Judaism at the Movies

Written by Joey Simpson November 10, 2011

From Woddy Allen to David O. Selznik to Joel and Ethan Coen, the history of film has been laced with stories and films about the Jewish identity in America and abroad. Well before modern times, where it seems that almost every other comedian is of Jewish descent, some of Hollywood’s most famous Jewish producers, writers, and directors have inadvertently shaped the development of modern Hollywood filmmaking, allthewhile sneaking in films about the Jewish experience.

As movie critic A. O. Scott writes, the presentation of Jews on screen has varied significantly over the course of time. One variant of the Jewish experience in recent experience, which Scott writes about, is the defiant, WWII-era Jew, struggling to defend his people and bent on vengeance (see Edward Zwick’s Defiance and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). Regardless, the Jewish experience has played a crucial role in Hollywood’s history and in the Western film canon.

FIFTEEN years ago, on my first visit to Jerusalem, my wife and I ran into an older gentleman of her acquaintance. I don’t remember if he was a rabbi or a scholar, but he was, in any case, a serious man, and as we chatted he asked me the usual, somewhat prying questions about my background, my interests, my impressions of Israel and so on. Discovering that I had an Anglo-Saxon surname, a non-Jewish father, no knowledge of Hebrew and some skepticism about both God and Zionism — but that I was nonetheless, according to the laws of Moses, a full-fledged member of the tribe — he gave me a tolerant smile. “Long live the Jewish identity crisis,” he said.

Would another 5,770 years be long enough? In retrospect, his sentiment strikes me as both redundant and reductive. In the modern world, after all, to broach the idea of Jewish identity is to invoke not one crisis but many. Religion or ethnicity? Theology or ethics? Culture or ideology? Brooklyn or Tel Aviv? “Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?” my grandfather — an atheist, a socialist and a righteous man in the best Biblical sense — used to ask. “Why not?” was his version of the punch line to that old joke, but plenty of others would do just as well. Why do you ask? As opposed to what?

More than 60 years after the Nazi genocide and the founding of the state of Israel, more than 40 years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and a more than a century into the Ashkenazi passage through the North American melting pot, the old puzzles persist, though in some perplexing new forms. In novels, on television and especially, lately, on movie screens, fresh expositions of ancient dilemmas and anxieties quarrel and contend. Nothing is settled.

When Adam Sandler, in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” claims to detect a telltale trace of “Judaism” in Seth Rogen’s character, everyone knows what he’s talking about. But then again, what exactly does he mean? Judaism in the sense of “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” or of “Eight Crazy Nights”? Or the deracinated “Happy Gilmore”? Or something else?

See the full article here at nytimes.com

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