Steven Spielberg’s Jewish Fable and Its Moral Universe

November 22, 2022 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Written and produced by Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age tale very much based on the latter’s own life. And like the Spielbergs, the titular family is an identifiably Jewish one, who can be seen lighting Hanukkah candles and the like. Adam Kirsch finds that the characters’ Jewish identity hangs over the film’s early scenes, when the protagonist, Sam Fabelman, is a child. But, Kirsch writes:

After these early scenes in The Fabelmans, Jewishness disappears as a subject and even as local color. When Jewishness returns in the last third, it’s in strictly cartoon form. Sam, now attending a California high school full of tanned blonds he nicknames “the giant sequoia people,” gets bullied by Logan, an anti-Semitic classmate who calls him “Bagelman” and drives the thrust home by putting a bagel in his locker. Logan even calls Sam a Christ-killer, to which he retorts, “I’m not 2,000 years old and I’ve never been to Rome”—a line that tells us a lot about Kushner and Spielberg’s knowledge of religion and history. Wasn’t there at least one person working on The Fabelmans who could have pointed out that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem?

There is one moment, however, where the ethics of Spielbergian art are challenged in a fascinating way. One of Sam’s tormentors in high school is a sequoia person named Chad Thomas, which might seem too on the nose, if the actor who plays him weren’t named Oakes Fegley. Chad beats Sam up in alliance with the Jew-hating Logan, but when Sam makes a movie about the senior class to show at prom, Chad appears as the hero—a victorious golden god.

To Sam’s surprise, Chad is deeply freaked out by this homage from a boy who ought to hate him. The disparity between the way he looks on screen and the way he knows himself to be in real life drives him to tears of guilt. And maybe that was the whole point, for when Logan comes storming up to get revenge on Sam, Chad decks him. By making the Gentile look better than he really is, the Jewish artist goads him into living up to the image.

At bottom, the scene suggests, the idealism and moralism of the Jewish popular artist is a survival strategy based on guilt. It is such an acute and damning insight that it’s genuinely surprising to find it in a movie like The Fabelmans.

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