When Stephen Spielberg started filming “The Fabelmans” — an aptly named tale of family, marriage, art and suffering — he couldn’t have known how relevant it might be.
Or maybe he did.
After all, the creator of “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 Academy Award-winning drama about saving Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, already had plumbed the depths of the persistent historical evil of antisemitism.
But “The Fabelmans” — now playing in Richmond-area theaters — unpacks the experience of intolerance from a more personal point of view.
Sitting in a near-empty theater, it occurred to me that this film should be seen by everyone on the big screen. In its very human and often humorous portrayal of the power of art in a boy’s life, it’s a timely antidote to recent toxic headlines about an ex-president hanging out with delusional fans of Hitler and other forms of hate-mongering.
As Burt and Mitzi Fabelman return home after taking their son to his first film, it was moving to see the world from the boy's back-seat viewpoint: While his street was festooned with Christmas lights, his own home shone with menorah candles to celebrate Hanukkah.
“The Fablemans” explores the challenges Spielberg faced moving around the U.S. because of his father’s job. This reminded me of my own experience as my military father did the same.
I smiled thinking of my grade school friends in the suburbs south of Alexandria in the early 1960s. Many were Jewish and shared parts of their heritage that were news to me — from bagels to menorahs to the humor and warmth of their homes. I don’t recall anyone talking about the Holocaust, but I do remember our crossing guard was said to have survived some awful place. Later, in high school, I had classmates and teammates who grew up in Gum Springs near Mount Vernon. From them I learned about the rich history of their African American community, whose origins could be traced to descendants of people enslaved by George Washington.
Little did I know that even then, in the late 1960s, there were parts of the country where Black and white kids weren’t going to school together. Some Virginia parents had chosen to pull their kids out of public schools or sought other ways to avoid integration, such as private schools and all-white “academies.”
As I watched Sammy Fabelman face antisemitic taunts, threats and humiliations I’d never known, the film made me wonder how the lack of exposure to “others” around America continues today to leave people more susceptible to lies, stereotypes and prejudices — especially when they’re only a click away on a phone or laptop.
“The Fabelmans” also brought to mind another movie with a Richmond connection. “Kristallnacht and Beyond” tells the painful, yet uplifting story of Alexander Lebenstein, who fled to America after losing his parents and others to the Nazi genocide. He settled in Richmond, never thinking he’d return to the nation that had taken so many of his loved ones. He was often angry and bitter.
His life took a dramatic turn, though, when two students wrote him a letter in the 1990s inviting him back to his hometown, Haltern am See. After studying the Holocaust, they asked Alex — their town’s lone Jewish survivor — to come and teach them about it.
After rejecting the offer, according Alex’s Wikipedia entry, “He was convinced by his family to come to his German hometown. This visit completely changed the life of Alexander Lebenstein and soon after he started publicly speaking — in churches, schools, libraries and at the Virginia Holocaust Museum about his life and his terrible experiences.”
I had the honor of meeting Alex during the making of the museum’s 2009 documentary about him. The producer, Lindsay Stone, invited my wife, Deborah Jones, to write its theme song. Its refrain drew upon Alex’s own words during a Richmond-area school appearance.
“Remember my call to reconcile,” he told the students, “or hate will turn around to hate you.”
Similarly, Spielberg struggles with his own hurts, humiliations and self-doubts. By doing so, he discovers the power of art to help with his own healing. Like so many great artists, he holds up a mirror that allows us to reflect on our own wounds from life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.
In doing so, Spielberg reminds us that when it comes to our shared experience as Americans, we’re all in this together — even when it hurts.
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.