Release of Big Lubowski.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Before you read Nathan Abrams’s scholarly but highly entertaining book The New
Jew in Film, be forewarned. You’re going to need a lot of time, because there
are probably going to be dozens of movies among the 300 he cites that you’ll
want to screen or revisit.
Abrams, a senior lecturer in film studies at
the UK’s Bangor University, exudes a deep, enthusiastic love for cinema, as well
as a comprehensive understanding of the changing manner in which Jews have been
portrayed in films over the years.
“There’s a lack of research in the
area – and something struck me about the types of films I was watching. I
thought I could make a contribution to their understanding, and it opened up a
niche for a subject that hadn’t been extensively covered,” said Abrams in a
phone conversation from Bangor.
He had just returned from the US where he
presented lectures on Jews and cinema including clips from some of his favorite
movies, an ongoing pastime that combines his wealth of knowledge on the issue
with a wry, British sense of off-the-cuff humor.
In the book, Abrams
provides well-documented anecdotes in can’t-put-down chapters devoted to
eyebrow-raising subjects like “Jews and Food” and “Jews and Bathrooms”
(unsurprisingly, Ben Stiller figures prominently in both).
“Those are two
important areas of Jewish culture and they haven’t been studied in reference to
film. To me, it seemed to be a logical thing to write about it since so much
Jewish literature, culture and jokes revolve around the twin subjects of food
and bathrooms,” said Abrams.
The lighthearted subjects back up a meatier
thesis – that Jews have achieved a “normalcy” in films over the past 20 years
that has enabled them to branch out from behind their Woody Allen-nebbishy, or
Tevye-traditionalist stereotypes and portray everyone from cowboys, skinheads
and lesbians to porn stars, assassins and cops.
Abrams credits a new-found
sense of confidence among a new generation of Jewish filmmakers, writers and
actors, comfortable and fully integrated into society, and proud of their
“In short, it’s due to an attempt by Jews to fit in,” said
Abrams. “And it reflects a younger generation not having to go through that
struggle for their rights and attempt to fit in – they’re saying ‘we’re here to
stay. And now we’re going to make the kind of films we want to watch and not
feel obliged to explain ourselves to the gentiles.’” He cites currently
ubiquitous Jewish actor Seth Rogen as an example of someone portraying
characters who are comfortable, self-effacing and even aggressively proud in
In the film Knocked Up, when Rogen is asked what product makes his hair so
curly, he replies, “I use Jew.” But the character Abrams repeatedly returns to
in his efforts to demonstrate the “new Jew” in modern cinema is Walter Sobchak,
the bowling and guns-obsessed Vietnam vet convert to Judaism who’s the focal
point of the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski.
portrayed by John Goodman, makes honoring Jewish tradition and keeping Shabbat
seem both cool and bordering on dangerous with his unhinged and profanely
passionate adoption of the religion, including an oft-repeated soliloquy that
proudly recalls the Jewish tradition “from Moses to Sandy Koufax.” No wonder
he’s Abrams’s favorite Jewish character.
“Walter embodies the changes in
contemporary cinema and Jews,” said Abrams, pointing out that the word “Jew” is
uttered in The Big Lebowski more than in any other movie, and never in a
“Most Jews are defined ethnically, not religiously unless
they’re haredim. And here we have a non-haredi, ethnically Polish convert to
Judaism, who sort of destroys all the previous categories of how a Jew is
Abrams added that the Coen Brothers, who themselves have
contributed greatly to the new Jew in cinema, repeatedly refer to Walter as
being “as Jewish as Tevye” to purposely erase the previous representation of the
old-time Jew being the benchmark of authenticity. Not any more.
couldn’t be farther removed from Tevye, but he winds up being more authentic
than Tevye,” said Abrams.
“He’s a perfect blend of the weak and tough Jew
– the insecure ex-soldier damaged in Vietnam, with his preferred weapon of
choice being the Uzi.”
WOMEN HAVE made their inroads in portrayals of a
new breed of Jew in cinema – transforming from previous roles as neurotic Jewish
mothers or self-absorbed JAPs into personas Abrams describes as normalizing
female Jewish characters: the “new Jewish mother,” the “gentle JAP” and the
“Jewess with attitude.”
He cites characters ranging from Alicia
Silverstone in Clueless to Julie Davis in Amy’s O to demonstrate more nuanced
versions of the previous vacuous Jewish American princesses. And he refers to
Angelina Jolie in the end of her spy film with Brad Pitt – Mr. and Mrs. Smith –
where among other revelations, her character Jane discloses to him: “I’m
“While it is no doubt played for laughs, and a gratuitous and
superfluous throwaway line – a sign of increased cultural confidence of the
post-1990 New Jews – in these two simple words, representations of the Jewess in
US cinema are reversed. Jane tangos, climbs mountains and runs her own
professional-gun-for-hire business.... She is the antithesis of the Mother and
the Princess. She works for a living, she makes men sweat. Her body is not for
mere passive adornment. Thus, when she confesses to her Jewishness, we witness a
new phenomenon in contemporary cinema: the tough, sexy, highly erotic, female
Jewish assassin,” wrote Abrams in the book.
Abrams doesn’t restrict
himself to mainstream Hollywood films, preferring to bring in less well-known
European movies into play, and contrasting the development of Jewish characters
there with their US counterparts.
“In England, for example, there’s a
greater timidity that characterized British Jewry compared to US Jewry. But what
struck me is that in countries where the Holocaust occurred, filmmakers have not
been prevented from making interesting, challenging films – like in Germany,
France, the Netherlands,” said Abrams.
“One might think Jews would be
suffering from the impulse to keep their heads down, but the film-making doesn’t
bear that out. And they’re not holding back, just because the audience is
primarily non-Jews. Films like Black Book in the Netherlands are very
interesting,” he added, referring to the provocative Holocaust-based film about
a partisan agent who goes to any length, including sleeping with the enemy, to
do her part.
Referring to Israeli cinema, Abrams said he’s seen fewer
changes in the past 20 years, because of the nature of Jews being portrayed in
Israeli films is fundamentally different than in the rest of the
“There’s nothing inherently Jewish about films like Yossi and
Jagger or Waltz with Bashir,” he said. “The issues in Israeli cinema aren’t
always Jewish issues, they’re national issues, with no specific Jewish content
in them other than the actors being Jewish.”
At the same time, he noted
that there’s an increasing number of Israeli films that portray religious Jews,
like Kadosh and Ushpizin, a trend he chalks up to filmmakers coming out of the
Ma’aleh Film School who are increasingly in touch with religious
In US films portraying Israelis, things have been shifting as
well, with previously untouchable characters and institutions like IDF soldiers
or Mossad agents increasingly being questioned.
“A film like Munich asks
whether perhaps the Mossad isn’t as efficient as its global reputation assumes,
and if it is, is that the most effective way to fight terror?” asked Abrams,
adding that a film like Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
simultaneously admires and makes fun of the macho Israeli fighting
“He’s good at what he does, but in his representation of ‘the
Israeli’ he is being ridiculed in the film for viewing himself in that
Abrams’ devotion to film as a way to explain societal changes
permeates the entertaining and informative book, which seems like the result of
a lifetime of research and movie going. Scholarly while at the same time
enabling breezy page flipping if desired, The New Jew in Film offers a new
cornerstone to the study of the how the people of the book are portrayed in the
movies. The best part of it for Abrams? When the lights go down.
got offered a job practicing my hobby, which is watching movies, I was very