Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 1 Interview with the Author

Jun 17, 2013 by

CJ Cover
CCAR Press is proud to be the ebook publisher of Cinema Judaica: The War Years, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which organized the related exhibition.  Though a departure from the usual books published by CCAR Press, this was a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with one of our Movement partners, and one that provides unique educational content for our members and their communities. As the print book was developed by another entity, we were able to lend our epublishing expertise to this project.  In anticipation of the launch of Cinema Judaica, we took the opportunity to sit down with the author, Ken Sutak. Cinema Judaica is available through iTunes or AmazonRead Parts 123, and 4 of this interview.    

CCAR Press: What is Cinema Judaica?

Ken Sutak: First of all it is a term used by collectors of old movie memorabilia—usually paper artifacts of a promotional nature—related to the Jewish-themed films that were made prior to, say, Woody Allen’s.  In this sense the term refers to these paper collectibles, which are perishable if not preserved, and in variable condition this far out from the dates of origin of the source films.  Old movie posters are the prime example.  Sometimes the term is used to refer to the source films themselves.   I adopted the term as a brand name for two popular culture poster exhibits that I produced for the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York City during the Spring of 2007 and the Spring of 2008, on the subject of these films and their influence on contemporaneous American life.  The exhibits were divided between the period 1939 to 1949, which I called “The War Years,” and the period 1949-50 to 1971-72, which I called “The Epic Cycle.”  And now, the term Cinema Judaica is the common title of two books I have written, with different subtitles that track the exhibit titles.   Both of them are illustrated with high res color photos of several hundred of these paper artifacts combined. Together, the two  books cover the same narrative scope of the exhibits, but in more depth, with greater detail, and a lot more rare imagery than even the original exhibits could accommodate.  Since both exhibits were very popular, they have since been turned into  travel exhibits in the United States, available through the HUC-JIR Museum to other museums and similar institutions, where they tie into the books and vice-versa.

Sample CJ page 2CP: What got you interested in this topic?

KS: Being part of the baby boomer generation I have always been fascinated by the spectacular epic films of the 1950s and the 1960s, whether biblical or strictly historical, whether Jewish or Christian if biblical.  But I wasn’t very interested, or even much aware of, the Jewish-themed wartime films of the late 1930s and mid-1940s, until I put together a bunch of old movie posters from the postwar Jewish biblical films for display at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, where I am a longtime member.   I found that something was lacking.  I happened to show my agent, Kay McCauley, a list of these posters that I subsequently compiled for a proposed exhibit in Manhattan.  She immediately encouraged me to think of the project as a book.   But a book has to have a beginning, middle, and end.  Then you suggested that I should consider broadening the scope of the project to include the World War II period.  So that idea entered my thinking through a side door, or front one is more like it in terms of an overall Cinema Judaica chronology.  Originally, though, for both the proposed exhibit and the book that Kay encouraged me to write, the War Years material was just going to be a prologue to the Epic Cycle material.  Then Laura Kruger, the Curator of the HUC-JIR Museum who had invited me to produce the exhibit with her, decided that it should be divided into two parts, and presented as two exhibits one year apart.  Jean Rosensaft, the Director of HUC-JIR Museum, got behind this notion of presenting two sequential exhibits in a big way.  So Cinema Judaica, The War Years, being the smaller of the two planned exhibits, much like a preview to the larger, more majestic Epic Cycle exhibit to come, was presented first, as a lower floor exhibit presented concurrently with some unrelated exhibits on the main floor of the museum. 

CP: What was the reaction?

KS: What happened next surprised everyone, I think, especially me.  People attending the main attractions began to be drawn to the subject matter of the War Years exhibit downstairs, magnetically.  Whenever I dropped by, mesmerized museumgoers or some of the rabbinic students at HUC-JIR college would tell me that they were stunned by some of the posters or trade adds or rare stills on display, or by things they had learned from the signage.  In many cases, they had never heard of much less seen these Jewish-themed films that, altogether, related a gripping wartime story through a striking visual collaboration with the written signage that they had not been told before.  Meanwhile, what amounted to four other Jewish museums and two secular ones in the United States plus three in Europe had begun asking HUC to allow the War Years exhibit to travel.  A year later, the Epic Cycle poster exhibit came along as planned, taking over almost the entire main floor of the museum.   Those posters, which interwove the Jewish biblical films, Holocaust films, and War of Independence films of that period, with connective signage, just dazzled everyone who entered the building, and usually blew them away before they left.  At that point the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation provided grant money to cover the photography, graphic design, editorial, and printing costs of a tie-in book.  I was given carte blanche to decide what to do with it.  Ultimately, I decided to split it into two sequential books.

