Film critic examines the history of Jewish immigration in movies

Author and film critic Dr. Lawrence Baron spoke to CSUN students about Jewish immigration experiences in the U.S.

Baron dived right into his talk which he  titled “The Jewish Immigrant in World Cinema.” He began with a poll by the Pew Forum which revealed that one out of every four Jewish people living within the U.S. today immigrated here from somewhere else.

Baron is the author of “The Wandering View: Modern Jewish Experiences in World Cinema” and “Projecting the Holocaust Into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema.” He formerly served as the Nasatir chair of modern Jewish history at San Diego State University.

The most common experience in the common era among Jews is immigration, according to Baron. In the 1880s, at the time of the Russian Jewish great migration to the United States, two-thirds of the world’s Jews lived in Russia and Poland.

Today, Israel and the United States account for the majority of the world’s Jewish population, followed by France, Canada, England, Russia, and Argentina, which is home to the largest Latin American Jewish population, Baron said.

Many of the Jewish films produced in the early 20th century emphasized the hardships Jews faced after immigrating to the United States., Baron said. These films focused on the poverty faced by Jews and usually portrayed the respected father figure as the breadwinner in his home country who now, as an immigrant to the United States, finds himself “useless,” Baron said.

Among these films is the 1923 silent film “The Wandering Jew,” which stars Rosa Rosanova, as well as the 1922 U.S. film “Hungry Hearts” and “The Jazz Singer” (1927), and the 2008 French film “Live and Become,” directed by Radu Mih?ileanu.

“Hungry Hearts” is based on the short stories of Anzia Yezierska, who is considered the first author to bring stories of Jewish women into the mainstream. The film tells of the difficulties a father faces as he immigrated to New York with his family.

Other films, like 1932’s “Uncle Moses” details the harsh labor practices encountered by Jews.

Jewish films in the past — including films made about other ethnic groups as Arabs, Mexicans and Chinese — share a common thread in that many shed a spotlight on issues about immigration and poverty more so than culture itself. Films made today focus more on culture, Baron said.

Many of today’s Jewish films that focus on culture are “not that exciting,” according to Baron. The most exciting Jewish film to come out of Hollywood is the 2008 Dennis Dugan-directed slapstick comedy “Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” starring Adam Sandler, Baron said with a chuckle. The film was about a former Israeli commando who becomes a hairstylist in New York.

“Any movie about the past is about the present,” Baron said. “Even today, Israel and France are dealing with issues about multiculturalism.”

Many old Jewish films can be found on Amazon, NetFlix, and the Ebay-owned site HALF.com, Baron said.