Just how Jewish was Stanley Kubrick?

Author Nathan Abrams examines the legendary director's Jewish identity


Many people are surprised to discover that legendary director Stanley Kubrick whose masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is 50 years old this year— was Jewish. “But how Jewish was he?” they ask. This is a thorny question but having just published the results of a decade of teaching and research into him, I believe I’m able to answer it.

Kubrick was known to have said that he was “not really a Jew, but just happened to have two Jewish parents.” He was Jewish by birth through both his mother Gertrude Perveler and his father Jack or Jacques Kubrick. His parents gave him what can be regarded as a very typical first name for Jews born in that era. And he steadfastly stuck to using that name in an industry where fellow Jews at least the actors with whom he worked were encouraged to change them.

Born in 1928, Kubrick grew up in the heavily Jewish West Bronx, surrounded by Jewish neighbours and immigrants. The Bronx was, at that time, home to 250,000 Jews from which Kubrick drew his early circle of childhood friends. His maternal grandmother spoke Yiddish and he adored Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), identifying with the little boy Joe. The taste, smell and language of that film was that of his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s.

But, as an assimilated American-Jewish family, the Kubricks were not religious. They practiced little, if any, Judaism. Jacob had changed his own Hebrew name to the more cosmopolitan Jack/Jacques.

When asked, “Did you have a religious upbringing?” Kubrick replied, “No, not at all.” His education was completely secular. He received no formal Jewish instruction and never (as far as we know) attended a synagogue or Hebrew School, and wasn’t barmitzvahed; none of these things interested him.

Others have characterised Kubrick as a self-hating Jew. Dalton Trumbo, who collaborated on Spartacus (1960), accused Kubrick of being “a guy who is a Jew, and he’s a man who hates Jews. He has said to me that the Jews are responsible for their own persecutions because they have separated themselves from the rest of humanity.”

Frederic Raphael, who co-wrote the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), claimed Kubrick had said Hitler had been “right about almost everything.”

But Kubrick’s Jewish identity was much more complex than these labels suggest. There’s no proof that Kubrick was a self-hating Jew, a label thrown about with far too much abandon, especially by disgruntled collaborators.

Kubrick was more than just Jewish by birth. He was a Jew by culture and feeling, but not religious. He was acutely aware of his central European Jewish origins his ancestors having emigrated from there around 1900. This heritage had a significant effect upon him. He loved the Jewish literature of the region: Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Jacob Schulz, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig. His father, a well-read man, owned an extensive personal library, which he encouraged his son to read, suggesting an informal Jewish education during Kubrick’s childhood.

Kubrick’s lifelong interests manifested a Jewish sensibility. He was passionate about photography, chess, jazz, and film-making, all extraordinarily Jewish professions and pastimes in the twentieth century.

He married two Jewish women in succession (albeit in civil ceremonies), Toba Metz and Ruth Sobotka, daughters of first-generation European immigrants, .

But he also experienced prejudice. His third wife, Christiane Harlan, recalled how, “Early on, as a photojournalist for the magazine Look, he was confronted with antisemitism.” When travelling in the southern states, he was barred from restaurants and hotels. Even in Vermont, he was denied a table. He experienced it later when working in Hollywood, on Spartacus. “Get that little Jewboy from the Bronx off my crane,” grumbled veteran cinematographer Russell Metty. No doubt, this was in part behind his reason to relocate to England. But he never felt comfortable in certain social circles here either. He was often invited to social events and refused to go.

Maybe this was because, as his brother-in-law and producer, Jan Harlan, said, “He knew he looked Jewish and his big beard emphasized this.”

In the opinion of Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote 2001, his full and untrimmed facial hair gave him the “aura of a Talmudic scholar” and the look of a “slightly cynical rabbi” that he retained for the rest of his life. At least two of his films, Barry Lyndon (1975) and Eyes Wide Shut, highlighted the awkwardness of the outsider in elite Anglo-American society.

Kubrick can be described as a gastronomic Jew. He loved lox, bagels, salt beef, and pastrami. His long-time assistant, Tony Frewin, recalled, “I think of Stanley going to sleep at night dreaming of Carnegie Deli.” Kubrick objected that the nearest deli was in Golders Green Froheim’s.

As a parent, his daughter Anya described him as “a very nice, good, rather Jewish father — probably over protective.” The Kubricks always had a Christmas tree. Although they did nothing Jewish, his eldest daughter, Katharina, said, “He did not deny his Jewishness, not at all. But given that he wanted to make a film about the Holocaust and researched it for years, I leave it to you to decide how he felt about his religion.”

Indeed, Kubrick read many books about the Holocaust. This included Raul Hilberg and Primo Levi, whom he recommended to various collaborators, including Michael Herr and Brian Aldiss. He just could never complete the film he dreamed of making. When asked if he would adapt Albert Speer’s Inside The Third Reich, he said “I don’t see how I could make it? … “I’m Jewish...”

In the final analysis, Kubrick had no faith. He stated, “I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions.” His driver and handyman, Emilio D’Alessandro recalled, “Stanley wasn’t particularly interested in religion, nor did he really understand religious fanaticism.” Yet, Jan Harlan says he was “always taking a big bow to the great Unknowable.”

Maybe this explains why Kaddish was recited at his funeral.

Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual by Nathan Abrams is published by Rutgers University Press

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