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The Religious Affiliation of Director
Steven Spielberg


From: Frank Sanello,
Spielberg: The Man, the Movies, the Mythology, Taylor Publishing Company: Dallas, Texas (1996), pages 2-6:
Spielberg's religious upbringing--or lack thereof--influenced not only his formative years but the flavor and content of his films.

"I wasn't a religious kid, although I was Bar Mitzvahed in a real Orthodox synagogue," he once recalled. His earliest memory was of entering a Cincinnati synagogue for services with Hasidic elders. "The old men were handing me little crackers. My parents said later I must have been about six months old!"

His early works were indeed as Don Simpson said, "white bread." Spielbeg's fascination with Waspy suburbia under siege in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Poltergeist reflected his own childhood, growing up Jewish in primarily Anglo-Saxon neighborhoods. He was at once the alien and the insider. The local boywho was somehow different by reason of his Jewishness.

In childhood, it's fair to say Steven Spielberg was a reluctant Jew. The theme of longing to belong permeated much of his work until only recently. It was only after fully accepting his Jewishness that Spielberg flowered as a mature artist, capable of producing his Oscar-winning masterpiece, Schindler's List.

[Page 3] Steven Spielberg was born December 18, 1946, in Cincinnati... the family settled for its longest peiod in Scottsdale, Arizona. Steven lived in this Ur-Wasp [and heavily LDS] suburb from the ages of nine to sixteen.

His mother, Leah, an adventurous type, did not want to live in a Jewish neighborhood and always plopped the family down right in the middle of Gentile, U.S.A. Today, his mother regrets this rejection of her roots. "I was raised in an Orthodox home, but I chose to rear my children in non-Jewish neighborhoods. That was my one really big mistake. The kids next door used to stand outside yelling, 'The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.' So one night Steven snuck out of the house and peanut-buttered all their windows."

[Page 4] Spielberg found belonging to the only Jewish family on the block a lonely position, especially at Christmas, when theirs was the sole house in the neighborhood unlit by decorations. In vain, the dying-to-assimilate youth begged his father to at least put a red light in the window. "I was ashamed because I was living on a street where at Christmas we were the only house with nothing but a porch light on," he has said.

His parents refused, but not out of any great sense of Jewish identity or pride. In fact, he remembers that when the family moved from New Jersey to Scottsdale, they stopped keeping kosher for no particular reason.

Spielberg has described his family as "storefront kosher." That's the equivalent of cafeteria Catholics, who pick and choose what dicta of the Pope to believe or discard... The Spielbergs' storefront kosherism had the flavor of an ethnic sitcom. Leah Spielberg (nee Posner) loved shellfish, a food strictly verboten by Judaic dietary laws. One day when she and her son, who shared his mother's fondness for crustaceans, were about to pop two giant lobsters into a pot of boiling water, their rabbi pulled into the driveway for an unannounced visit.

You can almost hear the television laughtrack in the background as Leah instructed her son to hide the offending creatures under his bed.

"The rabbi came to my room to see how I was doing," Spielberg wrote in a first person memoir in Time magazine. "You could hear the lobsters clicking and clacking at each other with their tails. The rabbi just sort of stared and sniffed the air; he must have wondered what that tref (unkosher) scent was, lingering in the kid's bedroom. The minute the rabbi left, my mom and I gleefully threw the lobsters into a pot of boiling water and then ate them."

Years later, Leah, divorced and remarried to Bernie Adler, would atone for such sins by opening a popular kosher deli in west Los Angeles, called the Milky Way in honor of her son's galactic epic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But back then, she now concedes, her faith was less than integral to her life. "It was a very nothing part of our lives. All we did was light candles on the Sabbath," she recalls.

[Page 5] While these close encounters with strict Judaism had a sitcom whimsy to them, other incidents relating to the Spielbergs' faith ranged from scary to downright ugly.

