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In 1913, a rabbi appeared on film for the very first time — in a Christmas movie

As the winter winds whipped through lower Manhattan in the days before Christmas in 1913, a group of rabbis took shelter in a screening room to watch a film that claimed to be about them.

It was the first American movie to feature a rabbi as a character. Shortly after the screening, a report from Moving Picture World noted that the rabbis, gathered to evaluate the picture, “were pleased with the story, with its treatment and with the fidelity with which the producers had followed Jewish ceremonies and customs, but were inclined to look with disfavor on the title.”

The film was called “The Jew’s Christmas.”

The three-reel picture was written by Lois Weber and co-directed by Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley — both of whom were Christian.

It’s easy to see why the rabbinical test audience wasn’t thrilled with the title. Even the chosen article —“The” instead of “A” — is uncomfortably definitive, almost exoticizing, seeming to put the film forward as a documentary look at what Jews do during Yuletide.

But while the rabbis didn’t appear to object to the film’s conceit, it’s just as troubling as the title, playing into the time-worn prejudice that suggests Jews are bigoted toward Christians and stubbornly resistant to assimilation, choosing instead to adhere to the antique laws of their faith. It’s a theme that Weber kept going — in a more vengeful fashion — with her next project, “The Merchant of Venice,” her first feature and the first American feature film directed by a woman.

Some in the press were aware of the film’s willingness to play into these harmful tropes. George Blaisdell’s glowing review of “The Jew’s Christmas” in Motion Picture World conceded that “if in this picture there be offense it should not be for the Christian. Undoubtedly there will be Jews who look upon it with coldness, and some with reprobation.”

The details we know of the film come from contemporary coverage and a detailed fiction adaptation of made for a fan publication. Those specifics are cartoonish in their early 20th-century sensibility, but still deeply offensive.

In the film, Smalley plays Rabbi Isaac, billed in promotional materials as “the ancient Jew… narrow as to customs, strict disciplinarian in his home” but “lovable and kind to strangers.” Isaac’s daughter, Leah, played by Weber, incites his rage when she falls in love with one Rupert Julian, a non-Jewish floorwalker at the store where she works.

When Isaac learns that the lovers have married in secret, he orders Leah from his house and, according to John Olden’s 1914 novelization in Motion Picture Story Magazine, shouts, “May the God of our fathers curse you and your Gentile husband… May you be cast out from our faith and spurned in our synagogues! May the dogs of Gentiles spit upon you as they have done these many years! Now begone!… you are none of my blood.”

Leah faints as Isaac curses her and her new husband.

Leah faints as Isaac curses her and her new husband. Image by Courtesy of the collection of Shelley Stamp

Later, Isaac also ousts his son, Samuel, when he shows up drunk for the Sabbath after attending a wedding. Sloshed, Sam tells his father, “When you come to life and keep the Christian Christmas — I’ll come back.” Earlier the two had quarreled because Sam wanted to work on the Sabbath, an intergenerational tension no doubt present in the newly-arrived immigrant community. Isaac claims that non-Jews in America are taking “the young of our race” from them.

The domineering patriarch that Isaac embodies is a common figure in Weber’s films, said Shelley Stamp, author of “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood” (2015) and a film professor at UC Santa Cruz. This particular film, Weber’s first three-reel picture — a 30 minute affair when, at the time, one- and two-reel pictures running 10 and 20 minutes were the norm — is also in keeping with the auteur’s interest in religious and social issues.

But while the film addressed religious intolerance Jews might direct at Christians, its plot betrays a more significant pattern of intolerance faced by Jews: namely, the pressure to assimilate and become fully Americanized.

Isaac’s redemption comes when he observes his first Christmas. Only then is he reunited with his family, who have all but abandoned orthodox Jewish traditions in pursuit of love and money.

The film treats this departure as a good thing. But beyond that, it depicts orthodoxy as toxic to a younger generation. The rabbi is painted as an unkind, small-minded father for not allowing his children to integrate into the mainstream of American life, and the story’s outcome suggests that he must do the work of accommodating his son and daughter by moving away from the strictures of his faith. Seeking Leah’s hand, Rupert wonders, according to the film’s prose adaptation, “Could he ever hope to stand against this age-old strength of racial hatred, typified, it seemed to him, in Leah’s father?”

“It’s a film about religious intolerance, but the prejudice of the rabbi is central,” Stamp said. “It’s not a film about anti-Semitism, it’s a film about how the rabbi has to recognize the kindness of non-Jews — not the other way around. He must accept their traditions of Christmas.”

Surviving accounts of the film suggest that its plot never truly addresses the racial hatred faced by Jews.

The direction of the film’s sympathies is made even more clear by the fact that Rupert is the character in it who suffers most in the world, losing his legs in a trolley accident. It’s implied that Isaac, in shunning his daughter and son-in-law — and their daughter, Eleanor — has contributed to their sad fate. If he were a part of their lives, he might have provided some measure of hope and help.

