Jewison and the Jews: How anti-Semitism shaped the life and career of Canada’s greatest filmmaker

Jewison and Tevye
Norman Jewison on the set of Fiddler on the Roof, 1971 (Credit: Norman Jewison: A Director's Life).

“No Jews, N******, or Dogs.” 

The sign was posted at Kew Beach, a five-minutes’ walk from Norman Jewison’s childhood home in the Beach district of Toronto. He passed it countless times during his childhood, on summer days spent swimming and canoeing in Lake Ontario, among families whose day at the beach was not to be spoiled by the sight of a Black person or Jew.  

He had seen similar signs barring Jews from the nearby Balmy Beach Canoe Club, but paid them little mind. They were a feature of the social environment into which he had been born in 1926, as real and unremarkable as the algae and dead fish that occasionally washed ashore. Still, while many of Jewison’s boyhood memories took place in the shadow of that sign, much of his professional life was defined in passionate opposition to everything for which it stood. The future director of In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof would even grow up to become a dog person. 

If you want to understand Norman Jewison, start with his name. Jewison: son of a Jew. The fact that he was actually the son of two Anglo Protestants didn’t count for much on the streets of Toronto in the 1930s. Those streets that were still awaiting the arrival of traffic lights. Six-hundred-thousand people lived in Canada’s largest city, 85 percent of them white Protestants of British extraction.  

Anti-Semitism was woven into the social fabric of a city in which Jews were banned from hotels and beaches and blocked from entering the professions. Two major publications, The Telegram and Saturday Night, were openly prejudiced against Jews. And Toronto’s anti-Semitism was a physical reality for a boy named Jewison in the 1930s. Norman remembers being attacked by local ruffians who called him “Jewy” and “Jew-boy” from the age of three or four. He befriended Jewish kids in the neighbourhood—everyone assumed he was Jewish, anyway, and there was safety in numbers, although they were still beaten up from time to time.  

Toronto of the 1930s was not what you could call a safe space for Jews. One summer night, three weeks after Jewison’s seventh birthday, members of what the papers called the “swastika movement” descended upon a baseball game at Willowvale Park (now Christie Pits). The Toronto Star described a gang “openly flourishing pieces of metal pipe, chains, wired broom handles, and even rockers from chairs.” Cries of “Heil Hitler!” pierced the air. As many as 10,000 Torontonians eventually joined the melee. 

“Heads were opened, eyes blackened and bodies thumped and battered as literally dozens of persons, young and old, many of them non-combatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons,” the Star reported. The following night, gang members began roaming the streets in search of Jews, where they surrounded a 22-year-old medical student named Louis Sugarman, “pummeling him with their fists and inflicting acute damage on his head with a heavy iron pipe.” Witnesses claimed that police efforts to pursue the perpetrators was lackadaisical.  

After Mayor Walter Stewart banned Torontonians from flaunting the swastika, reporters uncovered that “scores of Toronto constables today carry swastikas around on their keyrings” and that the emblem was stamped on locker keys at a police motorcycle depot. Asked if Toronto police would stop carrying the swastika keychains, the Deputy Police Chief replied, “I hardly think we’ll go that far, except under orders.” 

“The whole thing of carrying this name that starts out with the letters J-E-W—it affected me deeply,” Jewison later said. Even as an adult, he couldn’t get into a Scarsdale golf club. “One thing that really sets me off is any kind of racial prejudice or intolerance,” he said. “I am deeply offended by that.” Others of Jewison’s generation would arrive at anti-racist attitudes by way of education. Jewison’s anti-racism was pounded into him by experience. 

While Jewison’s name may have preordained his sympathetic relationship with the Jewish people, part of him suspected a secret Jewish branch of the family tree. He hired a researcher to investigate, only to discover a Jew-less lineage extending back to Yorkshire in 1116. The apparent lack of a genealogical connection could not extinguish Jewison’s fascination with many aspects of Jewish culture. 

