ollywood —After years of trying
to pass for white bread, Holly-
wood's Jews were suddenly serv-
ing up rye.
Prominent Jewish figures in
film and television seem to be taking their
heritage more seriously. They are talking up
their Jewishness, signing up for Talmud
study classes, becoming more active on
behalf of United Jewish Appeal, and joining
In a land of make-believe, though, is this
reawakening to Jewishness for real? Is
there "anything" real about Hollywood?
Yes, said Dr. Eric A. Goldman, film
maker and authority on Jewish media.
"There is no perceived need in Hollywood
to hide one's Jewishness any more, like
there had been in the '30s," he said.
"In the old days, Jewish moguls tried to
escape their Jewishness. They were 'acci-
dental Jews,' because there was a disadvan-
tage at that time to be Jewish."
"The moguls wanted to be assimilated
into what they saw as the American ideal,"
said Stephen Farber, author of Hollywood
Dynasties. They wanted to obliterate their
Jewish roots; they wanted to become in-
distinguishable from others."
Now, it is okay, even "in," to be Jewish.
But at least one rabbi who has taught
Jewish classes attended by several stars
says the notion that Jews in Hollywood are
taking their religion m ore seriously is
"That idea is completely out of propor-
tion to reality," said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-
Feller, director of the Bnai Brith Hillel
Foundation at the UCLA in Los Angeles.
"Because Jews in this country are so weak,
they need to believe that their stars, their
heroes, are Jewish. Somehow they think
that augments their own Jewishness.
"That," said Seidler-Feller, "is a commen-
tary about the sad state of Judaism in
What is clear is that the Jewish persona
as filtered through Hollywood has made it
to both the big and little screens. Jewish
characters figure prominently this year in
"thirtysomething," "A Year in the Life,"
"Frank's Place," "L.A. Law," "St.
Elsewhere" and "Cagney and Lacey,"
among other series.
Such popularity is apparently an indica-
tion that Hollywood executives, more com-
fortable with their own Jewishness, are
more at ease showing off their heritage to
Nowhere was this more clearly obvious
than with Barbra Streisand, who brought
"Yentl" to the screen in 1983, culminating
a 15-year battle with Hollywood over get-
Richard Dreyfuss takes a Talmud class,
Cybill Shepherd plans to convert. Some
say it's part of a new trend, that Jewish
identity is more popular among celebrities.
Others call it wishful thinking.
Special to The Jewish News
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 18, 1987
ting the project about a young woman pos-
ing as a yeshiva "bocher" (student) to the
Serving as producer, director, co-writer
and star, Streisand fought to finish the
film. She studied Ibrah, sought script
advice from scholars and worked . in-
cessantly getting the movie done.
"While I was attempting to get this proj-
ect off the ground, there were people who
thought I was getting in over my head,"
recalled Streisand. "They would say, 'Strei-
sand should sing and act, but nothing
more,' or 'Streisand should act and pro-
duce, but never direct.' "
It is one thing for people to like people,
another to listen to them. The film
represented a homage to heritage for Strei-
sand, as well as a bow to the father she did
not know. Streisand's dad, Emanuel, died
when she was 15 months old.
"I dedicated this film to my father, who
was also a teacher and a scholar. I suppose
this film gave me the chance to have the
father I had only imagined."
It also gave her the opportunity to ex-
plore her Jewishness and Jewish life. Did
she take full advantage of the opportunity?
"Barbra may not like me saying this,"
said Nehemia Persoff, who portrayed
Yentl's father, Reb Mendel, in the movie,
"but I think the film is probably not the
one she had in mind. She realized she had
to make a popular film — which meant
sacrificing items of Jewish interest."
Yet the film's Jewish elements that sur-
vived the cutting-room floor did not scare
off the audience. "Yentl" played Peoria —
and Baltimore and numerous other sites,
earning a profit. It was an important pic-
ture for Streisand.
She is not the only megastar in recent
years to use film as a frame of reference for
the past. Steven Spielberg took the topic
by the tail in his animated "An American
Tail," released last year. The film followed
the travails of young Fievel Mousekowitz
and the rest of his family as they escaped
the pogroms of Cossack cats in homeland
Spielberg acknowledged that "Tail" was
created in homage to his own grandfather
and the era he represented. In a career
"oeuvre" dealing commercially with
mysticism and extraordinary extrater-
restial concerns of life and faith ("Close En-
counters of the Third Kind," "E.T."), "An
American Tail" is the only work that
stresses the film maker's interest in his
But a Hollywood mogul or star does not
have to produce or appear in a movie to
demonstrate his concern for his heritage.