Documentarian John Curtin Tries To Resolve The Question Of Why Jews Have Been So Successful

His new film ‘Why the Jews’ features interviews with Alan Dershowitz and Shimon Peres.

The Babylonian destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The Spanish Inquisition. Pogroms in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust. Why, historically, has the world hated the Jews so much, and, as a corollary to that, why have they been so successful? More simply put, “Why the Jews?” A new documentary with that title from filmmaker John Curtin attempts to provide an answer to these questions. (Not to sound too much like the promo for the 11 o'clock news, the answer may surprise you.)

In his film, Curtin — the Canadian son of a Viennese-Jewish father and English Catholic mother — spoke to some of the most accomplished Jews in the world, including noted attorney and fiery Israel defender Alan Dershowitz and former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who died in 2016. His aim: to figure out why Jews have been so accomplished and yet so reviled throughout history. The answer can be summed up by James Franco’s character in “The Interview”: “They hate us, cause they ain’t us.”

With 25 years of experience in radio, film and television, Curtin has explored topics such as the Sydney Olympics, the growth of Islam and his own father. He’s won a Gemini Award in Canada, the equivalent of an Emmy, but he never made a movie about Judaism, despite being partly descended from Austrian Jews on his father’s side. However, the idea for “Why the Jews?” has been developing since Curtin worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Berlin during the 1980s.

Speaking to New York Blueprint by phone, he told us all about how the project came together and the most shocking things he learned along the way.

Courtesy of John Curtin

New York Blueprint: The question "Why the Jews?" has been asked so often, that it probably dates back to when Jews first appeared with Abraham. What did you hope to find on this topic by asking the question yourself, particularly as a filmmaker?

John Curtin: Jewish overachievement was one of the biggest elephants in the room of Western culture that everyone kind of noticed, but no one really wanted to talk about it and I was very curious to find out why Jews have been so successful. That’s what I set out to look at. One of my first interviewees was Alan Dershowitz, who gave me any number of contributing factors, but he kind of ended up by saying, ‘Don’t expect to find the entire answer, it’s just elusive’ and no truer words were spoken. I’ve spent several years on this [and] I’ve talked to some of the smartest people on the planet and there’s various factors your could sight, but an entire explanation remains elusive. I think those kinds of subjects appealed to me. It was a bit daunting at first. It’s a big question to ask … but it was a lot of fun. I think it was [the] most interesting film that [I’ve made] or at least thought-provoking for me.


NYB: Related to that, what made you want to make such a movie?


JC: That was kind of personal. Despite my last name, my father was Jewish. He changed his name from Spiegel, he was a Viennese Jew, a Holocaust survivor, someone who fled Austria, probably the last Jew out of Vienna, end of March 1939. He never spoke German again after leaving Austria, even though he was 28 years old and that was quite obviously his mother tongue. So I grew up with a Jewish father in a Catholic family … I was interested in learning German so I had an opportunity as a journalist in the ’80s to go and be a freelance radio guy for CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation out of Berlin and learned German. When I was there, I expected [the] Germans [would have] contempt for Jews. But I noticed quite the contrary was true or at least a lot of the people I knew who were educated [and] seemed to admire the Jews, hold them in high-esteem. [They thought] they were very cultured and intelligent and accomplished. That was a surprising, flattering thing to hear … That sowed the seed of the idea behind the film, it was only much later, probably 8-10 years ago I started thinking about it again and thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a challenging film, but it might be a rewarding one.”


NYB: You start out by showing pictures of some of the most influential Jews in history and there are a lot. Where did you start for such a massive undertaking?


JC: First of all, I only wanted Jews who are alive [laughs] because I can interview them! In the opening of the film, I show a series of photographs or sometimes paintings of the great Jews in history. But I didn’t want to focus on someone like Einstein or someone who couldn’t be interviewed. The people I started to go for were the ones who are still alive. Of course, not everybody wants to talk about this subject, there’s a little bit of a taboo in some ways. I think Jews talk [about it] between themselves, but they don’t really talk to other people about it. That made me curious as well and so, I did ask a lot of people and some said no and even the ones that said yes, they tend to be incredibly busy. When you’re pursuing any sort of famous person, they seem to live at a hundred miles an hour and have no time. Some of them took ages to track down. I mean, Judit Polgár, the chess genius in Hungary eventually said yes. She turned down my interview request in writing three times [over a] two-to-three-year period. It was only at the last minute [when] she said, ‘You can come to Hungary on Wednesday,’ so I raced out there.


Chess prodigy Judit Polgár; Courtesy of John Curtin


NYB: What interested me most is that the question can refer both to why people hate the Jews and why Jews are so successful. How did you decide to explore both sides of that coin?


JC: Actually, I didn’t set out to explore both sides. This is the first film I’ve made that has anything to do with Jews or Judaism and so much has been done about the Holocaust that I was just basically determined to make this a different kind of film, almost Jewish success rather the Jews as victims or the persecution of the Jews. It’s [interesting] how these Jewish topics, the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews are so intertwined with Jewish history, that I guess it was inevitable that the two should meet. And so the film is just hinting at the Holocaust, maybe at the beginning and it’s only at the end where a couple of people—Rabbi Poupko and Alan Dershowitz—put two and two together and say, ‘Oh well, the persecution of the Jews is because of their accomplishments.’ So, I didn’t set out to do that, it was more by chance with the question, how did it come to be that Jews seem to be exceptional in so many areas?


