The JLC Goes Hollywood:
Life and Work in an Image Factory
by Kenneth C. Burt
Maybe it should not be a surprise that the industry that creates larger-than-life images continues to capture our collective imagination. Hollywood is a business like no other in America. It predominately entertains, but has the power to inform. For many Jews, the movie and television industry has been a source of employment and an outlet for creative talent, with jobs as diverse as actor, carpenter, grip, musician, and writer.
Hollywood, like the JLC, traces its roots to New York's Lower East Side. As Yiddish Theater began to give way to the movies one hundred years ago, the Jewish Daily Forward reported that the nickelodeons were full, and a disproportionate number of New York's movie houses were located in Jewish neighborhoods.
"The 'old neighborhood' was the legendary locus of the great Jewish migration out of Eastern Europe — and the cradle of the movie industry as well," reported J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, in Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (2003).
"The origins of Hollywood were to be found in the new, substantially immigrant mass market audience, and its founding fathers among the entrepreneurs of New York's preeminent pre-World War I Jewish neighborhood, including garment merchants turned exhibitors as Marcus Loew, Adolf Zukor, and William Fox."
William Fox, like many in Hollywood, had an Anglicized name. Born Wilhelm Fuchs in Austria-Hungary in 1879, he came to New York as an infant and left school at age eleven. He used funds from the garment industry to buy a nickelodeon, which produced enough revenue for Fox to buy into the nascent movie business. Fox's first big hit was a silent film, Fool There Was (1915). Fox played a major role in introducing new technology into the industry that layered sound on image. Today, few recognize that Fox Broadcasting, whose cable news relishes in bashing liberal Jews in Hollywood, bears the name of this Jewish garment worker-turned-studio head.
Over the last one hundred years, Hollywood produced iconoclastic figures like actor Groucho Marx and director Steven Spielberg. It has made a number of movies that reflected anti-Nazi, pro-Israel, and pro-labor sympathies, as well as sentimental themes of Jewish life in a bygone era.
Hollywood produced a number of films critical of Nazi Germany and supportive of the U.S.'s effort during World War II. These include Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940), the pre-Pearl Harbor film poking fun at the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler, and the anti-fascist romance, Casablanca (1942). John Howard Lawson produced a trilogy, Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Sahara (1943), and Counterattack (1945).
The post-World War II struggle to create a Jewish homeland and the birth of the State of Israel led to a number of films, including Sword in the Dessert (1949) and The Juggler (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor who finds his way to Israel. Following the phenomenal success of the novel, The Exodus, in 1958, a film by the same title was released two years later staring Paul Newman.
While class is largely absent from the silver screen, Jews have helped make a number of films with a labor theme, often as writers and directors, and at times as actors. For example, the Oscar Award-winning film Norma Rae (1979), starring Sally Field and Ron Leibman, who played the role of a New York Jewish unionist sent to the U.S. South to organize textile workers. The writers included Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch. Two years earlier, Jim Klein directed the documentary Union Maids.
During this period, Hollywood produced two sentimental views of pre-immigrant Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem and adapted from the long running Broadway play, premiered in 1971. In 1983, Barbara Streisand directed and starred in Yentil, the story of a Jewish girl who disguises herself as a boy to enter religious training.
The JLC worked with figures in Hollywood over the years in a succession of campaigns to combat Nazism, to enact fair employment laws, to end the bracero program, to support the United Farm Workers, and to aid Jews seeking to leave the Soviet Union.
One of the JLC's closest allies in Hollywood in the early sixties was Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show, who stood as out as one of the few non-Jewish comedians of his era. He served on the board of the Emergency Committee to Aid Farm Workers, the JLC organized anti-bracero coalition, and took part in the first rally in Los Angeles for striking farm workers in 1965. He worked with the JLC to write The Ground is Our Table: The Heartbreaking Look at the Shame of America's Farms (1966).
Hollywood helped build the modern Los Angeles and members of this community will continue to be part of the fabric of civic life in the city and beyond. Indeed, there is something ironic that an institution with a world-wide reach can trace some of its roots to Yiddish Theater and Eastern Europe.
Today we recognize Hollywood as an institution and honor three individuals from the industry: actress, producer and director Michelle Lee; IATSE Local 80 business agent and International Vice President Thom Davis; and Musicians Local 47 secretary treasurer Serena Kay Williams.
They are part of a long, proud, and noble tradition of Jews in leadership positions of Hollywood unions. Ed Asner, Barry Gordon, Richard Mazur, Melissa Gilbert have all headed the Screen Actors Guild, and the current president is Alan Rosenberg.
Jews have also headed studies, most famously Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner. One of the last links to this earlier era was Lew Wasserman. As the dean of Hollywood he helped Miguel Contreras and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor reemerge as a civic force by co-sponsoring the VIP dinner. The County Fed now presents an award in honor of Wasserman, a powerful reminder of labor's links to Jewish Hollywood.
For its part, the JLC has partnered with the Hollywood unions to sponsor the annual Labor Seder. The organization has likewise honored Ed Asner, past president of Screen Actors Guild, and Howard Welinsky, an executive at Warner Brothers, at previous brunches for their years of activism in promoting worker justice.
To the extent that the past is prologue, this will not be the last time that the JLC recognizes figures from the movie and television industry for their efforts to create a better world.
Kenneth C. Burt is political director of the California Federation of Teachers.