Film what you know: Spielberg’s ‘Fabelmans’ hits home


Kathy Shayna Shocket | Special to the JT

In one of the early scenes of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “The Fabelmans,” the family is driving home on a winter night. Their young son, Sammy, points out that he knows which home on the street is theirs, as it is the dark one among all the others adorned with Christmas lights.

Steven Spielberg directs Gabriel LaBelle on the set of “The Fabelmans.” (Courtesy of Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

The Fabelmans are a fictional family. But it’s one of the scenes where Spielberg draws from his own early childhood memories, growing up in mostly non-Jewish neighborhoods.

Through the Fabelmans, the movie captures the American Jewish experience in the 1950s and ’60s, and reflects Spielberg’s own upbringing in three different cities.

The semi-autobiographical feature film shares the joy of unwrapping Chanukah gifts and traditional Shabbat family gatherings. There are various scenes filled with the Jewish culinary favorites of brisket and challah, a peppering of Yiddish expressions and wisdom offered from bubbes and a great-uncle.

Highlighted with the origins of what shaped Spielberg’s infatuation and steadfast dream to make movies, this is also very much a story of relationships.

A family in transition in ways beyond packing up boxes, the unraveling of his parent’s marriage and eventual divorce is also central to the film. It’s an intimate glimpse into the drama of the family’s migration from snowy New Jersey to the desert of Arizona and then Northern California. And his story is one that his mother had always encouraged him to share.

Life and bar mitzvah in Arizona

The Spielberg family relocated several times during the filmmaker’s adolescence. His father, Arnold Spielberg, a successful electrical engineer with a brilliant scientific mind, was a pioneering computer designer.

His rising career opportunities would uproot the family across the country, as Steven’s mother, Leah, put her career as a concert pianist behind her.

In Phoenix, the family lived in a one-level ranch house in the Arcadia area filled with orange trees; the neighborhood was initially developed as a citrus grove. Although the Phoenix scenes were not shot in Arizona, Spielberg recreated them with the magic of his team, including Karen O’Hara, set decorator; Andrew Cahn, supervising art director; and Andrew M. Siegel, prop master.

The pedestal-based Saarinen dining table in the kitchen, where parents Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, and their four children, gather in the film, replicates a specific piece that Spielberg and his three sisters recalled being an important feature of their home. The table that embodied the late 1950s and early 1960s was a powerful memory for them because it was a literal centerpiece for family dinners and conversations.

There aren’t any bar mitzvah scenes in the movie or mention of the Phoenix synagogue’s name which he attended, but the now former Beth Hebrew Synagogue is where Spielberg’s family and friends gathered for his 13th-birthday milestone.

His parents drove a distance to the downtown Phoenix area to attend what was the city’s first Orthodox synagogue. Among the founders of Beth Hebrew, incorporated in 1950, was a Holocaust survivor named Elias Loewy.

The notice in the Dec. 25, 1959, edition of the Phoenix Jewish News announced that “Steven Spielberg, son of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Spielberg will be Bar Mitzvah Jan. 9 (1960) at Beth Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi William Greenberg will officiate. A Kiddish will follow the services and an open house will be held Jan. 10.”

Human grace marks his films

Like young Sammy in the film (played by actor Gabriel LaBelle), Spielberg was immersed in making home movies and recruiting his family, and later, his fellow boy scouts and classmates to act in his location shoots.

Armed with his 8mm camera and discovering how the power of cinema can touch people, he showed his work to audiences, building the foundation for his classic craftsmanship.

In 1961, after attending Arcadia High School for three years, the family moved again, this time to Northern California.

In the film, a teenage Sammy is targeted at his new high school by antisemitic bullies. They often call him “Bagelman” and punch him in the nose. In one scene, Sammy discovers they have hung a huge bagel in his school locker.

The iconic filmmaker wrote the script for “The Fabelmans” with longtime collaborator and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who also shares a strong love of being Jewish and Judaism.

Spielberg and Kushner both felt that it was essential to reflect antisemitism as a real, troubling feature of Jewish-American life. Still, Spielberg wanted a treatment of the subject that was honest about his experience and its impact on him.

At the recent Toronto International Film Festival and world premiere of the film, Spielberg talked personally about how he had been thinking about making the film for a long time and its journey to the big screen. He and the cast received many standing ovations for it, and the movie won the festival’s People’s Choice Award.

And while he explained that antisemitism is an aspect of his life, he also noted that it’s not any governing force. The bullying he suffered was limited to just a pair of boys and was not indicative of that high school in general. It is not meant to be the theme of the film; still, he said, it made him very aware of being an outsider early on.

“The Fabelmans” is also a way of memorializing his family. It shows how his parents’ values and personalities (dad, the brilliant technician, and mom, the passionate artist) shaped his character and artistic identity.

It is an attempt to memorialize them with gratitude for their virtues, forgiveness for their frailties and the same humanistic grace that marks all his films.

His mother, Leah, the accomplished classical pianist who loved to dance and to whom Spielberg gives much credit for inspiring him, is played by four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams. His father, Arnold, the hardworking engineer who considered his son’s filmmaking in the director’s early years a hobby, is played by Paul Dano.

Seth Rogen plays the Fabelman’s friend Bennie in the film. The character is based on the family’s actual close friend, Bernard Adler, also an electrical engineer, who married Leah in 1967 after she got divorced from Arnold, and died in 1995.

The 87-year-old Judd Hirsch plays Uncle Boris; the character with a thick accent is based on Spielberg’s real-life great-uncle Boris. In the film, Uncle Boris makes an unexpected visit where he tells Sammy of his past, performing in the circus and about the Jew-haters.

Among the other truly solid performances in “The Fabelmans” are veteran actors Robin Bartlett and Jeannie Berlin.

Spielberg’s three sisters — Sue Spielberg; Anne Spielberg, a producer and writer; and Nancy Spielberg — also an accomplished producer of several films, were frequent visitors to the set. They offered insight and support to the actors playing them. Their big brother, Steven, also sought their input while he was writing and refining the script.

After wrapping up “West Side Story,” which came out in 2021, Spielberg said he found a deeper, urgent motivation to accelerate development of “The Fabelmans.”

His father died in August 2020 at the age of 103. His mother passed away four years earlier at 97. Then came the pandemic, and Spielberg began thinking more about what story he was going to leave behind.

“The Fabelmans” gives insight and emotion into the story behind the career of the world-famous director, whose other noteworthy Jewish contributions include “Schindler’s List” and “Munich,” and the founding of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Kathy Shayna Shocket is a writer and reporter based in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

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