Growing up, Steven never recalled his parents or relatives referring to the Holocaust or Nazis by name. He did remember hearing, however, tems like "those murdering bastards. My parents referred to the Holocaust as 'those murdering sons of bitches.'" In fact, distant cousins perished in Poland and Ukraine, victims of the Final Solution.

His grandmother taught English to Holocaust survivors who had emigrated to America. His earliest encounter with the event that would lead to his greatest film involved a survivor of the death camps who studied English in his grandmother's home.

[This chapter contains more details about young Spielberg's encounters with Holocaust survivors, and how he first came to hear about Nazis and the Holocaust.]

[Pages 6-7] ...These stories no doubt instilled awe and wonder, but they didn't instill a whole lot of pride. all children long to belong, and Steven, growing up in Wasp-ville, was no different. His desire to assimilate, however, was so shameful a memory that it wasn't until years later, when Schindler's List had forced him to confront his own ambivalence toward Judaism, that he finally told his mother [about how as a child he tried to use duct tape to flatten his Jewish-appearing nose.]

...Growing up presented big and small problems of assimilation and acceptance. Spielberg once recalled: "We were always leaving schools and relocating. My father assimilated into the gentile world of computers, and that's a very Wasp world. We didn't live in big Jewish communities. We'd move into gentile neighborhoods where there'd be no Jewish community center. There'd be a temple somewhere where we'd go on Friday nights and High Holy Days, but I was was pretty much the only Jew I knew for many years outside my family."

He also recalled with classic Jewish guilt his formative years as a reluctant Jew. "It isn't something I enjoy admitting, but when I was seven, eight, nine years old, God forgive me, I was embarrassed because we were Orthodox Jews. I was embarrassed by the outward perception of my parents' Jewish practices. I was embarrassed because I wanted to be like everybody else. I didn't feel comfortable, but I was uneasy at times. My grandfather always wore a long black coat, black hat and long white beard. I was embarrassed to invite friends over to the house because he might be in a corner davening [praying], and I wouldn't know how to explain this to my Wasp friends."

This internalized anti-Semitism didn't become external, he said, until his family moved to Saratoga, California... when he was sixteen... Steven was once again the new kid in school.

And the only Jewish one.

Here his aesthetic desire to look gentile... turned into a matter of survival, not just cosmetics. During his senior year at Arcadia High, students would cought the word "Jew" as he passed them in the hall. In study hall, the other kids would throw pennies at him, hoping he would pick them up and "prove" how miserly Jews were.

"It was six months of personal honor. And to this day I haven't gotten over it, nor have I forgiven any of them," he told an interviewer years later. And he still doesn't suffer anti-Semites gladly. Recently, he purchased a car for a friend from a Santa Monica, California, dealer. The salesman boasted after the sale, "I just got a Jew to pay full price for a car!" Somehow this comment got back to Spielberg, and he cancelled the order. The horrified owner of the dealership apologized profusely, but Spielberg refused to reinstate the order.

The salesman's anti-Semitism obviously opened old wounds that have never and probably will never completely heal. But that slur was mild compared to some of the anti-Semitism he experienced in high school. "I was embarrassed, I was self-conscious, I was always aware that I stood out because of my Jewishness. In high school, I got smacked and kicked to the ground in P.E., in the locker room, in the showers. Two bloody noses. It was horrible. We couldn't stop it. So my mom picked me up in her car every day after school and took me home." [More on this subject in this chapter.]

Sanello, page 194:
...they [Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg] were marred on October 12, 1991, at his home on Long Island... There was a civil service the next morning at Guild Hall... That night there was a formal black-tie wedding, a traditional Orthodox ceremony in a large tent, presided over by a rabbi flown in from California.
Sanello, page 196:
A Methodist, [Kate] Capshaw converted to Judaism before the marriage [to Steven Spielberg], she said, "because I liked the religion's emphasis on family, and I wanted my child to born a Jew. When I converted, Steven was delighted, but then all the people in his family who were supposed to fall to their knees in exultation didn't say a word, because they so wanted me to know that it didn't matter to them."
Sanello, pages 221-222:
Universal's Sid Sheinberg, who had bought the rights to the book [Schindler's List] in 1982, showed it to his protege [Steven Spielberg], telling him, "This is the film you have to make."

