Is The Big Lebowski’s Walter the greatest Jewish character?

The Coen brothers’ masterpiece was released 25 years ago — and its leading man is unique among Jewish characters on film

April 20, 2023 10:00

Across Joel and Ethan Coen’s 18 films, Jewish characters abound. There is the titular New York Jewish screenwriter in Barton Fink, Bernie Bernbaum and his sister Verna in Miller’s Crossing, the rabbi in Hail, Caesar!, and the veritable menagerie of Jews in A Serious Man. My personal favourite, though, is Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.

If the Coens’ Kafkaesque universe offers us a veritable “league of morons”, to quote a character in their Burn After Reading, then Walter stands out. He is one of the best and funniest characters in any of their films, and his Jewishness is integral to his shtick, stealing every scene he is in.

As Ethan Coen said, “We’ve created Jewish characters before, but we didn’t make their Jewishness into a comic element” in the way they did with Sobchak.

Walter has some of the most iconic dialogue in the film, memorable witty zingers that have become cult quotes. Politeness forbids me from mentioning all of them here. The F word is used 260 times in the film, an outsize proportion of them uttered by Walter. When his best friend, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), questions his Judaism because he divorced his Jewish wife after converting, Walter replies, “So what are you saying? When you get divorced you turn in your library card? You get a new licence? You stop being Jewish?”

Later, after biting off the ear of a Nihilist (you will need to watch the movie to get this), he declaims, “Nihilists! F*** me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” Every time he loses his cool, it causes hilarity resulting in some of the film’s funniest but typically backfiring moments. When he thinks he is trashing the car of someone named Larry, it turns out to be a neighbour’s vehicle and it results in Walter’s car getting smashed as well. For an on-screen Jew, though, Walter is highly unusual in several respects. For starters, he is an adept ten-pin bowler, making him a Jewish sportsman. Consider him in light of that joke in Airplane! when requesting some light reading, a passenger is handed a leaflet entitled “Famous Jewish Sport Legends”. But it is what happens next that makes Walter even more unusual. When he learns that his next bowling league fixture falls on a Saturday, he demands it is rescheduled. In an expletive-ridden tirade (containing nine F words and three other racial, sexual, and other epithets), he explains that he cannot “roll” (bowl) on Saturday because he is “shomer f****** Shabbos”. With those three immortal words, which in the context of the movie have come out of absolutely nowhere, we learn much about Walter that is rare for a cinematic Jew.

Played by non-Jewish actor John Goodman, Walter is not identifiable by the usual markers of on-screen Jews such as looks, hair, actor, gestures, and so on. Indeed, Walter is not even ethnically Jewish. Instead, he is defined by his beliefs, values, and behaviour. Judaism rather than Jewish ethnicity describes Walter.

Walter is even more uncommon in cinematic terms in that he is a convert, having done so for love at the request of his wife. He is what in the United States would be called “a Jew by choice”. And although he has since divorced her, he still maintains a level of Jewish Orthodox practice, which is a lot more than can be said for most non-Charedi cinematic Jews.

Even though Walter inserts an F word between the words shomer and Shabbos, which may lead one to wonder if someone who was Sabbath observant would utter it in such a way, Walter appreciates, understands and takes his adopted faith very seriously, certainly more so than many other Jews on screen.

Throughout the film, Walter reaffirms his identity as a Jew, quoting Herzl and the Rambam, and has even named his dog Maimonides. Walter is proud of his Judaism and does not mind shouting about it. “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” he exclaims at one point, “You’re goddamn right I’m living in the f***ing past!”

Walter is also a tough Jew and a proud Vietnam vet. Sturdily built, with a close-cropped crewcut and neatly trimmed French-cut beard, he wears a combat shirt, jacket, waistcoat, and tinted aviator sunglasses that evoke a practical, durable, and comfortable style appropriate for an army man. He appears to be what comedian Lenny Bruce said of the Marine Corps: “Heavy goyim, dangerous.”

Walter’s stint in Vietnam has instilled in him a desire for precise rules and regulations. His adopted Judaism and bowling have become a replacement for the regimentation of his much-missed army life.

Walter’s passionate, even fanatical, adherence to the rules of bowling can be read as a critique of the increasing stringency among Orthodox and Charedi Jews who prioritise obedience over spirituality. Walter thus becomes a satiric representation of a particularly dogmatic and buffoonish rabbi, a Pharisee. Yet, Walter is a superficially unattractive figure, both physically and mentally. He is overweight and damaged, most likely suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Close to unhinged, psychotic, stubborn and rash, his murderous rage is never far from the surface. Paranoid, he mentions the war at the slightest prompting. Perpetually peeved, he is prone to profuse profanity.

Despite his faults, it is hard not to love Walter. His boisterous, impulsive and puppy-like behaviour coupled with his man-childlike nature make us overlook his idiosyncracies. Perpetually entertaining, he is like a big bouncy dog who just craves your love. And, in the final analysis, beneath the bluster, he is a mensch. He is a devoted and doting ex-husband and his hesped to his friend Donny is a moving and poignant tribute to how he cared deeply for him: “Donny was a good bowler and a good man. He was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors… and bowling, and as a surfer, he explored the beaches of southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and… up to… Pismo. He died, like so many young men of his generation, he died before his time.

“In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny. Donny, who loved bowling. And so, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, in accordance with what we think your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Good night, sweet prince.”

He worries deeply about his companion, the Dude, a fact acknowledged in the warm embrace they share after Walter has accidentally emptied Donny’s ashes (irreverently but economically contained in a Folger’s coffee tin) into the Dude’s face. Even the unnecessary but entirely expected digression into Vietnam does not overshadow this.

Walter, therefore, is a complete reversal of the previous cinematic characterisations of the Jew — often no more than cyphers or stereotypes — if not an outright and deliberate satire and mockery of them.

The embodiment of such characterisations can be found in Fiddler on the Roof’s cute, cuddly, kitsch, aphorism-spouting protagonist Tevye as played by the late Topol.

So, when Walter declares: “I’m as Jewish as f****n’ Tevye!”, the irony here is that, size and beard apart, he could not be further from this product of a fantasised, Americanised image of shtetl-dwelling Jewry, that represents the assimilatory, placatory past.

The character of Walter was reportedly partially based on that of real-life John Milius, the iconic Jewish screenwriter and director, responsible for the first two Dirty Harry movies and parts of Apocalypse Now, and one of the few right-wing Jews in Hollywood.

In picking Milius as their template, the Coens deliberately parody the creations of those Jewish directors (particularly the moguls of the studio system) who denuded their films of Jews and Judaism and/or produced crass, sentimentalised caricatures for didactic effect and Gentile consumption. Walter is nothing less than a mockery of the assimilatory strategies of the 1950s in which the Jewish movie moguls removed any trace of Jewishness that they could from their screens.

A quarter of a century later, Walter remains one of the greatest screen Jews ever devised and the film he appears in, The Big Lebowski, is also a damn fine film noir and movie about bowling. To respect Walter, just don’t watch it on Shabbos!

Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film, School of Arts, Culture and Language, Bangor University

April 20, 2023 10:00

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