Last night on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl interviewed Steven Spielberg and his mother Leah Adler about anti-Semitism he experienced as a boy in Phoenix:
Leah Adler: We lived in an all non-Jewish neighborhood. These people used to chant, “The Spielberg’s are dirty Jews.” And one night, Steve climbed out of his bedroom window and peanut buttered their windows, which I thought was marvelous.
Lesley Stahl: Do you remember what you did?
Steven Spielberg: I took Skippy peanut butter and smeared it all over their windows….
Lesley Stahl: But, you came under some serious anti-Semitic attacks. How did you react? How did you deal with it?
Steven Spielberg: I denied it for a long time….
Lesley Stahl: Denied what? That–
Steven Spielberg: My Judaism.
Lesley Stahl: –you were Jewish? Oh.
Steven Spielberg: Uh-huh (affirm).
Lesley Stahl: Were you ashamed?
Steven Spielberg: Uh-huh (affirm). I often told people my last name was German, not Jewish. I’m sure my grandparents are rolling over in their graves right now, hearing me say that. But I think that– you know, that I was in denial for a long time.
Lesley Stahl: So when people say that a lot of your movies are about outsiders, that’s what you must’ve felt.
Steven Spielberg: Oh, yeah. I was an outsider for all– most of my formative years.
I confess I’m confused by this narration. Were these indeed “serious anti-Semitic attacks”? Were the police ever involved? The evidence in this exchange involves social anti-Semitism of a sort that apparently did not leave the Spielbergs fearful for their lives. And yes, clearly Spielberg was an outsider and felt himself to be one, and his self-abnegation is of a classic variety. But isn’t there another way to tell the story: that this belief gave him motivation and power– just as anti-Irish prejudice built Tammany Hall. Spielberg went into an industry where he was not an outsider, as Lesley Stahl, who is Jewish, went into one where she also was not an outsider. So: I want the whole American Jewish story, not just the outsider one.