What’s the connection between a man-eating shark, a homesick extraterrestrial, and a Nazi-hunting archaeologist? Steven Spielberg.
But the connection goes deeper than that. It turns out that the sharks, aliens, and even the dinosaurs all have something to say about Spielberg’s Jewish identity.
Spielberg has never been shy about exploring Jewish themes in his movies, but his relationship to Judaism shows up in unexpected ways in his films. Could Spielberg’s conflicted relationship with Judaism be the secret to his incredible success?
Humans often turn to art to express strong emotions and Spielberg is no exception. He worked out his emotions through film, and he had a lot of complex, changing emotions about his Jewish identity.
Steven Spielberg’s Jewish background
Speilberg was born a year after the Holocaust and learned his numbers by examining the tattoos of local Holocaust survivors.
As a 3-year-old, he had no idea that the men and women gathered around his family’s table in Cincinnati had survived a genocide. To him, they were just nice old folks with numbers on their arms who came to his grandma’s house to learn English.
But the Holocaust wasn’t Spielberg’s only experience with Jewish trauma. His family moved around constantly for his father’s work.
It’s hard enough for a kid to be uprooted and have to constantly readjust. It’s harder when you’re the only Jewish kid in your neighborhood.
Like lots of artists, Spielberg got picked on a lot. His bullies zeroed in on his Judaism. Eventually, Spielberg started to associate his Jewish identity with shame.
Jewish themes in “Jaws”
Jewish representation probably wasn’t top of mind for Spielberg when he was making his first movie. “Jaws” has no explicitly Jewish characters, and yet, Jewish themes power the film.
Spielberg said that when he first read the book that the movie is based on, he found himself rooting not for the townspeople, but for the shark. It makes sense seeing as Jaws is the prototypical outsider in the lily-white beach town where nothing is ever supposed to go wrong.
It’s a pretty apt metaphor for how the world has viewed Jews over the centuries. In fact, some critics interpret the shark as a symbol of communism.
This interpretation fits neatly with the idea of the shark as Jewish, given the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews invented communism to take down world governments.
However, the shark calls up an even more explicit antisemitic trope. He’s a violent figure that hacks apart innocent women and kids. In other words, he’s exactly what antisemites portray Jews to be. That conspiracy theory is called a blood libel, and it’s been used as a pretext for violence against Jews for hundreds of years.
Famously, the shark doesn’t show up on screen until late in the film. He’s scary precisely because you don’t see much of him.
The shark isn’t the only symbol of Jewish identity in the film. In their fight back against the shark, the townspeople bring in an expert oceanographer, Matt Hooper, who is heavily implied to be Jewish. Like the shark he’s paid to study, Hooper is an outsider, a city boy among the working-class townsfolk.
He’s the proverbial Wandering Jew, cursed to travel from town to town, never fully welcome anywhere. He’s brilliant and quick-thinking, and — spoiler — he ultimately saves the town. But he’s not a part of it, and he never will be.
Biblical themes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
Spielberg returned to this theme of alienation in his next movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” This time, he drew inspiration from the Hebrew Bible.
The film’s main character, Roy Neary, is a mashup between Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, and Elijah, a Hebrew prophet who ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Like Moses, Neary has to contend with a bunch of skeptics who doubt and mock him at every turn — much like the Israelites, who spend a significant portion of the Exodus doubting and complaining about everything.
It’s only when Neary addresses his neighbors from the Devil’s Tower — a stand-in for Mount Sinai — that they begin to listen. Similar to the prophet Elijah, Neary is eventually taken up into the heavens — though his fiery chariot is a UFO piloted by aliens.
“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”: Being an outsider
Spielberg’s next movie really hammered the alienation point home. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” centers on a homesick alien who befriends a lonely little boy named Elliott, loosely based on Spielberg himself.
The movie’s main characters are lonely and isolated, desperate for connection. They find it in one another. But that connection is threatened by powerful forces who want E.T. gone. He’s a literal outsider and that makes him dangerous.
Spielberg later noted that E.T. is the ultimate “minority story.” But the power of telling stories is that we get to choose how they end. Ultimately, E.T. offers us a vision for a better world. E.T. and Elliott learn to communicate with one another. Their shared language leads to an empathy that transcends their differences.
“An American Tail”: The Jewish immigrant experience
But Spielberg wasn’t quite ready to celebrate his own differences. Four years after E.T., he produced “An American Tail,” which tells the story of a Russian-Jewish family who immigrated to America due to antisemitic persecution.
