American Jewish Films: The Search for Jewish Identity. By Lawrence J. Epstein. Jefferson, Texas: McFarland, 2013. 214 pp
The American Jewish Story Through Cinema. By Eric A. Goldman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 254 pp.
Just as the villain frequently provides more entertainment value for audiences than the good guy, problematic books often offer more grist for critical analysis than unassailable ones. Such a dichotomy separates the two studies of Jewish representation in American cinema on review here. To be fair, both the "villain," in this case Lawrence J. Epstein's American Jewish Films: The Search for Jewish Identity, and the "good guy," Eric A. Goldman's The American Jewish Story Through Cinema, had their work cut out for them. The authors faced two major challenges. First, how, without sounding like an echo chamber, to build on the definitive surveys of American Jewish filmic representation through the mid-1980s: Patricia Erens's The Jew in American Cinema (1984) and Lester Friedman's The Jewish Image in American Film (1987). Second, how to distinguish their efforts from a flurry of recent attempts to update Erens's and Friedman's classics, including two authored books: Nathan Abrams's The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (2012) and Omer Bartov's The "Jew" in Cinema: From 'The Golem' to 'Don't Touch My Holocaust' (2005); and two anthologies: Lawrence Baron's The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (2012) and Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson's Hollywood's Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema (2013). I myself shelved a like-themed project due to the mounting glut.
Both Epstein and Goldman overcame the first obstacle, Epstein via a thesis-driven tack (the subtitle's "search for Jewish identity") and Goldman via a case-study approach (nine films in all). Only Goldman, however, managed to add to the better of the post-Erens/Friedman contingent another book that enriches our understanding of Jewishness in American cinema. Goldman's work shines for several reasons. Beyond the technical command--solid writing and research, perceptive textual and formal analysis--the book deftly integrates historical context with production and reception studies (partly gleaned from personal interviews with the filmmakers) to sensitively chart the shifting sands and precarious shoals of Jewish cinematic identity. Epstein's effort falters by comparison with Goldman's (not to...