Spielberg agreed, but it would tke him more than ten years to make the "film he had to make."

"I wasn't ready in '82 to make Schindler's List. In 1982, when I acquired the rights, I wasn't mature enough. I wasn't emotinoally resolved with my life. I hadn't had children. I really hadn't seen God until my first child was born. A lot of things happened that were big deals in my personal life that I didn't give interviews about. But they changed me as a person and as a filmmaker. And they led me to say, 'I want to do it now. I need to make it right now.'"

...Spielberg was fascinated by the intrinsic drama of Schindler's story. But he had bigger reasons for tackling the project.

"I wanted something that would confirm my Judaism to my family and myself, and to a history that was being forgotten. When my son was born, it greatly affected me. I decided I wanted my kids raised Jewish, as I was. I have wonderful memories of my Judaism when I was a child--not a teenager, but a child," he said, perhaps recalling the high school bullies who bloodied his nose... "I wanted my children to be proud of the fact that they were members of the oldest tribe in history."

As he has said in interviews, Spielberg's childhood memories of Judaism were more cultural than religious. Although he was Bar Mitzvahed, his family, he has said, was not observant. One of his happiest childhood recollections was guiltily boiling forbidden lobsters with his mother. He seems to have had only two memories of what it meant to be Jewish when he was a child. He remembered Hasidic elders in shul passing him ritual Matzvoh, and his mother lighting candles on the Sabbath. It's not surprising that Spielberg should remember the ritual rather than the theology of his life. Many an adult ex-Christian atheist has fond childhood memories of Nativity scenes, Midnight Mass, an stockings stuffed with goodies on Christmas morning. The fact that Spielberg wasn't raised in a strictly religious household doesn't diminish his enthusiastic embrace of Judaism as a middle-aged man. When Barbra Streisand was directing Yentl, she underwent a similar religious reiscovery.

Newsweek magazine noted that in a twenty-year career, Spielberg had never confronted his Jewish roots on film before. "Until Schindler's List, Spielberg's Judaism never touched his work . . . The fantasies he concocted were the ultimate triumph of assimilation. He colonized the world with his imagination."

Besides finally exploring his roots, he was fascinated by the character of Oskar Schindler... [More. Chapter 17 is largely about Spielberg making Schindler's List, particularly pages 219-240.]

Sanello, pages 231-233:
Spielberg didn't take a dime for making Schindler's List (except or the Director's Guild minimum which is mandated by union rules).

His friendship with the late chairman of Time-Warner, Steve Ross, had given him a new outlook on wealth and what you could do with it beside spend or save it.

"After I met Steve, I went from being a miser to a philanthropist because I knew him, because that's what he showed me to do. I was just never spending my money. I gave nothing to causes that were important to me. And when I met Steve, I just observed the pleasure that he drew from his own private philanthropy. And it was total pleasure. And it was private, anonymous giving. So most everything I do is anonymous. It's one of the things Steve Ross opened my heart to," he said fondly.

He broke his rule of anonymity when he set up two very public foundations with his take of the proceeds from Schindler's List. Part of his profits... went to a foundation named in honor of Oskar Schindler, the Righteous Persons Foundation, which will be devoted to the study of gentiles who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust...

The other was also a new organization... the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to help keep alive the memory of the six million Jews and others who died in the Holocaust... The foundation will record the memories of camp survivors.

its daunting task: to record 50,000 first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. There wasn't a minute to lose. Survivors are a vanishing breed, and Spielberg, the archivist, wanted to preserve their experiences before it was too late...

Two of Schindler's List's producers, Gerald Molen [a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] and Branko Lustig [a Jew], himself a survivor of the death camps, will serve as executive producers of the project along with Karen Kushell, who is head of special projects at Spielberg's production company, Amblin...