Sample page CJCP: Why did you want to write the “War Years” Cinema Judaica book first, instead of the more majestic, as you put it, “Epic Cycle” Cinema Judaica book?

KS: They were being written together.  I didn’t decide to spin off the War Years material into a separate book until I had researched as many prior writings on this subject matter as I could find, while tracking down and watching the films themselves.   I  discovered that there were almost as many wartime films of Jewish interest as there were Epic Cycle films of Jewish interest—about sixty films in each category.   That kind of division called for separate but equal treatment.  I also discovered that there was a lot of misinformation about this subject in circulation, in both the limited scholarly journal literature on the subject and in the broader film histories or social histories.   Not to mention what too many film critics in the present era had been saying erroneously about the presumed historical background or the predominantly Jewish movie studio heads of the time, whenever they occasionally revisited a prominent  Jewish-themed wartime film like The Great Dictator or The Mortal Storm.   I address, and correct, a lot of that misinformation in this book.   For the most part I do that just by trying to get the overall story that binds these Jewish-themed films together right, and by making sure that the Jewish studio heads, writers, directors, and in some cases actors and actresses who deserve credit for their contributions are named.  Many of these motion picture industry figures of the late 1930s and 1940s, even some of the most famous ones during that period, are now almost forgotten within our Jewish communities, if they are remembered at all. In many instances the reader will never have heard of them before.  I wanted their names to be recorded in one place, and one day remembered as a group, because they all played an important role, big or small, in this aspect of Jewish involvement in America’s wartime history, at a time when nearly the whole world was on fire, especially for Jews.  Plus, I saw an opportunity for producing a book on a sprawling subject that hadn’t been done before, except in bits and pieces or sections of other writers’ books, or in Jewish history journal articles on one isolated aspect or another of the subject matter, or in parts of documentaries, some of them off the mark.  I credit these previous writings at the end of my book.  And then of course there was the impetus of the rapidly vanishing primary materials that I needed to illustrate the book with, so that it would have the same popular appeal for general audiences as the museum exhibits.   Not to mention the advanced age of some of the people I wanted to consult for information or, possibly, rare artifacts to show.  In some instances, I already knew how hard it was going to be, and that it might be impossible, to locate even one surviving poster for a given film that needed to be included.  This was particularly true for the foreign Holocaust films that were only briefly available in the United States around  1949 or 1950, and the postwar “exodus” films that were produced and released independently, on small budgets, at approximately the same time.  So, for Cinema Judaica, The War Years, getting the book done and getting it out there, with contemporaneous imagery, was very much a matter of “It’s now or never.”

To be continued.  Part 2 of the interview will cover such questions as: “What does Cinema Judaica, The War Years have to say about how Hollywood saw Jews and Jewish history during the period it covers?”

You are invited to join us for a book launch, July 17th, 2013, from 6:00-7:30, at Hebrew Union College, 1 West 4th Street, NY, NY, 10012. Please bring ID.  

Ken Sutak is a litigation attorney in New York specializing in entertainment law. In addition to the Cinema Judaica books, Ken Sutak has written or contributed to two legal books including The Great Motion Picture Soundtrack Robbery published by Archon, and two environmental reports published by the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City.  Two of his famously long and influential film music essays, The Return of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Alamo Remembered, are available online (the latter with Technicolor scenes added) as internet republications by Pro Musica Sana and Cinemascore/SCN.  He is currently collaborating with the California-based writer Ken Dixon on another narrative-pictorial e-book, based on the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, for Emerald Chasm Entertainment.

Leave a Reply