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Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction

     Actress Susan Strasberg, who died recently of breast cancer at age 60, could have been far more famous than she was, if she'd been allowed to reprise her triumphant Anne of the Broadway The Diary of Anne Frank for the 1959 screen version. Instead, Hollywood bypassed the obviously Jewish Strasberg and opted for a dark-haired shiksa, Millie Perkins, to portray the Dutch-Jewish Holocaust victim. Such going-against-religion casting happened routinely in the studio era. Jewish thespians such as Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Melvyn Douglas, Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Paulette Goddard never played ethnic roles; and virtually all Jewish parts were handled by Christians.
Blame the studio heads, mostly first-generation American Jews determined to assimilate.

     "Some Jewish actors were considered 'too Jewish,'" explains Sylvia Barack Fishman. A Brandeis professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and author of Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction, Fishman will be leading discussions at the Coolidge Corner on the topic of Exploring Jews in American Cinema. The first two films which Fishman is screening, Marjorie Morningstar (1958) oand Goodbye Columbus (1969), feature non-Jews, the upturned-nose Natalie Wood and the preppy Ali McGraw, in the Jewish female leads.

     Fishman is surprisingly forgiving of such castings, if they are screen-effective. "Anne Bancroft, who makes a career playing Jews, is fabulous. What difference does it make? Valerie Harper playing Rhoda on TV was also fabulous. I wish more that there were interesting roles for all women in cinema, also, of course, for Jewish women."

     Fishman's concern is discovering stereotypical depiction of Jewish behavior, and unearthing the pivotal films which established the stereotypes. Analyzing movies semiotically, she isolates the "signifying Jew," the character whose voice, dress, speech stands for "Jewishness." Her research begins with the 1927 Al Jolson pioneering sound vehicle, The Jazz Singer, with its bushy-bearded Orthodox-religious, cantor father who, says Fishman, "has his face turned backward to the past, and is shown negatively as not understanding American opportunity." Much. much later, there's Goodbye Columbus.

     The movie follows Phillip Roth's (sexist?) 1959 novella in watching its sensitive, lower middle-call male protagonist, Neil (Richard Benjamin) get enmeshed in his girlfriend Brenda Patimkin's crass nouveau-riche suburban world."There's a savage depiction of stereotypes in the Patimkin family," says Fishman. "The father is a vulgar, gross entrepeneur. Mother is bitter, brittle, angry, and she is in competition with her spoiled daughter. Materialism is what defines Jewish life. Men have to have 'goniff' in them. Women are mean, extremely competitive." And when Neal walks away at the end, disgusted with the whole Patimkin brood? "You understand why no one would be involved with anyone like them."

     Some Jews regard Roth's book, and the movie too, as self-hating pictures of Jewish life, giving a bad picture for the goyem to see. Fishman says, "I'm probably the world's greatest fan of Phillip Roth. I teach a whole course on him. What he wrote about the Potimkins were fresh insights at the time. He got it just right, which is why people were both furious and impressed. But Roth has moved on. Some of his recent novels are profound, and he's in a totally different place."

     Marjorie Morningstar, the 1958 film which begins the series, was taken from Herman Wouk's best-selling novel, which sold an amazing four-and-a-half-million copies. Natalie Wood is so lovely that--what can I say?-- she is roundly forgiven for not really being the Jewish princess, whom she plays. Marjorie Morgenstern, pushed by her mother for a bourgeois life, finds her destiny threatened when she falls in love with a girl-crazy older playwright (Gene Kelly). They battle for her virginity while he, insecurely, tries to write plays. The movie dilemma for Marjorie is a compelling one, deciding between middle-class security and being the enabler muse of a faltering male artist. Or is there a third, better way? Marjorie Morningstar broke 1950s studio taboos by showing the Morgensterns celebrating both a Bar Mitzvah and a Seder.

     I'd also like to recommend the showing of Claudia Weill's incandescent Girlfriends (1978), a pre-Sundance indie that, twenty years after, is completely fresh and up-to-date. This gentle comedy has big-city female roommates, one Jewish (Melanie Mayron), one Wasp (Anita Skinner), whose friendship teeters when the impulsive blonde marries (Bob Baliban, deliciously dry as an early Yuppie) and moves out. The movie stays with the big-haired, bespectacled, slightly chubby Mayron, who looks for repectability as a photographer, and who's a semi-lost soul in the most endearing way. And she's comfortably Jewish, a Jew playing a Jew. Girlfriends' almost transgressive moment is when early-20s Mayron plants a sexual kiss on the mouth of a middle-aged man whom she's suddenly finding attractive: a rabbi.

(Boston Phoenix, January, 1999)


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