[page 233] Eventually, the foundation will record testimony from non-Jewish survivors, who include Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, gays, and other minorities deemed by the Nazis as "sub-humans." The director defended focusing on Jewish survivors first "because the Holocaust was really about what happened to European Jewry--the destruction of Jewish culture on that continent."

Sanello, pages 64-65:
The studios were also negatively influenced by market research that said UFOs were a big snooze as far as the public was concerned. "The tested the concept of Close Encounters," Spielberg remembered. "I couldn't believe it. The response was negative..."

The studio executives, however, had ignored an important statistic that showed the film's concept had a built-in audience of millions. According to a Gallup Poll at the time, fifteen million Americans, including the then President of the United States Jimmy Carter, claimed to have had some kind of UFO experience. The same poll indicated that 52 percent of the American public believed in UFOs and that they came from outer space.

Spielberg himself was a believer, although to his great regret he wasn't one of the fifteen million who had had a close encounter of any kind with a UFO. "I believe in the UFO phenomenon, yes. whether I believe UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin, well, the jury's still out. I would like to believe the hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world have not been hallucinating for three thousand years."

Sanello, pages 73-74:
In effect, Spielberg wanted his thoughtful reverie [Close Encounters of the Third Kind]to be taken more seriously than the Saturday-matinee hijinks of Star Wars. "UFOs for me represent a cultural phenomenon rather than a fantasy one. Whether they're real or not real, they have certainly affected everybody's life," he said.

On the other hand, he didn't want his audience to feel he was lecturing rather than entertaining. "This movie is not a didactic trip concerning projects involving UFO-ology. It's not a documentary. I didn't want to be smart-assed. I wanted a drama about UFOs over American suburbia--UFOs as seen by ordinary people. It's domestic. This is not Star Trek, it's not Flash Gordon. It's not even 2001."

[Page 74] ...Two years later, the studio released Close Encounters-The Special Edition, which picked up where the original left off and took the moviegoer inside the UFO.

As the extra footage showed, his conception of extraterrestrial technology was more spiritual than gadget-driven. The interior of the spaceship, many stories high, resembled, in one critic's words, "a cathedral rather than a humming spaceship filled with knobs and electrodes."

Sanello, pages 65-66:
The first draft of the script [for Close Encounters of the Third Kind], which never got made, was written by Paul Schrader, the theology-obsessed writer-director of such ham-handed morality tales as Hardcore and American Gigolo.

Raised in a strict Protestant sect [Dutch Reformed Church], Schrader wanted to graft the story of Saint Paul onto a visitors-from-outer-space story. In Schrader's version, his hero Paul Van Owen (after Saint Paul) is an Air Force officer assigned the task of disproving the existence of UFOs. Eventually, this doubting Thomas not only sees a UFO but is abducted by one and whisked away from the earth. The climactic scene re-creates the famous Biblical passage where Paul is knocked off his horse by God and only the becomes a believer. In Schrader's script, God is replaced by extraterrestrials.

The Schrader script was so off-putting, Close Encounters's producer Julia Phillips wrote in her acerbic memoir that she didn't even show it to David Begelman, then head of production at Colombia. She wrote that Begelman "has agreed not to read Schrader's first draft, called Kingdom Come, because I told him it would make him not want to make the movie. Certainly it was not a screenplay that Steven wanted to direct."

Julia Phillips... and her husband Michael... had such a good relationship with Schrader on The Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote and they produced for Martin Scorsese, that Phillips felt he would be perfect for Close Encounters. Schrader explained their reasoning, which turned out to be way off base: "They felt that my sensibility, being extremely Germanic and moralistic, was the proper counterpoint to Steve's sensibility," Schrader said.

In fact, Spielberg hated the script, finding Schrader's injection of Calvinist theology laughable in what the director basically envisioned as an A-budget B-movie. The usually diplomatic director even was quoted as describing Schrader's effort as "one of the most embarrassing screenplays ever professionally turned into a major studio or director. Actually, it was fortunate that Paul went so far away on his own tangent, a terribly guilt-ridden story, not about UFOs at all, it was more about the Church and the State..."

