The ‘Cinematic Zionism’ of Mel Brooks

August 3, 2012 1:17 pm 1 comment

Mel Brooks. Credit: Angela George.

Mel Brooks shows no outright sense of shame or victimhood in his humorous films, but his Jewishness is there without ambivalence, according to experts.

“There is a simple pride and comfort in his Jewish skin,” Gabriel Sanders, director of public programs at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, told JNS.org. “It’s cinematic Zionism.”

As a heat wave continues to blanket the New York area this summer, film buffs are taking advantage of a free series of comedies at the Jewish heritage museum called “Mel Brooks on Film: The Spoof is in the Pudding.”

Featuring six award-winning films from the 1970s and 80s, the series runs through Aug. 8. Brooks’ parodies and satires are cult favorites and box office hits, and Brooks is one of only a handful of performers that have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award.

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, NY, his father’s family consisted of German Jews from Danzig while his mother’s family were Ukrainian Jews from Kiev. His father died of kidney disease at 34, when Brooks was only 2 years old.

In John Wakeman’s book World Film Directors, Brooks explained his reaction to his father’s death. “There’s an outrage there,” Brooks said. “I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face.”

Over the top and often like the punch in the face Brooks described, the humor in his films is muscular self-confident, as opposed to Wood Allen’s neurotic style.

“We had a Woody Allen series last year and that was successful, so we wanted another iconic Jewish director,“ Sanders told JNS.org. “It’s been interesting to see how different the two are. Brooks’ preoccupation with Nazis is not unique to just one of his movies. It’s not only Nazis he goes after, but the powerful.”

In 2001, Brooks told U.S. News & World Report that he was never crazy about Hitler. “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win,” Brooks said. “That’s what they do so well, they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”

The Jewish heritage museum’s series includes comic gems such as “Silent Movie,” “History of the World Part I,” “High Anxiety,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “To Be or Not to Be.”

According to Wakeman, after World War II, Brooks started working in various Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs as a drummer and pianist. Another Williamsburg resident, Buddy Rich, taught Brooks how to play drums and he started earning money that way at age 14.

Mel Brooks in "Young Frankenstein." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Kaminsky changed his professional name to “Mel Brooks” after being confused with the well-known Borscht Belt trumpet player Max Kaminsky. After a regular comic at one of the nightclubs was too sick to perform one night, Brooks started working as a stand-up, telling jokes and doing movie-star impressions. He also began acting in summer stock in Red Bank, NJ, and did some radio work. He eventually worked his way up to “tummler” at Grossinger’s, the most famous of the Catskill resorts.

Sanders invited Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at the City University of New York (CUNY) Grad Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, to give a talk before the Brooks film series opened.

“Brooks’ films are never subtle. They cartoon, parody, have no use for good taste, and are laugh-out-loud-funny,” Quart told JNS.org. “He has no use for sacred cows.”

Quart said Brooks’ films use Yiddishisms freely but, more importantly, are deeply embedded in a sense of Jewish victimization and oppression.

“He sees comedy as a relieving of the pain of historical intolerance and of being an outsider,” Quart said. “The films make us laugh and sometimes make sharp satiric points about racism, politics, and religion. Yes, they are zany comedies, but they also can provide trenchant commentary on social mores and history.”

Eventually Brooks found more rewarding work behind the scenes, becoming a comedy writer for television. In 1949, his friend from the Borscht Belt days, Sid Caesar, hired Brooks to write jokes for the NBC series The Admiral Broadway Revue, paying him $50 a week. In 1950, Caesar created the revolutionary variety comedy series, “Your Show of Shows,” and hired Brooks as a writer along with Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin.

Brooks never forgot what Caesar did for him and cast him in his film, “Silent Movie.”

“When we showed ‘Silent Movie’ the other night, he’s merciless with big money. Much of the movie has Mel going around to different stars trying to get them to be in his silent movie. He makes fun of them. He really is a kind of equal opportunity comic,” Sanders said.

Still, some may claim that Brooks’ films continue to push the boundaries of good taste. Quart agrees with this claim. “Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured, to draw blood, even though Brooks believes ‘comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.’”

To most, however, Mel Brooks’ films remain relevant.

“How do we define comedy’s relevance? If it’s able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it’s relevant. I wouldn’t say all of Brooks’ work meets those criteria, but he does meet some of them,” Quart said.

1 Comment

  • I have always had trouble with The Producers, the end result/net effect of which is still to trivialize the Shoah. Then again, I’m not consistent: I’ve laughed many, many a time at iterations of the Downfall Internet meme applied to liberal American politics.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    JNS.org – While the national debate on “Obamacare” rages on past the recent March 31 sign-up deadline, bestselling Jewish author Dr. Joel Fuhrman says the “current disease care model of what we call ‘health care’ cannot possibly be sustained.” “There is simply not enough money available to support a system in which the lion’s share of expenditures is devoted to acute care, with virtually nothing being spent on preventive medicine, i.e. health care,” Fuhrman says in an interview. “To make [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.