Jews in Oscar films: Are they vile throwbacks to Jewish stereotypes?
Three of this year's Oscar best picture nominees have something unusual in common -- they have leading characters who are open, self-proclaimed Jews.
Think about it: It's almost impossible to find any goyim in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," a slyly satiric look at the Jewish community in a 1967-era Midwestern town. A big chunk of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" revolves around a raucous band of Nazi-scalping Jewish soldiers who've been assembled to go after the Fuhrer and his high command. And Lone Scherfig's "An Education," costars Peter Sarsgaard as an unscrupulous young Jewish real-estate speculator who woos a 16-year-old British schoolgirl eager to see the world.
You'd think this might be cause for celebration, or at least a show in pride, in the Jewish community, especially since you can often go years at a time without seeing openly Jewish characters in Hollywood films. But are Jews happy? As my grandfather (who spoke Hebrew with a Southern accent) used to say: Not in a million years. In fact, the Jewish Journal just ran a provocative cover story entitled: "Realism or Anti-Semitism: Negative Depictions of Jews Raise the Age Old Question."
Written by Tom Tugend, the piece attempts to be even-handed, saying that "A Serious Man" and "An Education," depending on the viewpoint, "represent either vile throwbacks to Jewish stereotypes in Nazi propaganda movies or creative works of art that show Jews, like other ethnicities, as multidimensional human beings." But it turns out that most of the people in the story actually had very little problem with the films. Tugend interviews all sorts of smart folks who defend the movies' portrayal of Jews, including historian Neal Gabler and UCLA professor Howard Suber. Even Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman supports "An Education," who said: "To call it anti-Semitic would suggest that any depiction of bad behavior by a Jew is beyond the pale. That is not the view of ADL, and ADL does not find the film offensive."
So who are the people who are up in arms over the movies? Tugend only found two people he could actually quote as being outraged by the films. One is Irina Bragin, who teaches world and English literature at Touro College. She hated "An Education" so much that she walked out in the middle, which in my mind, already disqualifies her as a serious critic, since she didn't bother to judge the film in its entirety. In a piece she wrote for the Journal, she called "An Education" "an artful film which wraps old anti-Semitic messages into a pretty new package." The other is Internet movie critic Joe Baltake, who said of "An Education": "This film should be offensive to any thinking, feeling person," going on to complain about Jewish film critics who "remain firm in their convictions that the film isn't anti-Semitic."
That would presumably include my paper's film critic, Kenny Turan, who in his rave review of the film wrote that " 'An Education' does so many things so well, it's difficult to know where to begin when cataloging its virtues." I felt the same way. But what especially bothers me is that the Journal seems to have gotten sucked into the vortex of another age-old issue -- the hyper-sensitivity among Jews to any portrayal of a Jew that could possibly be viewed as a negative stereotype by the outside world.
Remember, "An Education" is based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber about her teenage affair with a man who was Jewish. So it's not a work of imagination, where you could ask the question, as many did of Spike Lee when he cast John Turturro as a sleazy Jewish nightclub owner named Moe Flatbush in "Mo' Better Blues": Why make him Jewish? (After Lee was attacked by the ADL and B'nai B'rith, he responded by arguing that not every Jew in his films had to be a good guy, that there have been plenty of exploitative Jewish nightclub owners and, furthermore, that "not every black person is a pimp, murderer, prostitute, convict, rapist or drug addict, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from writing these roles for African-Americans.")
As for "A Serious Man," while it is clearly a work of fiction, it is also clearly based on the Coen brothers' youthful memories of growing up in a closeknit Jewish suburb of Minneapolis. As someone who is roughly the same age as the Coens, I watched the film with a delirious sense of recognition. I knew those Jews in that movie and felt just as alienated from their neurotic ways as Larry Gopnik's red-headed son does in the film. Even though my family are Southern Jews, they have the same Jewish DNA as the Coen's characters, in the sense that I could've cast the majority of my family in most of the parts in the film, right down to the crazy uncle played by Richard Kind.
When I went to Hebrew school, I had to listen to long, hazy and often entirely unsatisfying religious discourses by rabbis who were eerily similar to the ones in the film. If you thought the Coens were offering a mean-spirited, self-hating portrayal of Jews, you missed the point of the movie. It's simply a comically barbed look at an insular community that simply happens to be Jewish, because the Coens did what all good writers do -- they wrote what they know.
Frankly, I think the Journal is making much of nothing. It's telling that it couldn't find any Jews who were upset about Tarantino's portrayal of bloody, baseball-bat-wielding Jewish tough guys in "Inglourious Basterds," since I'm betting that every Jew -- starting with my father, who's probably seen the film a dozen times by now -- is secretly, or not so secretly, thrilled by their no-nonsense virility.
It also seems fitting that when the Journal asked Ethan Coen what he would say to people who believe their film is anti-Semitic, he struck just the right note of "Basterds"-style defiance by responding: "Too bad, you big crybaby -- that's what David Mamet would say." Funny, that's just what I would've said too.
Photo: Michael Stuhlbarg in "A Serious Man." Credit: Wilson Webb/Focus Features.