The departure ponit for Schrader's script was a short story called "Experiences," written in 1970 by Spielberg when he was still a television director. Spielberg's concept was to combine a UFO encounter and a massive Watergate-style cover-up of the sighting. Schrader must have found some comfort in the fact that he did convince Spielberg to junk the Watergate cover-up plot and focus more on the mystical encounter with the spaceship. "The only thing I deserve a credit for is changing Steve's mind about doing the film as a UFO Watergate. I thought it ought to be about a spiritual encounter. That idea stayed and germinated," Schrader told author Tony Crowley in 1983.

Phillips also credited Schrader with creating the Dreyfuss character. However, Spielberg had otherwise so thoroughly rejected Schrader's script that the writer didn't even protest... when his name was left off the "screenplay by" or "story by" credits.

Spielberg received solo writing credit on the film, and his version bore no resemblance to Schrader's theological gobbledygook.

Sanello, pages 72-73:
Other critics gave [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] what in Spielberg's estimation was the ultimate accolade, calling the film, "Disney-esque." In fact, Spielberg originally planned to end the film with "When You Wish Upon a Star," Jimminy Crickett's signature song [written by Academy Award-winning Latter-day Saint film composer Leigh Harline, with lyrics by Ned Washington], but even he ultimately decied that including the theme song from a fantasy cartoon like Pinocchio would undercut Close Encounters' realism.

He explained his decision by saying, "The song was the coat hanger on which I designed the movie three years ago, but it didn't work. It seemed to make a comment that the story you had just seen had been a fantasy. It seemed to belie all the effort that went into trying to shed some verisimilitude of the UFO phenomenon. The song was an overstatement of innocence."

Which led Richard Dreyfuss to comment on "When You Wish Upon a Star": If you ever need an insight into Steven, that song is it."

Sanello, pages 201-202:
Always may be most memorable because it gave fans one last on-screen look at Audrey Hepburn before her untimely death just a few years later.

Spielberg originally had wanted to Sean Connery to play the role of God [in his movie Always] since their working relationship on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had been so fruitful. But Connery had other film commitments, so in a burst of inspiration, Spielberg decided to recast God as a woman!

In one scene, Hepburn [as God] appears in a burned-out forest. The script called for her to be dressed all in white. In order not to smudge her costume, Hepburn literally had to be carried on a stretcher to the middle of the forest by six burley members of the crew.

From: Ken Hanke, Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker, Renaissance Books: Los Angeles (1999), page xiv-xv:
On the surface... [Steven] Spielberg would appear to be a fair comparison to [Tim] Burton. Both are children of the suburbs. Both are self-confessed movie brats. Both have been professionally successful beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. Both deal largely in fantasy. And both seem to have a preoccupation with childhood. However, there the similarities end. Indeed, the two are a study in contrasts, and possibly the reason lies in one simple fact--Spielberg, born in 1946, is twelve years Burton's senior. Spielberg's rather roseate-tinged sitcom visionof suburbia is of a wholly different era. Burton's darker and more realistic, yet not unaffectionate, onscreen view is clearly fueled by [a] feeling of imminent destruction... The view is skewed by a young childhood marked by the anarchic discontent of living with the idea that at any moment the Soviets were going to blast the United States out of existence.
From: Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston, Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan (2004), pages 51-53:
Steven Spielberg is known for such blockbuster movies as E.T. and Jurassic Park. He has been most honored, however, for Schindler's List, his retelling of the story of one man's resistance to the Holocaust. The movie should be seen by all adults and has proven an important contribution to our continuing fight against anti-Semitism.

Now with Amistad, Spielberg has again dramatized a historical event of resistance to corporate evil. The film has such symbolic importance for another minority group--African-Americans--that some have questioned Spielberg's right to tell their story. After all, isn't he Jewish? But tell it he does, and the film has moral importance for us all.

