Skip To Content

Meet America’s Most Outspoken Film Critic — On Elaine May, Steven Spielberg & Yiddishkeit

At 75, one of America’s most influential film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, is being celebrated with a collection of his articles from University of Illinois Press and with a second volume planned for May. His international reputation is based on previous books on political films, the vagaries of film culture, the cinema of Orson Welles, the importance of establishing a canon of outstanding movies and the art of criticism. Before jetting off to a festival in Croatia, Rosenbaum spoke to The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry about Yiddishkeit in film.

Benjamin Ivry: Born into a family of film exhibitors in northwestern Alabama, you state that at age 8, you lost your “religious faith” after seeing “Bird of Paradise,” a Hollywood fantasy in which the tribal chieftain was played by the Yiddish theater star Menasha Skulnik. She translated “arcane pseudo-Polynesian ritual into talmudic threats.” Did the incongruity of seeing a Jewish star in this setting destabilize your faith? How about when Edward G. Robinson appeared in “The Ten Commandments”?

Jonathan Rosenbaum: I didn’t perceive Robinson as Jewish. And I perpetuated a misremembered fact in my book “Moving Places”; the Yiddish actor in Bird of Paradise is Maurice Schwartz, not Menasha Skulnik. At that age I didn’t even perceive [Schwartz] as Jewish, at least not consciously.

As a boy, you listened as your father read aloud stories by Arthur Kober, written in a Bronx Yiddish-American dialect, and Octavus Roy Cohen, a South Carolina-born Jewish author. Were these writers examples of displacement, like your family in the South, showing that accomplishment was possible for Jews?

Most of the Jews in my community were well-to-do, so yes. There were a few working-class Jews, but not many. The working-class Jews were the ones who experienced anti-Semitism. I didn’t. My grandfather was a great philanthropist who gave money to establish a local library and build a Presbyterian Church, so he was very much revered in the community. Because of that, I was protected.

You were impressed by “Skipalong Rosenbloom” (1951), a comedy that spoofed the notion of Jews out West. Did your appreciation relate to your family’s experience down South?

Well, of course the name Rosenbloom being like Rosenbaum drew me. I have lost my Southern accent, but I can sort of put it on when reciting Hebrew, possibly as a recollection of my bar mitzvah.

As an adult filmgoer, you dismissed Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as a “feel-good Holocaust movie,” yet you confessed that you “blubb er[ed] helplessly” when you saw it and that you feel “gratitude and respect” for the film.

Well, I think [that was] because both things were affecting me at the same time. Spielberg knows how to push buttons, but at the same time my mind tells me it is a somewhat dishonest portrayal of the subject compared to Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” for example, which is far more profound. But “Shoah” does not make me weep; it makes me think.

You have praised Elaine May, comparing her with Erich von Stroheim for her “Jewish baroque” style. You even admire May’s much derided “Ishtar” as a movie “about the idiocy of America blundering its way through the Third World, and about the conflation of show business with foreign policy….” That does seem apposite today.

Yes, and I should also add that, before Christmas, I flew all the way to New York to see [May] in “Waverly Gallery” on Broadway and was amazed by her performance and her bravery at playing a woman who is losing her memory and becoming senile. It was as if she confronted her worst fear, asking herself what terrified her the most, and decided to do it seven times a week on Broadway.

The Belgian Jewish filmmaker [Chantal Akerman,[( has won your praise, including her collaboration with Samy Szlingerbaum (1949–1986), whose “Brussels Transit” recounted the arrival of his Yiddish-speaking parents in Belgium in 1947. How about those who feel that Akerman’s late work was “slow and boring”?

I don’t mind slowness myself. I think people who object to slowness go to films to basically forget their lives. Chantal Akerman wanted to savor her life. My favorite filmmakers give you time to think, like Carl Dreyer’s work, too. For me, most commercial films today are far too fast.

You have noted that the messages in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Barton Fink” are “cynical, reactionary, and/or banal to the point of stupidity.”

I also have to say that my favorite Coen brothers film is “A Serious Man,” which is also full of ridicule of serious [Jewish] traits, so I don’t wholly reject that aspect. But I do reject their politics. The audience is always encouraged to think that they’re smarter than the people on the screen. Their films are very defeatist, suggesting that we cannot escape corruption, which is always around us. I don’t think that has any dignity at all.

You have promoted the Philadelphia-born film critic of Russian-Jewish origin, Harry Alan Potamkin (1900–1933). What does Potamkin have to say to filmgoers today?

He was an internationalist, as I am, and I think it is one of the most important things about him, not just seeing things strictly as an American. His negative review of “Shanghai Express” is extremely biting. He sees it as a fascist film. Although I like “Shanghai Express,” there is something interesting about his point of view.

Describing your interactions with the American Jewish critic and artist Manny Farber, you refer to him as “oscillat[ing] regularly and without warning between father, friend, and competitive Jewish sibling… [in a] male Jewish sibling rivalry.” How was it specifically Jewish?

Well, all I can say is that Manny grew up with brothers and I grew up with brothers, and there is a certain undertone in his writings that he was often in [fraternal] competition. The paradigm of competing for the attention of the father is not specifically Jewish but has a lot of links to what I see as Jewish patriarchal attitudes. And Manny was of course very much [estranged] from his Jewish origins. The fact that he was named Emmanuel almost embarrassed him. He had a lot of trouble with [my memoir] “Moving Places” for that reason. He told me that he’s been “in flight from all that Jewish stuff” for his whole life.

In your latest collection, you discuss how the American Jewish director Samuel Fuller struggled to convey his combat experiences in World War II in his films. Was Mel Brooks another Jewish director trying to interpret his combat experiences in “The Producers”?

They are both working-class Jews. One of the things most telling for me is that although Fuller is not often described as a Jewish director, his sensitivity to racism must reflect what he must have faced in the newspaper world and the armed services. Fuller once told me that his mother was half-Irish, which was not true, but must have been because she liked to drink Irish whiskey.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.