Antisemitism and Hollywood

December 11, 2009

My paternal grandparents were of Russian Jewish ancestry. They had both passed away by the time I was 3, my mom is Christian and my dad doesn't practice any religion, so the fact that I was partly Jewish didn't even register with me until recently, when I saw Gentleman's Agreement for the first time.

Of course I knew about the Holocaust, but I never realized that that kind of bigotry existed in America until watching this film. Gregory Peck plays a writer who decides to "be Jewish" to learn firsthand what it's like for a story he's writing on antisemitism. In one scene, his son comes home terribly upset after being taunted by other kids at school. When I saw this scene, my heart completely dropped to my feet. This film was made only a few years before my dad was born. Did this kind of stuff happen to him??

I wasn't sure how to bring it up, but a few days after watching the film, I was in the car with my dad and I found the words slowly pouring out of my mouth. It was so hard for me to ask, and even harder to listen when he told me that, yes, kids had picked on him for being Jewish. I imagine it must have been even worse for my grandparents in the early part of the century when their families had just immigrated.

Since seeing Gentleman's Agreement, I've become more attuned to antisemitism. I was totally shocked when I heard our UPS driver telling my dad a story about "Jewish lightning" - a slur about Jewish people deliberately burning their houses to get the insurance money. Even my own grandmother (maternal) has made bigoted remarks in front of my dad. While it may not be as prevalent anymore, it seems like anti-Jewish remarks are still somewhat acceptable in mainstream America.

Like most of my interests, this took its natural course and ended up with classic film. While doing research on antisemitism and Hollywood, I noticed that quite a few Jewish actors anglicized their names to be more acceptable. While name-changes were commonplace in Hollywood (Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, Marion Morrison became John Wayne, etc.) it was even more important for Jews to change their names because of the possible stigma attached to an obviously ethnic name.

Lauren Bacall
(Betty Joan Perske)

Theda Bara
(Theodosia Burr Goodman)

Jack Benny
(Benjamin Kubelsky)

Joey Bishop
(Joseph Abraham Gottleib)

Ricardo Cortez
(Jacob Krantz)

Tony Curtis
(Bernard Schwartz)

Kirk Douglas
(Issur Danielovitch)

John Garfield
(Jacob Julius Garfinkle)

More on John Garfield in my upcoming post on Gentleman's Agreement.

Judy Holliday
(Judith Tuvim)

Leslie Howard
(Leslie Howard Steiner)

Al Jolson
(Asa Yoelson)

Jerry Lewis
(Joseph Levitch)

Peter Lorre
(Laszlo Lowenstein)

Paul Muni
(Mashilem Meier Weisenfreund)

Tony Randall
(Arthur Leonard Rosenberg)

Edward G. Robinson
(Emanuel Goldenberg)

Lillian Roth
(Lillian Rutstein)

Jill St. John
(Jill Arlyn Oppenheim)

Sylvia Sidney
(Sophia Kosow)

Shelley Winters
(Shirley Schrift)


Kim said...

I am Jewish myself (and my ancestors also came from Russia) so I really enjoyed this post. Antisemitism is still around today unfortunately. I see it all the time especially on the Internet where people can remain "anonymous".

There were quite a lot of Jewish performers in classic Hollywood. One of my favorite examples are the Marx Brothers. Also some great directors like Billy Wilder & Ernst Lubitsh. And then there is Ben Hecht who wrote some of the best screenplays.

Fritz Lang also had Jewish ancestry which I thought was really cool. :)

art deco dame said...

Yes there are a TON of old Hollywood that had to hide their roots to be more accepted by the public.I'm 1/2 Spanish and am always shocked by how many old Hollywood actors and actresses of euro latin descent had to change their names to fit in(like Rita Hayworth who is also 1/2 Spanish).Because even though they were European they were Latin European,apparently this was still upsetting to the vanilla public.

Racism I feel with always exist on some level because people all too often fear what is different than them instead of educating themselves on it and saying "Im me and you're you,we might be different but that's ok"

Even today it blows my mind how many Jewish actors STILL change their last names!

Wendymoon said...

Very interesting, I would not have guessed that some of these actors were Jewish. Here's one you might like to add to the list: Marion Levy, aka Paulette Goddard.

NoirGirl said...

Wow, this makes me really want to watch Gentleman's Agreement now. I've never seen it.

I'm amazed how many stars felt like they had to hide their Jewish roots. Leslie Howard, the perfect oh-so-British gentleman! Ricardo Cortez, the latin lover! And Peter Lorre! I always knew he was Hungarian, but never knew about his Jewish heritage.

I just find it so ironic that this A-list of beauty, talent and stardom is made up of the very people who would have been shunned for their Jewish-ness. How deprived we all would be with out them!

This is simply fascinating. I can't wait to see what else you have up your sleeve on this one.

Ursula Steinberg said...

Thanks for the great article.

Loes said...