The movie dramatizes the story of a group of Africans who rise up against their slave-trading captors on the ship Amistad and as a result are brought to trial in a New England court. But that is only one of the stories that this film tells so well. There is the story of slavery, the story of an African who is called Cinque by the Spaniards, the story of Christian abolitionists [led by Congregationalists, long before the became the United Church of Christ], the story of two presidents and their own struggles with a nation divided, and even the gospel story.

[page 53] Yet a third story is present in the movie--the gospel story. Some reviewers have questioned this insertion, but the Christian presence in opposing slavery is historically accurate. We see the Christian abolitionists being portrayed at times humorously, at other times cynically, but at still other times kindly. Never has a more beautiful telling of the gospel story been in film as when the Africans tell the Story to Cinque using only the illustrations from a Bible a Christian abolitionist had given him. He cannot read the English words, but the pictures tell it all and bring hope. From the slaves of Egypt crying out to the God of Salvation, to the baby Jesus' birth, to his teaching and healing, to the cross and then the resurrection, we hear the Good News in all its simplicity and power. Although the African storyteller isfearful that they will be killed, he can point to Christ rising into the heavens and believe that "where we'll go if we die doesn't look so bad." The power of the Story brings hope and freedom.

From: Luke Ford, "Hollywood Jews", on LukeFord.net website (http://www.lukeford.net/essays/contents/Hollywood_Jews.htm; viewed 8 September 2005):
British journalist William Cash wrote about Hollywood's Jewish cabal in an October 1994 issue of the British journal Spectator... William Cash writes:
Los Angeles. When Mr. Mike Ovitz, or His Most Powerfulness (as he is also known here), shows up at a press conference in LA and sits in the audience, you know something big is going on: in this case the founding of a new multi-billion-dollar Hollywood studio by Steven Spielberg, record mogul billionaire David Geffen and their best friend, the recently dumped chief of Disney Studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Although the Hollywood survival rate for studio start-up schemes has been poor, Francis Coppola's American Zoetrope Studios is the most notable recent casualty, this ambitious venture has been widely hailed as having more chance of success than any similar enterprise for 50 years.

But in one respect at least this particular combination of talents, or 'talent combo', in the local argot, will start out on the right foot. Like the old mogul founders of the early studios and unlike most other failed build-your-own studio merchants they [Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg] are Jewish.

The significance of this fact cannot be simply met by the inevitable shrieks of 'anti-Semitism'. A rare glimpse of the feudal power structure of Hollywood at work was given by the Wall Street Journal's front-page report of the new studio launch. Before any contracts could be signed, a private 'blessing' was required from 81-year-old Lew Wasserman, the long-time chairman of MCA (which owns Universal) and the last surviving Jewish Founder-builder of a studio. To quote the Journal, he is treated in Hollywood 'like a tribal chieftain'.

Spielberg, Geffen, Katzenberg and Spielberg's 30-year personal mentor, MCA president Sidney Sheinberg, gathered at the house of the 'Godfather of the Show' (as Time called Wasserman). After getting his rabbinical blessing, they spoke in 'hushed, reverential tones about the industry potentate', about how he 'spun stories about the history of Hollywood and showed them artifacts'. Geffen and Katzenberg, who have no formal connections with MCA or Wassemman, were reported as being 'nervous' before the meeting.

...The movie Jews joined the Hollywood Polo and Riding Club in droves; they paid their expensive dues at the West Hills Hunt Club with its own pack of Irish foxhounds, whose (mostly Jewish) members still gallop every Saturday in season around the hills around Los Angeles in sunglasses and full British hunting gear. The idea of 'New Establishment' players like David Geffen (who refuses to wear a suit), Mike Ovitz or Steven Spielberg dressing up in a tail-coat to go fox-hunting is ludicrous. Now that they are the Power Elite, they view the creaky East Coast Wasp institutions and such reserves as the LA Country Club (which still proudly excludes Jews and showbiz types') as anachronistic jokes. Whilst Louis Mayer would have been trying everything to get a photograph of himself shaking hands with Prince Charles during his three-day visit (or escape) to LA, today's breed of super-mogul couldn't care less.

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