The Jewish characters are animated mice, who sing songs like “There Are No Cats in America.” The cats are an obvious stand-in for the very real Cossack mobs that rampaged through the Russian Empire throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sounds pretty Jewish, right? But some critics panned “An American Tail” as “a Jewish parable that doesn’t want to declare itself” and “chickened out on its ethnic heritage.”
It’s pretty telling that at the end of the film, the main character assimilates, turning into a “real American.” While that was the goal for many Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the century, it conceptualizes Judaism as ethnic baggage that should be shed to be like everyone else.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”
For a while, it seems like that was what Spielberg really wanted: to be like everyone else. He made “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which a Nazi-hunting archaeologist — played by a Jewish actor — hunts down the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, but there’s not a single word in the script about Judaism. It’s a pretty glaring omission in a movie that seems tailor-made for Jewish audiences.
A turning point in Spielberg’s career
It’s possible Spielberg would have continued making movies that talk around Judaism rather than about it, but everything changed when his second wife converted to Judaism.
This was the turning point in his career. As he watched his wife consciously choose the identity that had brought him so much shame, he was forced to examine, deeply and explicitly, what it meant to be Jewish.
Until that moment, Spielberg had played it safe, making movies about generalized themes of alienation and assimilation, but “Schindler’s List” wasn’t going to beat around the bush.
“Schindler’s List”: The most famous Holocaust film
Spielberg later reflected that making “Schindler” changed his life: “I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time.”
There’s a lot more to being Jewish than processing intergenerational trauma. Still, nothing forces you to confront your complicated feelings about your identity like standing in a death camp that was built to exterminate your people.
The film brought a flood of survivors to Spielberg’s door, each with a heartbreaking story. Painfully aware that survivors wouldn’t live forever, Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation, which filmed thousands of hours of survivors’ testimonies. Spielberg had never hidden his Judaism, but now, he was owning it.
“Schindler’s List” won Spielberg his first Oscar. But his childhood rabbi’s backhanded praise really cements the film’s importance. He called it “Steven’s gift to his mother, to his people, and in a sense to himself. Now he is a full human being.”
The Jews of “Schindler’s List” are utterly powerless, dependent on the generosity and moral compass of their non-Jewish employer. But by the 21st century, this was no longer the Jewish experience. Israel had been around for decades, simultaneously vulnerable and tough as hell. So Spielberg turned his attention to a very different facet of modern Jewish identity: power.
“Munich”: Israel and the Mossad
His film “Munich” follows the Mossad agents who hunt down the Palestinian terrorists behind the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill thriller. Spielberg’s Mossad agents start off full of righteous and avenging anger.
They end up questioning everything, including the razor-thin line between justice and revenge. The film condemns the torture and slaughter of the Israeli athletes, but it doesn’t let the Mossad off the hook. Unsurprisingly, Jewish organizations were less than thrilled with the Mossad’s portrayal. Some even called for a boycott of the film.
“The Fabelman’s”: A film based on Spielberg’s life
If “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” examine the Jewish people’s relationship to trauma and power, Spielberg’s latest film explores his own personal relationship to his Jewish identity.
“The Fablemans” is loosely based on Spielberg’s life. He calls it “$40 million of therapy.” If “Jaws,” “E.T.,” and “Close Encounters” had alluded to his childhood alienation, “The Fablemans” spell it out loud and clear.
How Spielberg’s Jewish identity influenced his films
Spielberg isn’t young anymore, but his legendary career is the best proof that we never stop grappling with our identities. Age doesn’t automatically bring certainty. In some ways, that’s terrifying, but it’s also reassuring because it means that we never stop growing. We never have to stop being surprised and fascinated by life.
People go to the movies for a lot of reasons: entertainment, escapism, a need to see ourselves reflected on the big screen, and a desire for language to express the things we don’t know how to say. Whether you love them or hate them, Spielberg’s movies fulfill all of those needs.
His most critically acclaimed films don’t shy away from exploring heavy topics. They are specific, detailed and personal. They stare head-on at all the things that make him who he is — the alienation, shame, and pain of being an outsider — all of which are directly bound up in his Jewish identity.
Like Judaism, his films also celebrate how beautiful and complicated life can be. They balance trauma with hope and pain with love. Whether he’s writing about sharks or aliens or animated mice, he’s got the secret sauce: curiosity. Above all, he commits to asking the tough questions, which is the most Jewish trait of all.