Being born & raised in The Netherlands, I became quickly aware of the fact of antisemitism (reading Anne Franks diary, listening to my grandparents' own stories about the WWII.. etc.) - very interesting to link this back to classic Hollywood! Reading Lauren Bacalls autobiography gave me an idea how it must have been (for her) to be Jewish in 1940s Hollywood. Can you imagine it, she was even afraid that Howard Hawks would find out this background! (quote from her book: "Once he -Hawks - made some remark about a Jew and I turned cold. I'm sure I paled visibly but he didn't seem to notice. 'Oh, no, don't let hiim be anti-Semitic. God, don't let me come all this way and have it blown up in my face. It just couldn't happen now.' p. 87") &When she was still modelling, her colleagues were surprised when Lauren told she was Jewish, because she didn't "look like it (!)".
I found these passages really striking.
Also, I never suspected there were so many actors/actresses who changed their name not only because they/the studio thought their real names didn't sound 'starlike enough', but because of their Jewish backgrounds!
Again, very interesting post (:

pjowens75 said...

This could well be the most important post I've read from you, Kate, and you've done a very good job with it. I think it is very important that we not forget the sins of our past. We shouldn't dwell on them, but we also must keep the memory of these sins alive so newer generations can learn from our (and previous generations) mistakes. Very well done.

Kim said...

@ Noirgirl

An interesting fact about Peter Lorre, Goebbels didn't realize he was Jewish either. Lorre had made a name for himself in German films as the murderer in "M" so Goebbels asked him to come back to Germany to play villains in pictures. Lorre replied:

"There isn't room in Germany for two murderers like Hitler and Me".

Terence Towles Canote said...

Here I must point out that it wasn't just performers in the Golden Age of Hollywood who were Jewish, but studio heads as well. Harry Cohn, of Columbia, was from a working class German Jewish family. Samuel Goldwyn (my favourite studio boss of all time) came from a Polish Jewish background. The Warner Brothers were also Polish Jews. Sadly, just like actors, these studio heads also had to hide their ethnicity. Indeed, Samuel Goldwyn was born Schmuel Gelbfisz!

Anonymous said...

What an extremely thoughtful post, Kate. Gentleman's Agreement is one of my most favorite movies. I can't wait to read your post on the movie, but this one of course is very good. I never knew about some of the people on this list; thanks for sharing.

What you're saying about anti-semitism existing today is true, as with all sorts of racism. I hate that there's so much prejudice in the world, as any decent person would. I mean, I knew people in high school who thought someone had to be Jewish in order to be affected by the Holocaust. I still get affected when I hear offensive comments about anyone.

Again, really wonderful post.

Andi B. Goode said...

This is a really interesting post. I loved Gentleman's Agreement and I was also a little shocked by the content, I suppose.
It was also interesting to see how many people changed their names!
-Andi x

Sarah Mann said...

What a great post! I didn't know some of those actors were of Jewish descent, how interesting. I can't wait to see what you have lined up for the next one! :D

PS: I always thought it was funny that foxy Tony Curtis' real name was Bernard. lol

Elsie said...

A wonderful post, I enjoyed it terribly! Social history, especially when linked with old Hollywood, never ceases to fascinate me.

Unknown said...

Great post, Kate--connecting your personal history with social history & Hollywood history made for great reading--& interesting list of performers who'd changed their names.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking. I recently saw 'Gentleman's Agreement' too and found it powerful and disturbing, so look forward to reading your further thoughts on it. Judy

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A very sensitive and intelligent post. Your exploration of Hollywood's take on antisemitism is a worthy project. That you were shocked by the prejudice affecting the movies and your father's life is at least a hopeful sign that we've managed to come a long way in our society, despite the regretable lingering prejudice of many people. Good job, Kate.

Thomas Pluck said...

I look forward to more of this. Remember that the shameful Leo Frank case in 1915, plus the revolting hate spewed by Rev. Coughlin and Henry Ford, remained fresh in peoples' minds. Same as Sacco & Vanzetti made many Italian actors Anglicize their names. They went on the defensive, to not be associated with criminals, who the papers would use to inflame ethnic hatred.

I know it's not a classic film, but what opened my eyes to American anti-Semitism was a 90's film called School Ties with Brendan Fraser. It was a real eye-opener. I'll have to see Gentleman's Agreement.

Passepartout_Portmanteau said...

Hi! I found your blog while searching for images of Lionel Atwill, and I enjoyed your post about him so much I decided to search around a little, and I eventually came here.

I just wanted to leave a comment to say that Paul Muni NEVER wanted to change his name, he was very proud of being Jewish and never tried to hide it. The change was forced upon him by the 20th Century Fox publicity department when he began working in Hollywood in 1929. :^( He always thought the change was completely stupid, especially when you consider that he'd been acting successfully on Broadway under his REAL name for several years by then. Muni (which was the first name he really went by, rather than 'Paul' or even 'Mashilem') is my favorite actor of all time, and I just wanted to make the story behind his name change clear. Cheers!


Unknown said...

Thank you for your comment, Jules.

I'd just like to point out though, that I didn't infer that the name changes were something that the actors wanted to do, or were enthusiastic about doing; I doubt any of the actors I mentioned were happy about the studios making them change their names. My piece was obviously a tribute to them, not meant as any kind of slander.

Passepartout_Portmanteau said...

Your point's very well taken, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise (and I'm sorry if it seemed that way). I just saw an opportunity to run off at the mouth about Paul Muni and grabbed it. ;^P