The New Jew in Film: Explor­ing Jew­ish­ness and Judaism in Con­tem­po­rary Cinema

Dr. Nathan Abrams
  • Review
By – June 21, 2012
Nathan Abrams, a film schol­ar based in Wales, argues that since 1990 cin­e­mat­ic treat­ment of Jews has under­gone a sig­nif­i­cant change, depict­ing a more com­plex and com­plete range of Jew­ish char­ac­ters and char­ac­ter­is­tics than ever before. Many old­er stereo­types have been resus­ci­tat­ed (often on steroids) in an iron­ic but self-accept­ing way, even as they were joined and chal­lenged by more mod­ern views. In 2005, Steven Spiel­berg gave us the sober, self-assured, dynam­ic, and frankly sex­u­al Israeli agents of Munich; four years lat­er, Joel and Ethan Coen gave us A Seri­ous Man, which car­i­ca­tures a host of sub­ur­ban Jew­ish types in a man­ner that would have trig­gered wide­spread protests had its cre­ators not been Jew­ish.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing are Abrams’s dis­cus­sions of char­ac­ters who are not explic­it­ly iden­ti­fied as Jews but are nev­er­the­less, in his view, cod­ed” as Jew­ish in one way or anoth­er. Per­haps the clear­est case of this phe­nom­e­non comes not from cin­e­ma but from tele­vi­sion, in the per­son of Sein­feld“ s George Costan­za, who bears an Ital­ian sur­name but is impos­si­ble to rec­og­nize as any­thing but Jew­ish (hav­ing been based direct­ly on Lar­ry David, the show’s co-cre­ator, who would go on to place his own Jew­ish­ness front and cen­ter in Curb Your Enthu­si­asm”). Do such char­ac­ters per­pet­u­ate old, per­ni­cious stereo­types in more sub­tle fash­ion, or sim­ply sug­gest that in an increas­ing­ly mul­ti­cul­tur­al Amer­i­ca, specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish” traits may be depict­ed with­out becom­ing major issues? (Is Jim, the Jason Big­gs char­ac­ter in the Amer­i­can Pie films, Jew­ish? Maybe, but no big deal.) 

Gen­er­al read­ers may be put off by Abrams’s heavy use of post­mod­ern crit­i­cal jar­gon, and the book as a whole would have ben­e­fit­ed from a more detailed dis­cus­sion of the life-cycle of stereo­types. In addi­tion, the author could have paid more atten­tion to the broad­er social con­text of his sub­ject. The chang­ing treat­ment of Jews in cin­e­ma that Abrams iden­ti­fies has not occurred in a vac­u­um. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, oth­er minori­ties – most notably African-Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, and gays – under­went the same kind of evo­lu­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture in gen­er­al, sug­gest­ing that the devel­op­ments he describes may have been dri­ven more by audi­ences than by the artists he discusses.
Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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