At a post-premiere Q&A for his poignant, more-than-semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans at the Toronto International Film Festival, Steven Spielberg downplayed the Jewish-American aspect to his coming-of-age story and the bullying he faced growing up as a result of his faith.
“The bullying is only a small aspect to my life. The antisemitism is an aspect to my life, but it isn’t any kind of governing force in my life,” the director said. “But it made me very, very aware being an outsider early on.”
Nonetheless, film’s memorable scenes of antisemitic bullying are unsettling, with the filmmaker’s teenage alter-ego Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) being taunted with a slur, physically assaulted and nicknamed “Bagel Man” by a couple imposing students in the Northern California town where his family relocates during his teenage years.
And there’s no denying The Fabelmans is hitting theaters at an especially troubling time in America, as high-profile figures like Kanye West (who lost millions in endorsements after threatening to go “Death Con 3” on Jewish people) and Kyrie Irving (who promoted an antisemitic film on social media) have publicly stoked a wave of bigotry against Jews.
Asked if an Oscar-worthy film from America’s most beloved director could possibly counter the hatred and propaganda from West and Irving and their supporters, the film’s most prominent Jewish cast members — Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch— aren’t so sure.
“I mean, I would hope so. But I don't know,” says Rogen, who stars as “Uncle Benny,” the best friend (but not blood relative) to Sammy’s father Burt (Paul Dano). “People have always hated Jewish people. When I was a child, my dad was like, ‘Seth, people hate Jews. Just know that.’ And that's been as true when I was around 10 years old, when he said that to me, as it is now as a 40-year-old. People have been trying to humanize Jews ever since before I was alive. It works sometimes. It doesn't work, other times.”
Rogen doesn’t believe the onus falls on someone like Spielberg to combat such hatred: “Especially after making Schindler's List and things like that. I think people would say, ‘This is a thing maybe you don't have to take on.’ But he has chosen to make that a part of his film. But yeah, I mean, antisemitism isn't new and it ain't going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately.”
Seth Rogen with the realness on this wave of antisemitism stoked by folks like Kanye & Kyrie:
“When I was a child, my dad was like, ‘Seth, people hate Jews. Just know that.’… I mean, antisemitism isn't new and it ain't going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately.” @SethRogen pic.twitter.com/R0ejc53k7Z
— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) November 10, 2022
Hirsch, who makes a brief but unforgettable appearance as the brash (blood) uncle to Sammy’s mother, Mytzie (Michelle Williams), says he’s been dealing with antisemitism since his formative years in the post-World War II 1940s and 1950s.
“It was like a secret thing that was always around the corner,” the 87-year-old Dear John and Taxi screen vet says. “You always knew that there was this particular feeling about Jews in New York. That was where I lived. So it was in the back of in the mind always. There was a true fear. The second World War should have settled it, but it didn't. So while it’s gone on as long as it has, in history, I still haven't figured out where the hell it came from. Or what it's about. It's like living in a society, but you're not the same animal. And you're being, in a way looked at as like you're a squirrel, and these are people. … I can't figure out what the difference is. I don't know.
“It's current [again] though. It’s not most important part of the movie. That's just something that he went through.”
The Fabelmans opens in select cities Friday before expanding nationwide Nov. 23.
Watch the trailer: