By Edward Sylvan, CEO and Founder of Sycamore Entertainment Group
After a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has become the leading international expert concerning the history and use of Holocaust films. He is a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem, Israel. Brownstein is the author of Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide, September 2021, McFarland Press. His book is unprecedented in scope, breadth and analysis of this crucial film genre.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me. I was born in Portland, Oregon in 1962. Most of my undergraduate work at Reed College was in psychology. By the time I graduated, three of my experiments were on their way to being published in the top social psychology journals in the world. Those studies are still being cited today. During college, too, I was a Sunday school teacher specializing in Holocaust education and I was also on the board of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center (now the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education).
A few years after college I moved to Los Angeles, working with Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker Productions, the people who made Airplane! (1980), Ruthless People (1986) and Naked Gun (1988). I was the associate producer on one of David Zucker’s projects, directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, just before they created South Park. In fact, there is a South Park character that I inspired and I am credited on South Park’s pilot episode.
I then founded The Transcription Company, starting from a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. Initially, my company transcribed the raw interviews for tabloid TV shows such as Fox’s A Current Affair, NBC’s Access Hollywood, and King World’s Inside Edition/American Journal. Eventually, every network and studio used my company, including: NPR, Oprah, ABC News, Curb Your Enthusiasm and even Playboy videos. At the end of Nightline when transcripts were offered, those were produced and processed by my company. By the time I sold the company in 2003 to move my family to Israel, I had over 100 employees and contractors.
In Israel, I became a professor of Jewish and Holocaust film for the Young Judaea Your Course program, accredited by the American Jewish University. For a decade, I taught hundreds of college students during their “gap year” about film and critical reasoning. My teaching methods and theories about Holocaust films eventually came to the attention of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies where I have been a lecturer since 2014, specializing in the use of narrative Holocaust films in the classroom. Thousands of educators worldwide use my methods. I have also written for the Jerusalem Post about Holocaust films and for The Times of Israel about my experiences in Poland.
Next month my book about Holocaust films will be published: Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide. Forwards for my book have been written graciously by UJA Professor Michael Berenbaum and Eddie Jacobs; Professor Walter Reich, the former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, the director of the finest Holocaust film ever made, The Grey Zone (2001); and by director David Zucker.
Along the way, I also sang “Louie Louie” with The Kingsmen, taught Stan Lee how to use Microsoft Word, presented on the Chabad Telethon, read Shas, worked with the man who wagged the tail of the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, wrote one unpublished children’s book, one unpublished novel, and one unpublished book and documentary about Jimmy Carter’s antipathy toward Israel, and I have also accumulated the largest collection of basketball memorabilia in the world, all of it related to my beloved Portland Trail Blazers. That’s my childhood and backstory.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I was a George Orwell fan. Reading 1984 and Animal Farm during the Cold War was very intense. But, in terms of my current path, when I was in high school, I read Michael Elkins’ Forged in Fury: A True Story of Courage, Horror…and Revenge, about Holocaust survivors. And I also read Leon Uris’ Jewish/Holocaust novels Exodus, Mila 18 and, most importantly, QB VII, which definitely turbocharged my interest in the Holocaust. A few years later I saw Leon Uris lecture in Portland, where he was incredibly rude to a high school girl who asked him a question; his poor behavior made more of an impact on me then did his books.
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