How Jewish Was Stanley Kubrick?

The Director of 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut Had the ‘Aura of a Talmudic Scholar’ and Favored Plots Dealing With Cultural Outsiders

Stanley Kubrick, self-portrait, circa 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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. He rarely spoke of it, his films seemingly contained no explicit reference to it, and his work fell outside the stereotypical definition of a Jewish film. “But how Jewish was he?” they ask. This is a thorny question that, after decades of researching the director’s life and work, I believe I can answer. A sense of historical, cultural, and intellectual Jewishness underpins all of Kubrick’s films.

Kubrick was, according to Frederic Raphael, who co-wrote the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), “known to have said that he was not really a Jew, he just happened to have two Jewish parents.” Jewish by birth through both his mother, Sadie Gertrude Perveler, and his father, Jacob (also known as Jack or Jacques) Kubrick, the director was given by his parents a very typical first name for Jews born in that era. In addition, he steadfastly stuck to using that name in an industry where fellow Jews—at least the actors with whom he worked—had frequently changed them.

Born in 1928, Kubrick grew up in the heavily Jewish West Bronx, surrounded by Jewish neighbors 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; Kubrick adored Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), set in Rockaway Beach in Queens, identifying with the little boy, Joe, the film’s protagonist. The language of that film, and the tastes and smells it conjured up, were those of Kubrick’s childhood in the 1930s and 1940s.

However, 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 once by an interviewer, “Did you have a religious upbringing?” Kubrick replied, “No, not at all.” His education was completely secular. He received no formal Jewish instruction and, as far as is known, never attended a synagogue or Hebrew School or was bar-mitzvahed. None of these things interested him.

Some collaborators have characterized Kubrick as a self-hating Jew. Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay for Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), accused the director 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.” In his memoir of working with Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open, Frederic Raphael claimed Kubrick said that Hitler had been “right about almost everything.”

Yet Kubrick’s Jewish identity was much more complex than these labels—and unproven assertions—suggest. Kubrick was more than just Jewish by birth; he was a Jew by culture and feeling. He was acutely aware of his Central and Eastern European Jewish origins—his ancestors emigrated from Poland, Austria, and Romania to the United States around 1900. This cultural inheritance deeply influenced Kubrick. He loved the Jewish literature of the region: Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Jacob Schulz, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig. His father, who was a well-read man, owned an extensive personal library, which he encouraged his son to read, supplying an informal Jewish education during Kubrick’s childhood.

Kubrick’s lifelong interests manifested a Jewish sensibility. He was passionate about photography, chess, drumming, boxing, jazz, and filmmaking, all extraordinarily Jewish professions and pastimes in the 20th century. He married two Jewish women in succession (albeit in civil ceremonies), both daughters of first-generation European immigrants, Toba Metz and Ruth Sobotka.

Kubrick also 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 miles away from his home north of London.

Unfortunately, he also experienced anti-Jewish prejudice. In an interview with Tachles, his third wife, Christiane Harlan, recalls how, “Early on, as a photojournalist for the magazine Look, he was confronted with anti-Semitism.” When traveling in the U.S. Southern states, he was barred from restaurants and hotels. Even in Vermont, he once was denied a table. Kubrick never, as far as we know, responded. He did not comment on it publicly or in any letter I have seen.

He also experienced it later when working in Hollywood, on Spartacus. “Get that little Jewboy from the Bronx off my crane,” grumbled veteran cinematographer Russell Metty. How Kubrick reacted in these instances is unknown, but it led him to further embrace his relationship with Tony Curtis, another Jewish Bronx native. No doubt, these experiences hardened him and lay in part behind his reason to relocate to England in the early 1960s to make Lolita (1962), where he lived until his death in 1999. But he never felt truly comfortable in certain social circles there, 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 the screenplay for 2001, the director’s 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.

As a parent, his daughter Anya described him as “a very nice, good, rather Jewish father—probably overprotective.” The Kubricks always had a Christmas tree, and Kubrick also loved bacon. 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 throughout his career, and not only in preparation for his never-to-be-made Aryan Papers. 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. In an interview with Playboy in 1968, 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 the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourners, was performed at his funeral in 1999.

Kubrick was more than just Jewish by birth; he was a Jew by culture and feeling. He was acutely aware of his Central and Eastern European Jewish origins, and this cultural inheritance deeply influenced him.

Nonetheless, if you watch Kubrick’s films often and closely enough, the Jewish moments will gradually rise to the surface. Private Sidney, played by Jewish actor Paul Mazursky in Kubrick’s first feature film Fear and Desire (1953), very much resembles the stereotypical Jewish soldier of so many World War II combat films. Davey Gordon, the boxing hero in Killer’s Kiss (1955), very much fits into that period of Jewish boxing movies. The Jewish loan shark played by Jay Adler in The Killing (1956) has a Jewish sensibility encapsulated by the Yiddish saying, “Man plans, God laughs.”

Kubrick’s two films with Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), project the new 1950s creation of the macho-mensch character type. Douglas and his co-star Tony Curtis were both Jewish but had taken on non-Jewish names, seemingly playing non-Jewish characters. Kubrick’s two films with the British Jewish actor Peter Sellers—Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964)—were both imbued with a ’60s Jewish shtick of the type at which Lenny Bruce excelled. A poster of Lenny Bruce can be glimpsed in The Killing (as can a young Rodney Dangerfield, a Jewish comedian). Lolita also stars Jewish actress Shelley Winters, and there’s even a Jewish navigator in Dr. Strangelove. Both films have an underlying Holocaust theme.

Kubrick then made 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, a film rich with allusions to the Hebrew Bible, liturgy, and especially Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. His next two films also featured Jewish actors—Steven Berkoff and Aubrey Morris in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Berkoff again in the period film Barry Lyndon (1975), as well as Marissa Berenson and Ryan O’Neal, both of whom had Jewish ancestry. While the former film deals with the nature of free choice, a key Jewish tenet, the latter explores the interloper in WASP society, something that Jews confronted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a host of countries. As a shabby-genteel Irishman, Barry Lyndon was clearly an interloper in 18th-century elite Anglo society. In Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill Harford’s status as a party-crashing “outsider” is similarly based on social class, being out of his depth among the superrich elite in 1990s New York City. The protagonists of both Spartacus and A Clockwork Orange also fit into this interpretation of the outsider/anti-hero who disrupts the dominant social order.

While there was seemingly no one or nothing Jewish about The Shining (1980), adapted from Stephen King’s bestselling horror thriller, the story draws heavily upon Genesis 22, in which a father, the Jewish patriarch Abraham, seeks to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the bidding of a higher power.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) perhaps comes closest of all Kubrick’s work to referencing the horrors of the Holocaust, in its depiction of how ordinary men can become hardened killers. In this Vietnam War drama, young boys are degraded and dehumanized in boot camp so they can kill with hard hearts in Vietnam.

And all of this was capped off by Eyes Wide Shut, an adaptation of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, a story that was Jewish to its very core but seemingly scrubbed clean of any trace—except for casting Sydney Pollack in a key role as Victor Ziegler, a rich, unsavory, and morally suspect Jewish businessman. Pollack, like Kubrick, was a Jewish director and his physiognomy added what might be described as a stereotypical Jewish “look.”

As alluded to above, the ritual of unmasking and expulsion which Dr. Bill undergoes is something that Jews metaphorically feared and actually underwent in European society.

Kubrick and his films were complicated and defied simple readings. We can read them as Jewish, but this is just one element to be added to the mix of interpretations that already exist and no doubt will keep coming in the future.


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