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Dress British, Think Yiddish -newest exhibition of the Vienna Jewish Museum

Ian Shulman / Austria

April 29, 2012 | 2:04 pm

This quote attributed to the Hollywood talent agent, ‘the last mogul’ Lew Wasserman seemed to be the key to the newest exhibition of the Vienna Jewish Museum - ‘Bigger Than Life. 100 Years of Hollywood: A Jewish Experience’. Just as the quote implies to look conventional, but think unconventionally, the exhibition doesn’t just tells the stories of legendary Hollywood Jewish producers, directors and actors.It also tries to analyze the role of Jewishness in Hollywood masterpieces—the hidden and vivid motives and the random and logical coincidences.

Most of the Jewish Hollywood founders were born ‘East of Vienna’, says the exhibition. Escaping the turbulent and hostile Eastern Europe, Jewish craftsmen and tradesmen were dreaming of their own promised land. The young and liberal civilization of America promised a relatively non anti-Semitic environment, equal opportunities, and milk and honey flowing down the Hudson river. While the emigrant life appeared to be tough and routine, the most adventurous headed towards the West Coast. There, in sunny California, they were going to build and film their promised land.

The exhibition continues to relate the success of Hollywood with the Eastern European Jewish heritage. The villainous creatures of ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Wolf Man’ both have Romanian roots, the femme fatale of ‘Cat People’ is Serbian, and the singing movie star of the 1920s, ‘The Jazz Singer’, is the son of a synagogue cantor. The museum seems to amass even more surprising coincidences. Thus, 1917 ‘Cleopatra’ Theda Bara had used a fictional biography to hide her Jewish roots, and most Nazi leaders from the 1940s movies were played by Jews who fled from Germany. In contrast, some American organizations of the 1930s were calling for a boycott of ‘Jewish Communistic Soddom and Gomorrah’, using obviously Nazi-inspired images. With other amazing facts, movie excerpts, personal letters, ‘Easy Rider’s motorbike and ‘Inglourious Bastard’s baseball bat, the exhibition tells a beautiful story of Jewish Hollywood from jazz singing Al Jolson to intellectual Woody Allen and a brutal Nazi hunter played by Eli Roth.

It’s amusing how another section of the museum draws a line again between the U.S., the Jews and Eastern Europe. With a capturing name, ‘Warhol’s Jews,’ the exhibition presents the portrait series of XX century’s most outstanding Jewish personalities created by Andy Warhol. The artist, whose parents were Russians from Eastern Slovakia, has compiled a list of the great Jews of our time. The ten chosen ones were Golda Meir, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Sarah Bernhardt, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis, Gertrude Stein, the Marx brothers and Franz Kafka. Warhol himself wasn’t really interested in the series, but assumed it was going to have a market success. It indeed has: both exhibitions have finally turned the Vienna Jewish Museum in to a crowded modern place, where catchy contemporary topics lead to exciting texts and bright pictures and where everyone has a reason to come - be it a national pride, proof of the conspiracy theory or a pure love of art.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

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