The Jews Who Built Hollywood

Want to understand why some people say that Jews run Hollywood? When you look into the history of the silver screen you’ll learn that, in fact, many Jews were involved in starting major film studios including MGM, Universal and Paramount. Today these companies are owned by huge and diverse corporations. The history of why Jews were involved in Hollywood’s humble beginnings starts with Vaudeville and the garment industry.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What was the first ever spoken word film?
    • The Jazz Singer
    • The Wizard of Oz
    • Gone with the Wind
    • Frankenstein
  2. Which one of these Hollywood producers changed his name to Samuel Goldwyn in order to better fit in with American society?
    • Carl Laemmle
    • Adolph Zukor
    • Jesse Lasky
    • Shmuel Glebfisz
  3. Which of the following Hollywood actors is NOT Jewish?
    • Daniel Radcliffe
    • Rashida Jones
    • Tom Hanks
    • Ashley Tisdale
  4. What is the highest grossing film ever created?
    • Avatar
    • Avengers
    • Titanic
    • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Name the film initiated by former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that relied heavily on Jewish biblical scholars to ensure its accuracy?
    • The Ten Commandments
    • The Prince of Egypt
    • Ben Hur
    • Exodus, Gods and Kings
  1. In what way have Jewish producers used film to promote inclusivity and tolerance of difference to wider American society?
  2. The metaphor of the United States as a “melting pot” first gained prominence during the wave of European migration from the 1880s to 1910s. A simplistic assumption of the “melting pot” asserts that all American immigrants become the same, while a more nuanced understanding sees American diversity affecting everyone differently. It was a Jewish playwright, Israel Zangwill, who popularized the metaphor of the “melting pot,” evoking the image of the crucible of America’s great steel industry. His play, The Melting Pot, which opened in Washington D.C. in 1908, explores the intersection of Jewish identity and American identity. While some view the melting pot idea as being the key to the Golden Age of Jewry in the U.S. over the past century, others see America’s liberalism as an open threat to the Jewish way of life that leads many to assimilation. How do you view the openness of America to different cultures and beliefs? Is it a blessing or a curse?
  3. Beyond the Jewish experience, how did the great melting pot idea come to define 20th century America for better or for worse?
  4. Why did Jews want to blur the hyphen between Jewish and American by telling universal stories about love of family, community, fairness and standing up to bullies? What was it about their historical experience as immigrants (most from the Pale of Settlement) that made them so desperate to fit in?
  5. Why do you think many Jewish-American producers changed their names to sound more American? Do you know anyone in your family tree who did the same?
  1. What inspired so many Jews to join the early film industry in Hollywood?
    Choose one of these early film producers and give a two-minute speech about an aspect of their life story that led them to be a part of the U.S. film industry

  2. Do Jews run Hollywood?

    American Film critic Neal Gabler explains that “the Hollywood Jews, seeking acceptance, respectability and assimilation, saw the medium of film not as a quick way to make a dollar, but as an art form. Through their movies, the Jewish patriarchs painted an idealized portrait of an American society to which they were paradoxically denied access. They could invest themselves, and they could raise their status.”

    They had a hunger for assimilation and, in the face of resistance and exclusion, “the Jews could simply create a new country–an empire of their own, so to speak . . . an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent. He concludes by writing, “The 20th-Century American Dream was to a considerable degree depicted and defined by Hollywood.”

    Choose one film or TV show you have recently seen that has Jewish characters and create a YouTube clip with a review exploring how the creation may help shape the way Jews are perceived and understood in your country.

  3. If the founder of Universal Studios is recalled at all it’s usually as the Hollywood pioneer behind classics like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). But Carl Laemmle’s legacy must also be remembered for his courageous efforts from 1932 until his death in 1939 saving German Jews from the Nazis by bringing them to America, often at his own expense.

    Comparing the German-born mogul to two heroic men who saved thousands of Jews from Nazis, Brandeis professor Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, says that in America, Laemmle was the “closest thing to an Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg.”

    Laemmle courageously assisted about 300 families—well over a thousand people—many of whom got jobs at Universal to satisfy U.S. authorities. Even during the Depression, he never fired any of them, inspiring poet Ogden Nash to quip, “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large femmle.”

    Read this review about Carl Laemelle’s life and write a thank you letter to him acknowledging the good he did for the Jewish people through his films and actions during the war.

  4. Play our Kahoot about the Jews and Hollywood!

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