NYB: In the film, you focus on individuals like a Nobel Prize winner, a celebrated cellist, a legendary litigator and a former president of Israel, to name a few. Can you talk a little bit about the process of deciding who you'd ultimately speak with and spotlight for the documentary?


JC: It was hard, but in the end, I was looking to get a good mix of people. You don’t want two lawyers or something, I was looking for a mix of people that would illustrate some of the range of Jewish accomplishment, but when it comes down to it, there are just too many areas to cover. I ended up with a lawyer, a musician, an architect, a former head of state, a Nobel Prize winner. They’re all good talkers.


NYB: What surprised you most about this topic while you were making the film?


JC: I obviously noticed that my doctor is Jewish and my lawyer’s Jewish. And so I thought that [Jews are at the top of] medicine and law [but] maybe in architecture you won’t find Jews at the top. But actually, the surprising thing is, and I can state this quite categorically, that you will find Jews over-represented in the upper echelons of virtually every profession. I don’t care what it is, it’s quite astonishing. I kind of looked into a lot of different areas … You were mentioning how did [I] choose the people? Well, your mind roam and you find people in every area and the amazing thing is that there are so many, it’s like the 18th Century poet John Dryden said, ‘Here is God’s plenty.’ It was an embarrassment of riches, really. I anticipated a lot of people saying ‘no’ to the request for an interview [but] I didn't worry too much about it. I said, ‘Well, if nine out of 10 accomplished people say no, there are still quite a few left.’


NYB: Was there a particularly challenging part of this project?


JC: The challenging thing about most filmmaking, I always say 40% of filmmaking is accounting. Getting the budget together is always a challenge and also the topic. A lot of broadcasters were very leery about this film. It took a while to find the right people, the right commissioning editors, but in the end, I found two courageous commissioning editors. That was difficult, but I guess that’s quite banal, it’s difficult to make any film in that sense. What was hard about it in the beginning is that it’s difficult to bring the topic out. I felt almost embarrassed the first time I started asking some questions. Unless you’re in the right environment that you even want to talk to people, start asking them about their—it wasn’t a question about their religion—but it’s a very sensitive area for a lot of Jews and quite understandably so. And they don’t like boasting about themselves. In fact, none of the Jewish interviewees ever mentioned anything besides cultural influences in terms of contributing factors to Jewish accomplishment. Kind of interesting.


Celebrated architect Daniel Liebskind; Courtesy of John Curtin


NYB: What was your favorite part about making this documentary?


JC: I loved filming and interviewing Alan Dershowitz, just because he’s had such an exciting life. He’s done so many things, he’s an incredible raconteur, and he has so many stories to tell. I found him very congenial as a person. A lot of people find him a bit brash and they tend to see him mouthing off on CNN or whatever, but in real life, he’s a quite a nice guy, a gentleman, a mensch. The first time I interviewed him was in Miami and he actually had to fly back to New York because his son was going under the knife in a rather dangerous operation. Most people would just say, ‘Thanks [but] I can’t do the interview.’ [Alan actually did the interview] before hopping on a plane. The best part of making this film was just talking to these people since they’re all such good talkers.


NYB: Was there a certain story or anecdote that really stuck with you?


JC: You know what? [laughs] I found that Dersh’s anecdote about how he got two boys off. The Tyson brothers were gonna be executed, two innocent boys were gonna be executed, and he got them off in an appeal. [Afterwards] one of the Tyson brothers wrote to him, saying that he should convert to Christianity [so they could] live together in heaven [because] 'Jews don't go to heaven.' And Dershowitz wrote back that Jews [do] go to heaven. [The Tyson brother responded that he would convert to Judaism, but Dershowitz told him that really wasn’t necessary]. I tried to hint … that there’s so much ignorance about Judaism out there. A lot people believe Jews can’t go to heaven because they haven’t been baptized. You see that guy in the Jewish Museum [in Berlin] answering questions about Judaism and a German girl asks him whether the Jews have anything like the Christians have the Bible. That, I found, darkly humorous.  


NYB: Circling back to the first question, what has been your takeaway from the entire experience and has your initial view on this subject changed at all?


JC: Yes, because I always thought the hatred of Jews was linked to religious upbringing among Christians. I was brought up a Catholic, so I remember when someone said the Jews killed Christ, I think that’s an idea that is put in the mind of Christians, or at least was. That was kind of a negative stereotype that was sown early in a child’s mind and that for me, I thought was one of the major causes of anti-Semitism. But I was won over to the idea that it is the very accomplishments of the Jews that has created the hatred. I think it’s sort of an envy and I think that was the most surprising thing for me. That’s why I kind of left it as the punchline at the end of the film. It’s not in ignorance of accomplishment that the anti-Semite hates, it’s because of it. If you think about it, if Israel were a failed state in the Middle East, who would care about it? It’s because of its success that it’s such a thorn in the side of the Arab world. That’s part of the reason, I think. The tragic irony of Jewish history is that, I think, Jews feel that in order to integrate well into society they have to prove that they’re upstanding citizens who accomplish things for the benefit of all. That’s their driving force, ‘If I do something great, the world will love me.’ But actually, they realize they may be antagonizing [others] through their accomplishment. It’s a weird kind of vicious cycle.




The film opens Friday, April 6 at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St.,

Why the Jews

John Curtin

Shimon Peres

Alan Dershowitz

Join The Discussion

Blueprint Calendars