Neal Gabler, a distinguished author, cultural historian and TV commentator, gave a lecture entitled “How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Why,” about the Eastern European Jews who created the modern silver screen.

Gabler, who has written for publications such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, also served as the “liberal” panelist on Fox News Watch and replaced Robert Ebert as a movie reviewer on the PBS show “Sneak Previews.”

A professor at Stony Brook Southampton with interests in American culture, Gabler has written leviathan-like biographies on both Walter Winchell and Walt Disney, and has received multiple awards for his book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” from which Tuesday’s lecture drew its name.

Gabler was chosen to give this lecture by Bowdoin’s Harry Spindel Memorial Lectureship committee. This lectureship, founded in 1977 by Rosalyne Spindel Bernstein in memory of her father, selects one lecturer per year to speak on various aspects of Jewish culture. Past topics have included art, poetry and activism with lecturers like Art Spiegelman

This year, according to Associate Professor of Classics and chair of the lectureship Jennifer Kosak, the committee agreed to select someone who could speak to Jewish involvement in the film industry.

“Neal Gabler’s name came right up,” said Kosak. “There was no question that he would be a superb speaker for that topic.”

 Kosak said that this annual lecture, which serves as a headline event on Jewish Studies at Bowdoin, brings together not just members of the Bowdoin community, but the greater Brunswick community as well.

Gabler attended lunch with students Tuesday afternoon and later visited a film class.
“I thought he was fantastic. I think it’s a really uniquely Bowdoin thing that he would come to lunch with us and then walk with us to class,” said Nick Magalhaes ’15, who attended the lecture and joined Gabler for lunch. “It’s great that we can incorporate an intellectual into student life.”

That evening, Gabler addressed a packed auditorium. He opened with a story about his childhood relationship with film and then launched into his account of how Eastern European Jews transformed Hollywood into the glamorous institution of the 1920s that we recognize today.

Although anti-Semitic stereotypes portray Jewish film studio presidents—people who headed production giants such as Warner Brothers Entertainment and Universal Studios—as greedy men who sacrificed art for profit, Gabler disagrees. 

“They were not the impediments to art. In many ways they were the engines of it,” Gabler said.
In fact, according to Gabler, Jewish studio moguls had a direct hand in the creation of most cinematic masterpieces from the era as well as in the elevation of the movie-going experience and the accompanying lavishness that has so influenced American culture.

“There’s this wonderful irony that America is created in the image of Hollywood, to a great extent, and Hollywood is created by Eastern European Jews,” said Gabler. “So if you take the syllogism, America is created by Eastern European Jews.”

These Eastern European Jews, Gabler argues, idealized an alien country and people in their films as a means of assimilation. This assimilation, says Gabler, was both ruthless and relentless.

“When you create a whole country by abandoning who you are, which is essentially what they did, you do pay a price,” he said.

Ryan Szantyr ’16, who attended the lecture, said, “I think that movies have always been about establishing an identity, and for these people to give up their identity in order to assimilate themselves into American culture was, in a sense, sad.”

“I love to entertain people, I want people to be engaged, and what I want [the audience] to take away is to understand the dynamics of the creation of the American film industry. Who created it and why they created it,” said Gabler. “If they take that away, that they’ll have an understanding that will help them appreciate two things: American film industry and American culture.”