Southwestern English Professor Publishes Book on American Jewish Cinematic Tradition
McManis University Chair Helene Meyers is the author of Movie-Made Jews.
August 17, 2021
August 17, 2021
A new scholarly book by Professor of English and McManis University Chair Helene Meyers, Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition, will be published by Rutgers University Press on September 17, 2021. In the volume, Meyers challenges the assumption that American Jewish cinema is a cinema of impoverishment and assimilation. While it’s a truism that Jews make movies, this book brings into focus the diverse ways movies make Jews. She further demonstrates that a Jewish movie is neither just a movie nor for Jews only.
The book grew out of Meyers’s previous volume, Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, which focused primarily on American Jewish literature. “I didn’t have space for all the films that I wanted to talk about in that book, so Movie-Made Jews was born,” Meyers shares.
In the new book, Meyers focuses on American Jewish films, which include fiction and documentary films—a “rich and varied cinematic tradition that goes way beyond Fiddler on the Roof and Woody Allen!” she describes. “American Jewish movies include those who might be identified as ‘just Jews’ as well as those who are traditionally—and sometimes untraditionally—observant. I discovered a whole minitradition of films committed to alliance politics, which is vitally important in these divisive times.” Meyers examines topics such as antisemitism, assimilation, and queerness in such films as School Ties (1992), Kissing Jessica Stein (2011), Milk (2008), and Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010). “I enjoyed knowing that I was inviting my readers to look at some familiar films in new ways and that I was becoming an advocate of lesser-known films that really deserve a broad audience,” she says.
In Movie-Made Jews, Meyers argues that as we go to our local theater, attend a Jewish film festival, play a DVD, or stream videos, Jewishness becomes part of the multicultural mosaic rather than collapsing into a generic whiteness or being represented as a life apart. “I discovered that the process of making these movies and of watching them often transformed people’s commitments to their own Jewishness as well as Gentile understanding of Jewishness,” she explains. “In other words, the production and the reception of these films became as important to discuss as what appears onscreen.”
To complete the book, Meyers immersed herself in Jewish film history and the commentary on the films she chose to discuss. That commentary comprised traditional academic books and journal articles, but she also considered reviews and interviews that appeared in the mainstream and Jewish press. “And let me give a shout-out to the wonderful librarians at Smith Library Center, who helped me locate some hard-to-find sources,” she adds.
Beyond reviewing the available research, getting to watch numerous great films through a scholarly lens was certainly a perk of the project. And as with her previous books and articles, Meyers loved the drafting stage of the writing process. “That’s when you discover how the disparate parts of your research fit together,” she reflects. “It really is like designing and then putting together a puzzle.”
Movie-Made Jews is available for preorder from Rutgers University Press.
Meyers is professor of English and McManis university chair at Southwestern. She is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness (SUNY Press, 2011), Reading Michael Chabon (Greenwood, 2010), and Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience (SUNY Press, 2001). You can learn more about her and her work at https://helenemeyers.com.