In the Diaspora: Burying Charlton

The 'perfect' Jewish hero in the Hollywood mind.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Even were Charlton Heston still alive, rather than the newly dead subject of respectful retrospectives and gushing tributes, this would be the season when his two biblical epics would reliably turn up on television. The time for Easter and Passover was the time as well for networks to dust off the reels of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and reintroduce a willing audience to Heston's star turns as those two Jewish rebels, Moses in Pharaoh's court and Judah Ben-Hur in Roman-dominated Judea. The fact that Heston himself was not Jewish makes, if not all the difference to my own ruminations, then at least a fair amount. I come to bury Heston more than to praise him. My ambivalence has nothing to do with his performances, except perhaps his real-life one as president of the National Rifle Association, but rather with the effect those performances had on the American Jewish saga in postwar America. On the one hand, The Ten Commandments can be understood as part of the process of including Jews fully in the American mix. Released in 1956, the film appeared only a few years before the sociologist Will Heberg's study of American religiosity, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which put the United States' tiny Jewish minority on par with its tens of millions of Christians. Yet the notion of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" was anything but traditional. As the historian Deborah Dash Moore illustrates in her excellent history of American Jewish soldiers during World War II, GI Jews, this supposedly venerable concept was actually created during the war - partly as a calculated effort to build morale in the diverse military ranks and partly as an organic reaction to the racial supremacy espoused and enacted by both the German and Japanese enemies. BARELY A decade after victory, the same tradition was being durably deployed in the Cold War against what was invariably known as "godless Communism." Put in the terms of a Hollywood blockbuster, the demise of the World War II alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union becomes the shattered friendship and bloody rivalry between Judah Ben-Hur and the Roman apologist Messala. Deborah Dash Moore finds the same kind of parable even more evident in The Ten Commandments. "DeMille's remake of his earlier version of The Ten Commandments focuses on the evils of godless totalitarianism and in that sense fits into the notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a product of World War II and the postwar years," she put it in a recent e-mail to me. "The Cold War elements that infuse the movie give it a contemporary relevance, and that gives the Judeo-Christian tradition a contemporary relevance. I think that you could see the movie as a pop-culture wing of the [social] construction." Considering the common strain of anti-Semitism that views all Jews as Bolsheviks (well, at least all Jews who aren't capitalist bloodsuckers, but never mind), American Jewry as a whole probably benefited from being conscripted into the good fight against Rome/Pharaoh/Russia. And in the person of Heston, six-foot-three and square-jawed, the Jew came in the sort of physical package that a Zionist pioneer, hoe and rifle in hand, could appreciate. With the caveat, of course, that Heston was a gentile from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. And he was playing not just any Jew but two Jewish freedom fighters. Though Judah Ben-Hur late in the film is drawn to the nascent Jesus movement, his very name seems resonant with the actual Jewish revolutionary against Rome, Simon Bar Kochba. IT IS CERTAINLY not Heston's fault that Hollywood in the 1950s still quailed from casting a Jew as a Jew. That sort of cowardice in the face of box-office risks was hardly limited to Jewish characters, either. To me, the most embarrassing role Heston played in his career was not, as you might guess, in Planet of the Apes, but in Orson Welles's much-lauded A Touch of Evil. The reason I cringe is the sight of of Heston, with the requisite swarthy make-up, portraying a Mexican. Most depressing and revealing of all, the Hollywood establishment that recoiled from casting a Jewish actor in a Jewish starring role was itself heavily Jewish and deeply uneasy about the fact. "I don't think there is any doubt that Heston benefited from the highly conflicted feelings entertainment executives in the 1950s had about their own Jewish identity and the extent to which Jewish themes and narratives could be accurately portrayed onscreen," said David Zurawik, author of The Jews of Prime Time, an especially trenchant look at Jewish visibility and invisibility on network television. As Zurawik points out, both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments came out shortly after the last identifiably Jewish television show, The Goldbergs, had gone off the air. Not for another 20 years would there be an overtly Jewish leading character, and even that one, the male half of the sit-com Bridget and Bernie, would be married to an Irish Catholic. Throughout the 1950s and well beyond, the Jewish barons of film and television studios were fearful of being perceived as the living proof that Jews really did control the media, that the anti-Semites were right. "There is also the belief - actually accepted or not, but certainly voiced in Hollywood and on Network Row - that non-Jews won't watch any film or TV show that is 'too Jewish,'" Zurawik put it. "So entrenched was the belief, that executives were still acting like it was a truth when Seinfeld came along four decades later. "All of which," Zurawik continued, "makes Heston the 'perfect' Jewish hero in the Hollywood mind - precisely because he is not Jewish. It is the big screen version of the TV production strategy I chronicled in The Jews of Prime Time: Write Yiddish, cast British." HESTON'S moment as the Jew-not-Jew actually ended long before its legend. Two films in 1960, Exodus and Spartacus, cast Jews as Jewish heroes, Paul Newman in the first case and Kirk Douglas in the latter. Then again, it took until the 1980s for Kirk Douglas to publicly reclaim his birth name of Issur Danielovitch. That mouthful wouldn't fit easily onto a marquee or into display ad, of course, but it had the unmistakable virtue of being true.