40 years ago this month, the most Jewish film ever came out

Pretty much every aspect of Steven Spielberg’s ET resonates with Jews, making it a parable of our story, told by one of us, for us

December 22, 2022 15:30

In 2011, Tablet named Steven Spielberg’s ET the Extra-Terrestrial as the “greatest Jewish movie ever made”. Why, when it lacked explicit Jewishness, and when most critics compared it to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? In part, because Spielberg himself called ET “a minority story”.

“The saga of the spaceman marooned on planet Earth follows the classic, folkloric outline of the foundling myth,” the piece went on. “But there is another, archetypally Jewish story here, a minority story, indeed: an immigrant’s tale. ET is the ultimate greenhorn — an anxious, bewildered creature, adrift in a strange land. Like generations of newcomers before him, ET learns to speak a few halting, oddly accented English words.” Forty years this month since its release, let us re-examine this film from a Jewish perspective.

On the surface, ET is the story of an alien stranded on foreign planet. On another level, he is the incomer who arrives in a strange new land, unable to communicate in its language but who learns to adapt, survive and ultimately thrive.

“ET can be read as a fable of immigration,” Spielberg’s biographer wrote, “but with a bittersweet ending in which the unassimilated alien, after almost dying of homesickness, decides to leave American suburbia and return to his homeland.”

On yet another level, ET is the story of the Jew who is menaced and persecuted by the authorities, who must flee and hide like a refugee but is hunted down only to be captured.

In the opening sequence, ET and his companions are collecting botanical samples in a forest — the scene of so much existential Jewish dread — when cars arrive and shadowy security personnel, wielding flashlights and handcuffs, start to sweep the area.

For the rest of the movie, ET, who has been abandoned, must evade their clutches. Like a refugee stalked by a ruthless enemy, he must hide in outhouses and wardrobes.

The parallels are clear and never more so than when he is captured by scientists. He is saved by Elliott, whom Tablet calls “Spielberg’s first Righteous Gentile”.

Another element of the film’s Jewishness (and hence its broad appeal) is its autobiographical nature. Spielberg described ET as “a very personal story … about the divorce of my parents, how I felt when my parents broke up.”

Two characters in the story become surrogate father figures. As Spielberg said, ET was “the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore”. In the film, ET replaces Elliot’s absent father and when ET assembles a satellite phone, it is a reprimand to Spielberg’s engineer father.

This is why Elliott is so protective in the film. “When my father left, I went from tormentor to protector with my family,” Spielberg said, “I had to become the man of the house.”

“When I was a kid,” he added, “I used to imagine strange creatures lurking outside my bedroom window, and I’d wish that they’d come into my life and magically change it.”

The other father figure was the sympathetic government scientist, “Keys” — so-called because of the large bunch of them hanging from his belt. Keys are symbolic of authority in the Bible and Talmud and, as played by the Jewish actor Peter Coyote (born Robert Peter Cohon), some of this latent Jewishness surfaces.

While some critics suggest Keys wants to put ET on a slab to experiment on him, further extending the Nazi metaphors, this reading is incorrect, for Keys wants to save ET.

“The friendship that ET and Elliott find and hold on to — clinging to each other desperately — is sort of what I went through in four moves from the ages of four to 16 [actually two to 17],” Spielberg said. “I wished I had had a best friend… My feeling about the whole story is that if ET had not come into Elliott’s life and without Elliott having a father around, Elliott would have gone down a dark road.

"ET filled the gap left by the father who flew to Mexico with another woman, and then transforms the father-son relationship into something much more cosmic. That’s probably the most important aspect of the movie for me. I think it’s critical for our understanding of the movie that we realise that Elliott, without a dad, will go in a very rebellious direction.”

Spielberg also saw ET as “a broad-based story about an ugly duckling. Someone who wasn’t like everyone else.

And because ET wasn’t like everyone else, he was picked apart and made very sick and almost died. I always felt ET was a minority story … that stands for every minority in this country.” Molly Haskell described ET as, “the Jewish kid with the long nose and big ears, a misfit in Arizona’s Wasp and jock culture, transformed by cinematic magic into a big-headed extraterrestrial.”

McBride adds: “As a pencil-necked geek with a huge head, big eyes and nose, and protruding ears, the younger Spielberg could have passed as a human cousin to ET, whom he described as ‘a creature that only a mother could love’.”

Spielberg’s mother Leah told 60 Minutes how non-Jewish neighbours would often shout, “the Spielbergs are dirty Jews”. This antisemitism melded with his parents’ difficult divorce, battering Spielberg’s self-esteem. Alone and lonely, he imagined a friend “who needed me as much as I needed him” in the form of a compassionate alien. “This imaginary alien friend inspired ET and the young Elliot who finds ET mirrors Spielberg’s childhood biography. “We would go from town to town and it would just happen,” Spielberg recalled. “I would find a best friend, and I would finally become an insider at school and at the moment of my greatest comfort and tranquillity move somewhere else. And the older I got, the harder it got. And ET reflects a lot of that.”

Spielberg inserted multiple allegorical references to the Bible, leading it to be dubbed “a quasi-religious parable”.

Because of the clear parallels between ET and Jesus, Stanley Kauffmann called it “the Gospel According to St Steven”: the mysterious stranger’s arrival in a shed, his glowing heart, power to work miracles, healing touch, spiritual teachings, persecution by civil authorities, death and resurrection, and ascent into the heavens after bidding farewell to his disciples.

Universal’s Christmas 1982 poster showing ET’s glowing finger touching the hand of a child evoked Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, accompanied by the word, “Peace”.
Spielberg was embarrassed, saying he had not meant it as a spiritual allegory. “I’m a nice Jewish boy from Phoenix, Arizona.

"If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable’, what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

Fortunately, there are more Jewish elements (leaving aside the fact that Jesus was Jewish).

When Elliott pleads with Keys, “he needs to go home. He’s calling his people”, it sounds like Exodus. And when the scientist replies, “his being here is a miracle”, it suggests any number of biblical episodes.

While the name Elliott may not be obviously Jewish, it derives from the Greek form of the Hebrew Elijah, meaning the Lord is my God. His brother is called Michael, the Hebrew for “who is like God”.

Elliot is a mensch. He saves ET, he releases the frogs from death by dissection and Keys tells him, “I’m glad he [ET] met you first.”

As Elliott pedals his bicycle up, up, right off the ground, an improbably bright and gigantic full moon appears in the background and what could be a more Jewish celestial body than that?

How else do we know ET is Jewish? Because he appears and sounds Jewish. Spielberg wanted ET to “not only look sad” but “curiously sad”. His eyes were modelled, in part, on Albert Einstein.

When Gertie dresses him up, he looks like a Yiddische bubbe, complete with bracelets and rings.

The actress who voiced him, Pat Welsh, was a chain smoker whose raspy voice gave ET his trademark speech sound.

Who doesn’t know a wizened Jewish alter kacker with a nicotine problem? He was also voiced by Spielberg himself and the Jewish actress Debra Winger.

In both looks and voice, ET resembles that earlier alien, the wise (and Jewish) Jedi Master Yoda, who lived to the biblical age of 900, who is voiced by a Jewish actor, and whose name, in Hebrew, means “one who knows”. In fact, Yoda is twice invoked in the film when

Michael mimics him and on Halloween, ET is curious when he sees a boy in a Yoda costume walk past.

For audiences in the UK, when ET famously says “ET phone home”, it uncannily predicted — or maybe inspired — Maureen Lipman’s Beattie (BT — get it?), phoning home six years later in 1988.

Nathan Abrams is professor of film at Bangor University

December 22, 2022 15:30

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