Review: The New Jew in Film

A new study of the portrayal of Jewish characters on the cinema screen finds that it is mostly healthy


Coen Brotherly love: Michael Stuhlbarg (rear view) and Fred Melamed in A Serious Man, the Coens' 2009 film reportedly based on their childhood.

Coen Brotherly love: Michael Stuhlbarg (rear view) and Fred Melamed in A Serious Man, the Coens' 2009 film reportedly based on their childhood.

By Nathan Abrams
I. B. Tauris, £14.99

Nathan Abrams must have got through an awful lot of popcorn.

In his study of "Jewish stereotypes and self-images in contemporary cinema" since 1990, he draws on an intimate knowledge of more than 300 movies --- from comedies like American Pie and Knocked Up, to British indie flicks such as The Infidel; from Schindler's List to virtually the entire output of the Coen brothers.

So, how have things changed in the past 20 years? Abrams, who is senior lecturer in film studies at Bangor University, concludes, broadly speaking, that Jews on film have been "normalised". American Jews, in particular, feel more secure and integrated into their society than at any time in their history.

Dr Abrams says that a new breed of film-makers has brought about a "shift towards more subtle, nuanced, playful and even outrageous representations" that "signal the Jews feel more comfortable… that they have arrived." Jewishness is accepted as normal.

At the same time, the more Jews are accepted, the more they assert their difference, adopting loud and proud positions. In Knocked Up, when Ben (Seth Rogen) is asked what product makes his hair so curly, he replies: "I use Jew".

 John Goodman in another Coen Brothers hit, The Big Lebowski

John Goodman in another Coen Brothers hit, The Big Lebowski

Abrams says the word "Jew" is uttered far more in post-1990 films than it was before, and now mostly "without any sense of negativity or insult".

Abrams's examples of the way this works are fascinating. He cites how Jews have traditionally been portrayed as not manly - "queer". This stereotype is played with in Roland Emmerich's 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day, in which geek scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) exemplifies "queer" qualities, but ends up saving the world from aliens alongside the supremely goyish Will Smith. Barbra Streisand in this film also stands for a new type of Jewish mother, no longer overbearing and anxious, but sexy and relaxed.

Jewish women are no longer confined by the Yiddishe mama or Rose-of-the-Ghetto self-image. When Angelina Jolie, a shiksah goddess if ever there was, admits in Mr and Mrs Smith that her spy/assassin character is Jewish, it is clear how far we have come.

Such is the confidence to recast traditional Jewish concerns that, says Abrams, "no subject is beyond mockery or critique", sometimes to shocking effect. In Woody Allen's 1997 film, Deconstructing Harry, when Harry is asked if he cares about the Holocaust, he replies: "Not only do I know that we lost six million, but the scary thing is that records are made to be broken".

The New Jew in Film is basically an academic study but that should not deter readers. Abrams divides his chapters into easily digestible sections with amusing, expressive titles - Jewish Jane and James Bonds, the Jew and the Loo etc -- and provides insights that will only enhance enjoyment and appreciation of these movies. All 300 of them.

Alan Montague is the JC's arts and features editor

    Last updated: 12:40pm, January 13 2012