Cowboys and killers: Cinema’s New Jews

The JC Essay

By Nathan Abrams, September 27, 2012

Last month, as we remembered and commemorated the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, two films came to mind. The first was Munich, Steven Spielberg's 2005 reconstruction of the Israeli government's response to the massacre. Designed as both an allegorical response to George W Bush's "War on Terror" as well as to Israel's targeted assassination policy, it interrogated the efficacy, appropriateness and ethics of state-sanctioned violence, revenge and counter-terrorist techniques at a time when these tactics appeared to be much in evidence. It asked whether such tactics were successful or ultimately counter-productive and therefore futile.

The second film was The Dictator, which opened at the start of the summer in the UK. In typical Sacha Baron Cohen style, it is unafraid to poke fun at a whole list of politically correct targets: feminism, civil rights, the United Nations and so on. Perhaps most shocking for Jewish viewers are the numerous jokes made at the expense of Israel. To give just one example, Baron Cohen, as the eponymous ruler, Admiral General Aladeen, plays a cartoon video game based on the Munich massacre in which the player is a terrorist shooting at the Israelis.

While the two films are poles apart - one being a serious, historical and dramatic reconstruction, the other a madcap, slapstick comedy - both use the medium of film to make important and cogent points about the Jewish past and present. And both Baron Cohen and Spielberg are part of a movement in contemporary cinema - which emerged around 1990 and is continuing today - that I label "the New Jews" in film.

The behaviour of Jews and the cinematic stereotypes of them, both present almost since the dawn of cinema, have evolved. Since 1990, films about Jews, and representations of Jews across the world, have not only multiplied but have also taken on a new form. And what had been a steady flow of such representations from the late 1960s onward became, from that year, a flood.

Yet, in contrast to earlier decades, this flood has been global. In almost any country where Jews live today, Jewish films, themes and characters have emerged, as a new, younger generation of Jewish screenwriters, directors, actresses and actors have begun coming out as Jewish and feeling able to express their Jewishness in a new fashion. The United States and Israel are at the forefront but the phenomenon is also apparent in such countries as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Take the Jewishness out of Fiddler on the Roof and what do you have left? Nothing.

Prior to 1990, on-screen, if they even appeared at all, Jews tended to be limited to contrasting extremes. These included, variously, the weak or tough Jew, the Jewish mother or the Jewish princess, the hypersexual or the hysteric, the macho or the feminised, la belle juive or ugly old kike, active or passive, victim or perpetrator, secular or Charedi, Jewess or shiksa.

Today, we can no longer take the continued existence of these stereotypes for granted. Instead, there are many examples in which these poles of representation have been creatively blended to create new characters that are neither wholly one nor completely the other. Contemporary cinema has witnessed a move towards more unselfconscious, self-critical, nuanced and playful representations of Jews, Jewishness and Judaism.

Instead of the continuation of the tired stereotypes of days gone by, we have the New Jews - nasty, brutish, solitary, short, tough, fat, manly, unmanly, endogamous, exogamous, passive-aggressive, spaced-out and rebellious. They are traitors, losers, shysters, criminals, porn stars, assassins, killers, gangsters or cops. They go to outer space, they are cowboys, skinheads, gay, lesbian, and transsexual; they are superheroes, deviants or just plain dysfunctional; they are liberated, working-class, Reform, Liberal, Conservative or Charedi; they speak Yiddish, Hebrew, or even Aramaic; they are immigrants, refugees, survivors, and more.

It is in part a cinematic fulfilment of David Ben Gurion's dream, who is believed to have said: "We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew." It represents Jewish normalisation, as if cinema was, in the words of Kafka, an instrument whereby Jews might become "a people like other peoples".

These New Jews manifest much Jewish assertiveness. When The Producers was released in 1968, one critic noted that it conveyed "considerable cultural confidence - loud and proud" and was "a rebellion against invisibility". That sentiment is just as applicable today, but now it also applies to a whole series of films in a range of countries.

They are not afraid of being considered "too Jewish". Jewish film-makers, actors, actresses, directors and screenwriters are increasingly representing themselves without the mediation or bias that either non-Jewish or older, more assimilatory directors may have deployed in their films. In today's multicultural, post-ethnic and pluralist world, these New Jews are less focused on Jewishness as an oppressed, diaspora-conscience minority.

Indeed, it is often the non-Jew who is now the outsider. As Martin, in the 2007 comedy Knocked Up, states: "F*** you guys. I'm glad I'm not Jewish." To which the response comes: "So are we… You weren't chosen for a reason."

Where Yiddish (and Hebrew) was once perceived by a generation of Jews as an obstacle to assimilation, the language of the New Jews is more ethnically inflected, more "Jewish". From 2004's Meet the Fockers to A Serious Man in 2009, a diverse range of films have used suggestive and untranslated phrases (as well as rhythms, cadences and even made-up words) in Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, and other languages familiar to Jews, with no concern as to whether audiences understand them or not.

It says much that, in 2010, a film can be called Dinner for Schmucks. Once upon a time, such utterances were confined to older characters or set in the past but, today, words in different languages and dialects are voiced by New Jews and often set in the present - and in a variety of unusual contexts, such as public toilets in upscale Parisian cafes, as in the 1995 French film La Haine.

