jewish family in the United States. This twenty-two million dollar home movie devotes itself with such single-minded concentration to the dynamics of Jewish family life that the treatment of its theme is without Hollywood precedent. Avalon is in a category of its own.

In establishing an archetype of generational transformation and deterioration, this movie shatters the mold within which previous portrayals of the Jewish family were cast. Earlier versions tended to consider how patriarchal authority was asserted and challenged, how it was weakened and forced to yield to the claims of the young. The first talking feature film in history exposed the fault lines between the starchy sobriety of Old World tradition and the emancipated energies of New World individualism, between ascription and autonomy. By foregrounding the effects upon so manifestly a Jewish family, The Jazz Singer (1927) occupies a singular status in mainstream movies. But by tipping the scales so heavily in favor of Jack Robin ( Jakie Rabinowitz), who wants to be a “jazz singer” rather than a cantor, this legendary film is less interested in how such families might be maintained or reconfigured than it is in how to escape from them.

The pattern that the Al Jolson character established in The Jazz Singer was followed by Charlie Davis (John Garfield), who wants to be a prizefighter instead of a storekeeper in Body and Soul (1947), and by Danny Saunders (Robby Benson), who refuses to become a rabbi like his father in The Chosen (1982). Or, in a feminist critique of fin-de-siècle Poland, Yentl (Barbra Streisand) wants to be a scholar instead of a housewife. (Her father is supportive in Yentl [1983]; it is the resistant tradition that is patriarchal. ) As authority is enfeebled, Hollywood commonly shows how tricky it is to form a viable family, portraying young Jews as instinctively making dubious choices in romance or in marriage. This is the theme from Humoresque (1920)


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Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century
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