Cutting the clichés

Jews have achieved a ‘normalcy’ in films over the past 20 years that has enabled them to branch out.

Release of Big Lubowski (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 heritage.
“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 their Jewishness.
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.
Walter, as 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 negative light.
“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 portrayed.”
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.
“Walter 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 Jewish.”
“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 world.
“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 issues.
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 ethos.
“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 way.”
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.
“When I got offered a job practicing my hobby, which is watching movies, I was very happy.”