Dress British, Think Yiddish

Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual

by Nathan Abrams

Rutgers University Press, 340 pp., $34.95

Stanley Kubrick was a Jew from Jewland. Raised in the Bronx, he was surrounded by Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom became early artistic collaborators. Born in 1928, he lived his adult life in the shadow of the Holocaust, and, although he never realized his plan to adapt Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, Holocaust imagery was surprisingly central to his films. Allegorical enemies wear Nazi-inspired uniforms; partially formed mannequins stand in for disfigured bodies; and the state as a source of violence is a master theme that recurs throughout his pictures. He self-consciously cast Jewish stars in key roles: Peter Sellers, Tony Curtis, Sydney Pollack, Shelley Winters, and, iconically, Kirk Douglas. Indeed, the movies he made with Douglas, Paths of Glory and Spartacus, were critical in cementing Douglas’s image as the muscular, moral Jew. 

Kubrick even cast himself in the same biographical role long played by Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and Max Ophüls: Jewish émigré director. He left America for England in the 1960s, and his most English movie, Barry Lyndon, is also his most obviously Jewish: Barry, the Irish outsider, tries to ingratiate himself into high society, only to be tripped up by his incomprehension of a moral code that gives sanction to some forms of violence (and greed) but not others. In Eyes Wide Shut, his final film, the protagonist sleepwalks through highly stylized, fantasy versions of the landscape of Kubrick’s early years as a photographer and filmmaker: Greenwich Village and Central Park West. So how is it that we’ve come to see Kubrick only as a controlling, austere, manipulative, reclusive genius from England? 

In Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, Nathan Abrams answers this question with a single word: misdirection. Abrams’s essential argument is that Kubrick buried his Jewish preoccupations and thematic concerns, distracting viewers with superficially Gentile alternatives. Dr. Strangelove is obviously an ex-Nazi, a Wernher von Braun figure. Yet an early character sketch, preserved in Kubrick’s archive, describes him as “a Herman Kahn type.” The grotesque absurdity of Strangelove’s autonomous Nazi arm misdirects us from the Jewish nuclear strategist, who, along with others, served as Kubrick’s proximate target. 

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About the Author

Eitan Kensky founded In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and was the director of collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. He is the incoming Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica at Stanford University Library.


gershonhepner on June 24, 2018 at 9:42 am
This was a fine review by Eitan Kensky of Nathan Abrams' book on Stanley Kubrick, but the howler, "goyim noches," which surely should have been "goyischer naches," attenuated my yiddisher naches. Of course if I had more menschlikayt I would not be howling,

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    asmith on June 25, 2018 at 1:12 pm
    Mr. Hepner, we heartily concur and, in fact, had a heated debate about this in during the editing process here at the Jewish Review of Books. The "goyim naches" formulation comes directly from Abrams book, and thus we retained it in the article.
    Amy Newman Smith, Managing Editor

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