The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Why Hollywood's Jewish guys fall in love with shiksas

October 21, 2009 |  2:54 pm

From Diane Keaton to Mariel Hemingway to Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen's favorite women have been WASPy blonds. [UPDATE: As many readers have noted, Johansson is actually Jewish, so perhaps I should call her a WASPy blonde Jewess.] At any rate, Allen is not alone. As Liel Leibovitz writes in a fascinating new essay in Tablet magazine, "Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin."

It's a big, bold accusation, but Leibovitz does a pretty persuasive job of proving it, digging all the way back to the earliest days of burlesque, when if you worked for the striptease kingpins the Minsky Brothers, you had to be a blond or a redhead, never a brunet. The early Hollywood moguls, eager to shed their shtetl roots, quickly dumped their first wives for Gentile trophy dames and largely banished both Jewish men and women from their all-American hymns to assimilation, forcing Jewish actors like John Garfield (Julie Garfinkle) and Danny Kaye (David Kaminsky) to change their names to far less ethnic-sounding monikers.

But Leibovitz argues that even today, long after Jewish TV execs allowed male characters to be named Seinfeld, Steinberg and Fisher, they still required the guys to lust after decidedly non-Jewish women. She points to a slew of shows, including "Mad About You," "Chicken Soup," "Flying Blonde" and "Anything But Love," that all feature neurotic Jewish (filmmaker/pajama salesman/biz exec/writer) men pining after gorgeous and free-spirited shiksas. Each show was designed around the idea of transformation, or more specifically, the power of a non-Jewish woman to extricate her Jewish lover from his suffocating, crass and unhealthy environment.

When it comes to being an onscreen presence in a Jewish guy's life, blonds clearly have more fun, whether it's Cheryl Hines playing opposite Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Drew Barrymore being Adam Sandler's love interest in "The Wedding Singer" and "50 First Dates." (Maybe I'm forgetting someone, but by my count, it wasn't until 2008's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," where Sandler played an Israeli hairdresser, that he cast an actual Jewish actress -- Emmanuelle Chriqui -- as his romantic partner.)

Leibovitz could expand her critique, since when it comes to being invisible, African American women have it even worse than Jewish women, rarely if ever getting a meaty part playing opposite black mega-stars like Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson and Will Smith. But her point is well taken. In an era where Jewish women have cracked the glass ceiling time and again as producers and studio executives (from Sherry Lansing and Laura Ziskin to Gail Berman and Amy Pascal), it's slim pickings when it comes to parts for actresses looking to shine in the spotlight. In Hollywood, if you're a Jewish woman, your best career possibilities are still behind the camera, feeding all the good lines to the shiksa goddesses.

Speaking of shiksa goddesses, here's one with a spider in her bathroom: