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Jewish Women in Film How It All Began

Renee Eder on Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The 17th Annual Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival is beginning this week (Thursday, March 24th). Did you know that our 2017 Festival includes 6 films directed by women, and two films based on the true stories of strong women? So, today I’ll take a look at Jewish women, and our history in film!

Many of us don’t realize this, but a large number of Jewish women have contributed to the development of the film industry. However, as you can imagine, they have had to fight for their place. From the early years of the silent era through today, the struggle of Jewish women to be recognized for their talents has been a difficult, yet successful one. 

Jewish Women Behind the Scenes

In the early days of film, Jewish women made their presence profoundly felt in the area of screenwriting, and continued to do so for the rest of the century. Ethnicity was less a problem for those out of the glare of the limelight, but jobs such as directing and producing were closed to most women. Many women, however, became screenwriters, and Jewish women obtained such work from the beginning. Some of the most influential films with Jewish themes were either written by Jewish women for the screen or adapted from novels and stories they wrote. Examples of famous early screenwriters were Anzia Yezierska and Fannie Hurst, whose novels and stories contributed to silent and later sound films.

Jewish Women in Films

In the first three decades of the 20th century, Jewish women also acted in roles that fell into a couple different categories. Most memorable were the Jewish mothers, matronly women who cooked for their families and provided unqualified love to their children. The younger women played the sweet ingenues of the ghetto. The third stereotype Jewish women were allowed to play was the vamp (or sex symbol). In fact, Theda Bara (a Jewish actress in the ‘20s and ‘30s) is often cited as the first sex symbol of the movies.

Assimilation

With the advent of sound (corresponding with the 1930s and the Great Depression), the roles Jewish women played in mainstream Hollywood films rarely reflected their ethnic or religious heritage. By 1939 Jewish representation in film had all but disappeared, for a great many reasons. As the major Jewish film moguls became more assimilated themselves, they reflected the American philosophy of the time: It was un-American to focus on an individual’s ethnicity, as opposed to his or her “Americanness.”

This trend continued through the end of the 1950s, with a few notable exceptions. Jewish actors with successful Hollywood careers during this period included Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Judy Holliday, Shelley Winters, and Lee Grant. Stage stars who also made successful forays into film included Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Stella Adler.

Jewish Actresses Today

You probably know a few Hollywood actresses of today who are Jewish. For instance, Natalie Portman was born in Israel, to Jewish parents. Her birth name is Neta Lee Herschlag. Gwyneth Paltrow converted to Judaism after her "conscious uncoupling" from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Mila Kunis comes from a Russian-Jewish family, who eventually left Russia due to antisemitism. And there are many more. . .

The new opportunities created by these Jewish pioneers have affected all women in the film industry, as well as all women who watch their films. These pioneers used their newfound influence to bring more of women’s lives and experiences to the screen. And, many have used their creative talents to bring Jewish stories to the screen.

We hope you will join us at the 2017 Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival. Experience the full lineup of films and buy tickets at jccnv.org/nvjff.

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