Jewison’s personal interest in Judaism deepened when he became the director of Fiddler on the Roof. (“We don’t want a Seventh Avenue [Yiddish] production,” United Artists chairman Arthur Krim managed to say after Jewison shocked producers by outing himself as a “goy.”) In late September 1969, Jewison and his associate producer Patrick Palmer flew to Jerusalem and spent a few days embedded among descendants of the Eastern European Jews depicted in the Sholem Aleichem stories that were the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. 

He greeted the Sabbath with residents of Shaare Hesed and visited a synagogue for Simchat Torah. He shared the Sabbath meal with an Orthodox Jewish family, following the customs and traditions as they had been observed in the shtetl. He sang the Zemirot, the family songs of Sabbath. Saturday morning, he took a guided tour of Meah Shearim, the Hasidic Quarter, and attended prayer at the Western Wall with professor Davis. He wanted to spend a day riding along with an Orthodox milkman, a modern Tevye, but time was short. 

The experience was unexpectedly moving. Jewison was touched by the strength of the familial bonds of the Orthodox Jews, their reverence for tradition, and what struck him as the clarity of their lives. He loved the theatricality of their traditions, their devotion to the details of its performance. Mistaken for a Jew his entire life, Jewison discovered a deeply felt connection with his Jewish hosts and their historical burden.  

“I spent quite a bit of time in Jerusalem,” Jewison said later. “It was quite possible for me to identify with Tevye, and with the Jewish religion. The more I studied it and the more I exposed myself to Jewish homes, more Orthodox homes…I identify with certain aspects of the Jewish religion. I find it a very personal religion. Any deep feelings I have at all about God, and about my own religion, are very personal.”  

Rumours later circulated around the production that Jewison was thinking about converting, but he shrugged it off as a joke: sure, he’d convert to Judaism and change his name to Norman Christianson. 

Jewison had been almost overwhelmed with emotion when, after the Jerusalem premier of Fiddler, Prime Minister Golda Meir squeezed his hands in approval. “Your words that night meant more to me than all the Oscars or critical praise the film ever received,” Jewison later wrote to Meir.  

Arthur Krim hadn’t wanted a Seventh Avenue production, and Jewison obliged. The Anglican/Methodist from the Beaches brought the writing of Sholem Aleichem to a world audience in a film that was nominated for Best Picture and a massive commercial success for United Artists. 

Jewison wrote to his old friend Carl Reiner that in making Fiddler on the Roof he had “found, in a way, in myself my own Jewishness.” His time researching the film in Jerusalem had also awakened a love of Israel. After shooting his next film, Jesus Christ Superstar, in Beit Guvrin, Herodian, Avdat, and other locations in the Negev desert, Jewison penned an article for Variety encouraging more Hollywood producers to film in Israel. “There is a spirit in the country and among its people that grabs you,” he wrote, “and if you spend any time there you will never be the same.” Jewison planned to remain in Israel for his next film, a biographical drama about the celebrated military tactician Orde Wingate.  

Leading up to the release of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, however, Jewison’s relationship with Israel would get more complicated.  

Jewison had heard about the accusations of anti-Semitism that dogged the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar (with which the director was not involved). A report, written by Gerald Strober, a Presbyterian advisor to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), was methodical and damning. He compared Superstar to ancient Passion Plays (such as the Oberammergau) which implicated the Jewish people in the act of deicide, and found that the musical “unambiguously lays the primary responsibility for Jesus’s suffering and crucifixion to the Jewish priesthood.” 

Jewison poured over Strober’s analysis before deciding to press on with his film version. He detested censorship and pressure applied by special interest groups (one of which had recently cancelled his attempted film adaptation of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner). Mostly, however, he believed that the concern was unfounded, if not downright absurd: he knew that he was incapable of making an anti-Semitic film. He assured the American Jewish Film Advisory Committee that his version of Superstar would “not be found offensive, blasphemous or distasteful to any religious group. What more can I say?” Fiddler on the Roof had recently earned Jewison the 1971 Inter Religious Award granted by the Committee on Films of the Synagogue Council of America along with Roman Catholic and Protestant organizations. He assumed his version of Superstar was bound for similar praise.  

