by Joel Samberg. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000. 224 pp. $22.95
I have a theory about why popcorn is the most popular snack to eat when we go to the movies. We generally see films either before or after having dinner. Following a meal, we like popcorn because it is light and delicious and there always seems to be room in our stomachs for it. If we are going to a restaurant after seeing a movie, the same qualities make popcorn a perfect food to eat if we don't want to spoil our appetite. In either case, the virtue of popcorn is that it is not very filling.
Joel Samberg's book Reel Jewish is a lot like popcorn. It surveys many feature films with Jewish subjects without providing much substantial analysis that might ruin the ending of a particular movie if we haven't seen it yet or help us decipher its various layers of meanings if we have. Instead, Samberg gives us just enough of a plot summary to indicate whether we might enjoy the motion picture and tasty kernels of trivia related to its actors, directors, or production history that might motivate us to view it again.
Samberg develops an interesting way of classifying Jewish movies by their themes. Sometimes, his categories seem right on target: the Jewish musical, family dynamics, comedies, Biblical epics, the Holocaust, antisemitism, and Jewish-Gentile couples. Other times his groupings of movies lack coherence. One chapter entitled "Between Two Worlds" deals with movies about the tension between old world traditionalism and American individualism. Certainly movies like Hester Street, Lies My Father Told Me, and The Chosen portray the struggle between adaptation and resistance to secularism. Yet how does a film like The Pawnbroker depict this dilemma? It clearly is a film about the psychological trauma inflicted on a survivor by the Holocaust. Similarly, Samberg artificially assembles pictures as diverse as Goodbye Columbus, Driving Miss Daisy, Enemies: A Love Story, and The Governess in a chapter about Jews being "in a pickle." In another chapter called "Wandering Jews," he lumps films about traditional Jewish legends like The Goleta and The Dybbuk with tales of post-Shoah consciousness like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Genghis Cohn.
The decision to select certain movies for inclusion in such a book implies the omission of other films. To be sure, any list of the best or worst movies is bound to betray some arbitrariness on the part of the author. This is true for Kathryn Bernheimer's The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies (1998), which Samberg does not even cite in his bibliography. Samberg tends to neglect significant Israeli and Yiddish films. Although he reviews deeply flawed Israeli movies like Menahem Golan's Hanna's War and The Magician of Lublin, he fails to mention Israeli classics like Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, Sallah, I Love You Rosa, and Under the Donim Tree. Samberg exhibits better taste in his brief foray into Yiddish films summarizing the plotlines of The Dybbuk and Tevye der Milkhiker, but the absence of movies like A Brivele der Mamen, Grine Felder, Mirele Efros, and Yidl Mitn Fidl in a book billing itself as a survey of "a century of Jewish movies" is inexplicable. …