Leah arrives at the bedside of her husband, Rupert, who lost his legs in a trolley accident.

Leah arrives at the bedside of her husband, Rupert, who lost his legs in a trolley accident. Image by Courtesy of the collection of Shelley Stamp

After Rupert’s accident, the couple are forced into a life of poverty selling artificial flowers. Their choice of abode just so happens to be the tenement unit above Leah’s father’s. (Somehow, in a twist that only tracks with melodramatic logic, Isaac and his wife, Rachel, are unaware that their daughter has become their upstairs neighbor.)

Years later, Isaac develops a tender relationship with Eleanor, not realizing that she is his granddaughter. Near Christmas, the little girl, whose family doesn’t have the means for a conventional celebration of the holiday, asks the rabbi why she doesn’t have a Christmas tree like other children. The question gives Isaac an opportunity to break with his rigid customs out of charity for an innocent.

“This child was a Gentile, but, after all, perhaps Gentiles did have feelings — especially Gentile children — most especially this Gentile child,” Isaac thinks in the novelization. “And the God of his fathers would not hold it against him that he brought the gladness of a child heart among his offerings to the High Seat of Mercy.”

Moved by her sadness, Isaac sells one of his books to pay for her tree — it’s implied that it’s a religious book, and therefore a swap that comes with a loaded significance — and is reunited with Leah, who he learns is the child’s mother. Sam, true to his word and flush with cash from his successful (and likely Sabbath-breaking) business, returns with an armful of gifts on the occasion of his father’s first Christmas.

Lois Weber (L) and Phillips Smalley (C) in “The Jew’s Christmas.” Image by Courtesy of the Collection of Shelley Stamp

“The appeal in the eyes of all his family, now for the first time in a dozen years about him, is too strong,” said the write-up in Moving Picture World, describing the rabbi’s reaction to his first Christmas. “The tie of blood overbears the pride and prejudice of religion.”

The film appears to claim that the fix for this religious prejudice is the melting pot, and specifically intermarriage. But in that stew of mixing traditions, the orthodoxy of Isaac isn’t diluted in the name of secularism — it’s watered down in the name of assimilating into a dominantly Christian nation.

“I think what Weber thought is that it would work both ways, that it was a message of assimilation for Jews and maybe other immigrant families as well,” Stamp said. “But I think she imagined that it would also be a message about accepting other people and other faiths.”

The film’s audience, Stamp believes, given its marketing as a Christmas picture, was likely not Jewish. (An advertisement in Universal Weekly claimed, rather dubiously, that the film was “of equal interest to Jew and Gentile” and a “picture to foster a broader religion.”) While the movie’s target audience makes a certain demographic sense, it adds another troubling layer to the story. This was to be the first onscreen encounter Americans would have with a rabbi, and that rabbi was shown hating Christians and having to learn to accept his newly-Christianized family — not exactly the best first impression, or one that was likely to boost tolerance for the nation’s Jews.

There are hints as to why Weber and her husband chose a Jewish subject. Weber, who had an Evangelical background and was a Church Army worker before pursuing film, viewed her movies as a kind of pulpit from which she could spread a social message, referring to her films alternately as “sermons” and “newspaper editorials.”

But it’s also possible that Weber made the film, her longest to that point, as a proof of concept for “The Merchant of Venice.”

“She’s likely making or thinking about both films at the same time,” Stamp said. “She’s thinking about Jewish figures in society and in literature. I don’t think it’s an accident.”

Interestingly, the man who gave the green light for both films was Universal Pictures president Carl Laemmle, who was Jewish. Moving Picture World reported that Laemmle wanted Smalley to play Shylock after seeing his performance as the rabbi in “The Jew’s Christmas.”

Laemmle, Stamp believes, was perhaps the most significant Jewish person in Weber’s life, serving as a mentor and supporter of her work and even giving her a plum distribution deal when she left to form her own studio in 1917.

In subsequent years, Weber made a series of other social films that were controversial for their time and almost unthinkable in the mainstream of today, including 1916’s “Where Are My Children?”, which depicts abortion as a frivolous recourse for wealthy women who can’t be bothered to manage a social calendar and a child. Weber also went after Christians who attend church but neglect the gospel in 1915’s “Hypocrites,” which was also notable for including full-frontal nudity that prompted riots and censorship.

While viewers today would likely look on “The Jew’s Christmas“ as a flawed artifact from a less-enlightened time, it did mark a significant milestone in representation. With it, Weber gave American cinema its first rabbi, as well as an interfaith marriage that survives adversity. The film even gave non-Jewish moviegoers moments of fairly accurate insight into Jewish ritual.

Still, Stamp laments, the film was two steps forward and one step back.

“It’s wrapped up in the anti-Semitism of the time,” she said, “but that’s not a full excuse.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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