Steven Spielberg Family History

Overview

The film maker Steven Allen Spielberg was born on December 18th, 1946 to Arnold and Leah Spielberg in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The family were Jewish and Steven attended Hebrew school from 1953 to 1957.  During this time they had relocated from Cincinnati to New Jersey because of his father’s work.  They were later to move to Arizona and then to California.  It was at that time that his parents divorced.

His interest in film-making began at an early age.  At the age of thirteen Steven made a 40-minute war film, Escape to Nowhere, with a cast of his classmates.  At seventeen he wrote and directed his first film, a 140-minute science fiction adventure called Firelight that was funded by his father and shown in the local theatre for one evening.

Steven later completed a degree in Film and Electronic Media at the Long Beach branch of California State University.  By this time, however, he had so impressed Universal Studios with his film-making skills that he had been offered a directing contract by them.

He worked initially in television before making his first blockbuster hit Jaws in 1977.  There followed further mega-hits such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET the Extra-Terrestial, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series.  Several of his works are among the highest-grossing films of all time.

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The Spielberg Name

Spielberg is a Jewish surname, but not a common one.  At last count, there were only 700 Spielbergs in America and fewer in Germany and Israel.  David Spielberg the actor and Robin Spielberg the pianist are other notable American Spielbergs.

Spielberg may have been a Jewish ornamental name, derived from the German spiel meaning “play” or “game” and berg as “mountain.”  Alternatively. Spielbergs could have taken their name from the historic Špilberk castle at Brno in present-day Czech Republic. Jews were expelled from this town in 1454, taking the name of its former residence to other places in Europe.

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Spielbergs from Ukraine to Ohio

Clara and Samuel Spielberg grew up in the 1880’s in an area of western Ukraine then known as Kamenets-Podolski.  Many Jews lived there. Their particular town was about 30% Jewish and they were to be found as merchants or running small handcraft businesses.

Clara and Samuel had lost both their parents when they were young and grew up on their uncle Avram’s farm.  Later Samuel was conscripted into the Russian army and served for six years.  Afterwards he and his sister decided to emigrate to America.

Clara arrived first, to Cincinnati, Ohio.  Samuel came there in 1904 and then his betrothed, Rebecca, and others of the family and area.  But many remained behind in Ukraine.  And they unfortunately were to experience the Russian pogrom in 1919 and the Nazi death camps of the 1940’s.

Clara married and did well, running a Hungarian-style semi-kosher restaurant in Cincinnati.  Samuel struggled to start with, first with his pushcart and then with his grocery store.  Things went better when he got into the dry goods business.  The family moved into the middle-class Avondale district of the town in the 1920’s.

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And Later

Samuel and Rebecca had two sons, Arnold and Irvin (better known as Buddy), and one daughter, Natalie.  Both Arnold and Buddy had distinguished careers and lived long lives.  Arnold died in 2020 at the age of 103 and Buddy in 2015 at the age of 97.

Arnold, Steven’s father, became interested in electronics at an early age.  At fifteen he was a ham radio operator, having built his own transmitter.  This talent proved useful when he was drafted into the US Army following Pearl Harbor and joined the Signal Corps.

After the War Arnold returned to Cincinnati and married the concert pianist Leah Posner.  Their son Steven was born in 1946, followed by three daughters in the next ten years.  By that time he had joined General Electric’s computer department.  He later became known for the GE family computer which he and a fellow worker had designed.  His work took him to Arizona and later to California.  He and Leah divorced in 1965.

Arnold retired in 1991 but continued consultation work for technology companies.  He died in Los Angeles in 2020.

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The Spielbergs and The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans, a movie released in 2022, is Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized account of events that shaped his teenage years at the time of his family’s move from Arizona to California.

The film recreated his real-life meeting in California with the legendary film director John Ford.  The details of that encounter – down to the safari shirt, eye patch and chewed-up cigar – were exactly as they appeared in the final scene of The Fabelmans.

Ford had Spielberg (Sammy in the film) walk around the room pointing out where the horizon was in the various paintings hung up on the walls. The advice he gave Spielberg that day, as conveyed in the film: “When the horizon is on the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is on top, it’s interesting. When the horizon is in the middle, it’s boring.”  The anecdote ended with Ford telling Spielberg: “Now get the f— out of here.”

But much of The Fabelmans revolved around Sammy’s (i.e. Steven’s) life at home with his artistic mother, engineer father and three sisters who he often enlisted to act in his home movies. Things took a sharp turn when his parents’ marriage began to fall apart, uprooting his life in more ways than one.

Steven’s real parents divorced in 1965 when he was nineteen.  When his mother announced that they were splitting up, his father took the blame.  In The Fabelmans, she struck up an affair with her husband’s best friend who was like an uncle to Steven and his sisters.

After the break-up she fell into a dark depression from which she took a long time to recover.  In real life Steven blamed his father for the collapse of the relationship and did not speak to him for fifteen years (they did later reconcile).

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Steven Spielberg’s Family Tree
  • Meyer Spielberg (b. 1850) m. Bertha Sandelman (b. 1846) in Ukraine
  • – Avrom Spielberg (1866-1941)
  • – Clara Spielberg (1868-1932) emigrated to America, m. John Lerman
  • – Shmuel/Samuel Spielberg (1873-1945) emigrated to America in 1904
  • Samuel Spielberg m. Rebecca Chechik (1884-1969) from Ukraine in Cincinnati in 1908
  • – Arnold Spielberg (1917-2020)
  • – Irvin (Buddy) Spielberg (1918-2015) m. Frances Fabe
  • – Natalie Spielberg (1922-1992) m. Jacob Guttman
  • Arnold Spielberg from Cincinnati m. Leah Posner (1920-2017) in 1945, divorced  in 1965; rem. Bernice Colner (1920-2016)  in 1997
  • – Steven Spielberg (b. 1946)
  • – Anne Spielberg (b. 1949) m. Danny Opatoshu
  • – Sue Spielberg (b. 1953) m. Jerry Pasternak
  • – Nancy Spielberg (b. 1956) m. Shimon Katz

 

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