The ensuing fiasco would become the most controversial episode in a film career that had never been short on controversy. The substance of the public case against Jewison’s Superstar was again provided by Gerald Strober. His method was to compare specific scenes from the film to their portrayal in the New Testament, quoting chapter and verse. Strober claimed that Judas “is represented as a victim of Jewish perfidy,” and that Jewison included modern Israeli tanks and planes to “caricature the supposed ‘ruthless power’ of modern Israel.” He concluded that Jewison had “pressed into service every device of cinematic art to spread the old falsehood of the Jews’ collective responsibility for Jesus’s death” and exploited “a tradition that has scarred Jews and Christians from the time of the Church Fathers, through the Middle Ages, to the era of Auschwitz.” 

Much of Strober’s jeremiad was recycled from his denunciation of the Broadway production. Still, Jewison was gobsmacked. The AJC broadcast Strober’s findings across the world. The B’nai B’rith Messenger published a front-page condemnation under the headline “‘Superstar’ Super-Demeaning.” Strober called the film “nothing less than a catastrophe,” while the AJC’s Rabbi Tanenbaum opined that the film’s G rating “means that masses of Christian children of Sunday school age will be exposed, in most compelling fashion, to an anti-Jewish presentation of the gospel story.” 

Jewison sat down at his typewriter and let loose a flurry of letters to Israeli officials and well-connected journalists in an effort to salvage the situation, emphasizing his personal disgust at the insinuations of anti-Semitism and portraying himself as the victim of a “secular” attack on the film. Such was the public uproar over Superstar that Jewison felt compelled to write directly to Prime Minister Golda Meir, debunking the accusations and emphasizing that his support for Israel was as strong as ever. He’d screened the film in locations around the world, including in Israel, and “Not one member of any audience has complained that Superstar is anti-Semitic or in any way detrimental to Israel or Jewish-Christian relations.” 

But the damage was done. If there was any hope for pursuing his film on Wingate in Israel, it was permanently scuttled when the Yom Kippur War broke out in October of 1973. Jewison’s next film, the science-fiction bloodbath Rollerball, would shoot in Munich. 

It was a bruising affair, but Jewison’s profound identification with the Jewish people was unshakable. The seeds of Jewison’s final film, The Statement (2003), had been planted in the director’s childhood experiences of anti-Semitism in 1930s Toronto.  

The Statement was about the elderly war criminal Pierre Brossard (based on the Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier), who killed seven Jews while serving a French military force loyal to the Nazi occupiers in the Vichy government, and had been concealed for decades by right-wing elements within the Catholic Church. The final shot of Jewison’s career faded out on a humble monument to Touvier’s seven Jewish victims. The Statement was dedicated to the 77,000 French Jews who died under the German occupation and the Vichy regime. 

Some critics complained that The Statement was too morally ambiguous—that it “made no statement.” For those sensitive to sympathetic portrayal of Jewish persecution, however, the film’s statement was clear enough. In 2003, Jewison received a report indicating that censorship authorities at General Security in Beirut had formally banned The Statement for “repeated depiction of Jews as victims and as such considered promoting sympathy for the Jewish cause.” Egypt was next to issue a formal banning certificate: “Contents constitute Jewish propaganda namely in their depiction as victims of persecution.” Jewison’s final film was subsequently banned across much of the Middle East. 

In 2010, Norman Jewison married his second wife, Lynne St. David, beneath the chuppah in their garden. If the chuppah represents home and openness, its place in the ceremony also signified, in some small way, the influence that Jewish culture, history, and sensibility had always exerted over Norman Jewison’s imagination. In the late 1950s, Larry Auerbach, Jewison’s long-time agent, advised his client to change his name, but Norman knew better. You can’t have Jewison without the Jews. 

Adapted from Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life by Ira Wells (c) 2021. Reprinted by permission of Sutherland House. 

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