And they sound normal. They speak like everyone else, not as if they had just got off the boat from the Pale - a problem that has long blighted British Jewish cinema. The New Jews are more foul-mouthed and scatological than ever before. The classic articulation of this is when Walter Sobchak announces he's "shomer f***ing Shabbos" in The Big Lebowski (1998).

As a mark of this change, the word "Jew" is said far more often in film nowadays. It was not even uttered in The Life of Emile Zola, made in 1937, despite the author's famous diatribe against the injustice of the Dreyfus case. Despite being a film attempting to draw attention to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, The Mortal Storm, in 1940, never used the word "Jew". And the same is true for more recent films like Dirty Dancing, in 1987, and Avalon, in 1990, despite their respective Jewish milieus.

T oday, in contrast, ethnic slurs abound, reflecting the antisemitism of the times and cultures being portrayed. Modern cinema is unafraid to shine a spotlight on and expose racism. The word Jew is often used in this regard. The Jewish neo-Nazi protagonist of The Believer, a 2001 film starring Ryan Gosling, declares: "J.E.W. Jew! You say it a million times, it's the only word that never loses its meaning. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew."

In the post-1990 period, the avoidance of the word "Jew" has been reversed and it proliferates, often without any sense of such negativity or insult. This is not to suggest that it did not happen at all prior to 1990 - a clear exception to the rule is when Woody Allen drew particular attention to the word in his famous joke in 1977's Annie Hall. Alvy Singer's (Allen) antisemitic paranoia extends to his mishearing "D'you eat?" as "Jew eat?"

When, for example, Ben in Knocked Up is asked what product makes his hair so curly, he replies: "I use Jew." The promotional poster for the British film, The Infidel, featured the word "Due" crossed out in the tag "Due out April 9", replaced with the homophone "Jew".

The New Jews mine Jewish history for its specifically Jewish resonances to break with the predominant paradigm in which Jews were largely treated merely as an ethnic group or cipher. Many films include themes of classical Jewish tradition and folklore, as well as religious factors -Judaism - in their representations. Take the British films, Song of Songs in 2005 - which uses the biblical book of the same name to consider such dark themes as incest in north-west London - or The Governess, in 1998, which explores the underrepresented world of Sephardi culture in Victorian London.

ews are no longer just the point of the story. They have become incidental, superfluous and gratuitous at times, but also normalised and casualised. So, in the 2008 Australian film, Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger, the batmitzvah of the title character is a passing event, rather than the main plot, as would have been expected.

Take the Jewishness out of Fiddler on the Roof, and what do you have left? Nothing. Take the Jewishness out of the 300 films that I mention in my recent book, The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema and you still have roughly 300 films.

The New Jews' use of Jewish symbolism is potentially shocking. They show a consistent irreverence towards that which other Jews hold dear - and holy. Not only do they walk a tightrope of political correctness, even crossing the line at times, but they also cross sacrosanct boundaries. Almost every ancient, antisemitic canard is mocked and reversed.

Thus, in Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen played a Jew-hating yet paradoxically Hebrew-speaking Kazakh reporter, in a film saturated with representations of antisemitism. The Infidel describes Jews as "the people of the chequebook". Similarly, 2010's Four Lions has a British-Jewish actor, Nigel Lindsay, mimicking a white, working-class convert to Islam who constantly mouths such antisemitic epithets as this gem: "Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic." Yet, judging by the lack of outrage such films have caused, there is today an acceptance of this kind of irreverent humour.

For New Jews, no subject is beyond mockery, including possibly the greatest Jewish taboo - the Holocaust. In The Hangover, when the Jewish character complains that he lost his grandmother's Holocaust ring, another replies: "I didn't know they gave rings out at the Holocaust", ignorantly comparing the Shoah to the Superbowl. Adam Sandler in Funny People, in 2009, ponders how Jews can tolerate being listed on JDate "because of the whole Holocaust thing". Many other films like The Grey Zone, in 2001, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Reader in 2008, and the X-Men series blur the boundary between Jew and Nazi, victim and victimiser.

The New Jews' use of Jewish stereotypes in contemporary cinema is absolutely intentional. It reflects their post-assimilatory confidence as they transform the anxieties and insecurities of their ancestors into an assertiveness. They are unafraid to mock and reverse old caricatures. Such stereotypes offer reassurance and pleasure - or Jewissance: joy derived from finding Jews, Jewishness and Judaism, stereotypical or otherwise, in film, where we least expect them, or even where their presence and Jewishness (whether ethnic, cultural or religious) is submerged, commonplace, and non-essential in plot, narrative or story terms.

It enjoyable for audiences who can recognise the nod and the wink, perhaps where fellow audience members cannot. At the same time, this mimicry and mockery exposes and undermines the continuation of anti-Jewish prejudices and fears. Contemporary Jewish cinema has blossomed; it is thriving and moving in new directions. If, as in 2010, a film can be called Greenberg, it is surely not long before one appears entitled simply: "Jew".

Nathan Abrams is a lecturer in film studies at Bangor University and author of 'The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema' (IB Tauris)

Last updated: 4:06pm, September 27 2012