The Reluctant Jew
"For a Jew, it's a shame Steven Spielberg is so white bread."
-- mega film producer Don Simpson (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun)
“The conventional has always appealed to Steven."
-- Leah Adler, his mother
“There are literally six million stories that could be told about the Holocaust. It speaks volumes about Steven Spielberg that he chose perhaps the only one with a happy ending."
-- retired film executive
If ever an artist's body of work was a product of his upbringing and background, director Steven Spielberg's films are exactly that.
His mother Leah was an accomplished classical pianist. His father an inventor and electrical engineer who designed computers for RCA, GE and IBM.
Spielberg and his work can be seen as a fusion of these two very different parents. His father's genes contributed the techno-wizardry which is the hallmark of most Spielberg films, all those sci-fi epics and scare-'em-to-death rollercoaster rides.
His mother's artistic bent provided the aesthetic balance which enriched his low tech, character-driven films like Schindler's List and The Color Purple.
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 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." Spielberg's fascination with WASP 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 boy who 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 permeates much of his work until only recently.
But 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.