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Neal Gabler Speaks at 2012 Tenenbaum Family Lecture in Judaic Studies

Neal Gabler Speaks at 2012 Tenenbaum Family Lecture in Judaic Studies

Is there such a thing as a "Jewish" filmmaker in the way that we think of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud as Jewish writers? Or are there just filmmakers who happen to be Jewish? Are there Jewish themes inherently embedded in many American films?

These were some of the questions that distinguished author, cultural historian, and film critic Neal Gabler considered when he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, and the Atlanta community in the Reception Hall of the Carlos Museum at the February 2012 annual Tenenbaum Family Lecture in Judaic Studies. His talk was titled "Jewish American Filmmakers: From Sidney Lumet to Judd Apatow."

Gabler is a public intellectual of the highest order. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, and his essays and articles have appeared in Newsweek, Vanity Fair, the Nation, the New Republic, Men's Journal, George, Playboy, Time, TV Guide, Variety, and many other publications. He has made appearances on The Today Show, CBS Morning News, Entertainment Tonight, Charlie Rose, and PBS NewsHour." From 1982 to 1985, he replaced departing co-hosts Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the public television movie-review program Sneak Previews. He has been awarded a number of fellowships and he is currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Society and Entertainment at the University of Southern California and is a visiting professor in the MFA program at SUNY–Stony Brook.

Gabler's first book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Theatre Library Association Award. His second book, Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, was named Nonfiction Book of the Year by Time. Newsweek called his most recent book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, "the definitive Disney bio"; it was also a New York Times best-seller, was named Biography of the Year by USA Today, and won Gabler his second Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is currently writing a book on the late Senator Edward Kennedy and the course of modern American liberalism.

In his lecture, after wittily suggesting that the parting of the Red Sea was the "first special effect," Gabler focused on American Jews' historical status as outsiders and their sense of alienation from mainstream society. He argued in particular that mainstream Judaism's lack of a belief in a return of the messiah generated a distinctly Jewish sensibility which recognizes that individuals must live their lives alone, without hope of any external force or person setting their lives aright. Jewish protagonists are troubled by uncertainty about others and self-doubt—qualities one sees less frequently in, for example, the characters played by non-Jewish action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Clint Eastwood.

Gabler showed the celebrated scene in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1965) in which Jesus Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez) asks title character Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), "How come you people come to business so natural?" As the camera tracks from long shot into a closeup in a single long take on Steiger, Nazerman recounts how centuries of exclusion have left Jews only with a "little brain and a great legend" to sustain themselves through business. Gabler demonstrated how Nazerman typifies the Lumet hero: a lonely man with a past that haunts him and an overwhelming sense of guilt.

After discussing the impact of Steven Spielberg's parents' divorce on Spielberg (as is evident in the fragmented family in 1982's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), Gabler used the concluding scene from Munich (2005)—in which Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) urges Avner (Eric Bana) to come back to Israel—to emphasize how much Speilberg's characters struggle to find their home (most famously with E.T.), which in turn is part of the Jewish-American experience. Finally, Gabler showed the scene in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007) in which Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) try to learn more about each other after Alison has learned she is pregnant. The quintessential Apatow hero—the adolescent male who does not want to grow up but must learn to be humane—represents a new generational approach to expressing the Jewish-American experience.

Paul Root Wolpe, Robert N. McCauley, Neal Gabler, and Matthew Bernstein
Paul Root Wolpe, Robert N. McCauley, Neal Gabler, and Matthew Bernstein

The day before his talk, Gabler engaged in a debate with Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History; Robert N. McCauley, William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor and director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture; Paul Root Wolpe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics; and Raymond F. Schinazi, Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics. Their topic was Gabler's argument, published in an August 2011 New York Times op-ed piece, that our networked society has so overloaded our culture that we are living in a "post-idea world," in which big, thought-provoking ideas (such as those of Marx, Nietschze, and Freud) are no longer generated or disseminated. The lively discussion did not reach a unanimous conclusion but, as with the Tenenbaum lecture, stimulated many ideas.

Members of the Tenenbaum family (Cookie Gale, Inez Tenenbaum, Barry Gale, and Sam Tenenbaum) with Neal Gabler
Members of the Tenenbaum family (Cookie Gale, Inez Tenenbaum, Barry Gale, and Sam Tenenbaum) with Neal Gabler

The Tenenbaum Family Lectureship in Judaic Studies salutes the family of the late Meyer W. Tenenbaum 31C 32L of Savannah, Georgia. Tenenbaum, a native of Poland, arrived in the United States at age 13 knowing no English, and graduated from the Emory School of Law 11 years later. He went on to head Chatham Steel Corporation, now a major steel service center with headquarters in Savannah.

The lectureship was established in 1997 by Meyer's son, Samuel Tenenbaum 65C, and honors the entire Tenenbaum family and its ethos of citizenship and public service, which is expressed through its support of religious, educational, social service, and arts institutions across the United States.

TIJS thanks the chair of Film and Media Studies, Matthew Bernstein, for his outstanding organization and hosting of this year's Tenenbaum Lecture.




About this Publication

New TIJS Graduate Fellows

Graduate Fellowships in Jewish StudiesIn fall 2011 four Emory graduate students were awarded TIJS Fellowships, which are offered annually by the Laney Graduate School to excellent applicants and to current students with a research interest in Jewish studies.
Faculty Profile:
Ellie Schainker

In fall 2011 TIJS welcomed Ellie Schainker as the new Blank Family Foundation Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies.
Alumni Profile:
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: A Global Leader

For Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi 86C—founder and president of Laszlo Strategies and founder of the Israel Project (TIP)—standing shoulder to shoulder in thoughtful conversation with Israeli President Shimon Peres, President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority Salam Fayyad, and former presidents George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton is all normal work.
Endowed Directorship Honors Judith London Evans 69C

To honor and celebrate the life and work of Judith London Evans, the Evans family has created the Judith London Evans Directorship of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.
TIJS Faculty Advance Scholarship with Evans Directorship Funding

Income from the new Evans Directorship endowment is already benefiting the TIJS academic program by cosponsoring public events and by providing supplementary funding to TIJS faculty in their research projects.
Student News:
Congratulations to TIJS Graduates

TIJS students earn degrees, go to higher endeavors.

Thanks to Our Donors

Thanks to our donorsWe are grateful to the friends of TIJS for their generous donations that make so many of our programs possible.



Fall 2012
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