Saw the movie “An Education” last week (really great). As my wife Hallie and I were talking about it afterward, she referred to one of the characters, a sort of handsome ne’er do well who sweeps the heroine off her feet, and asked, “why do you think they had to make him Jewish?”
I admitted that the thought had fleetingly occurred to me during the film, but it didn’t really bother me in the end. It didn’t seem to me that the filmmakers made him Jewish to make a negative statement about Jews in general, but rather to illustrate the rebellious, non-conformist spirit of young woman who falls in love with him. (Lest anyone miss this point, at one point the girl’s headmistress says to her at one point, “you know, don’t you, that the Jews killed our Lord?”)
After watching the movie, I read a Forward interview with the film’s screenwriter, Nick Hornby, which contained a really interesting conversation about his portrayal of the Jewish character. Hornby (who is not Jewish) made the very trenchant point that he hoped “we’re beyond the point where you can only show ethnic and religious groups in a positive light.”
There’s a different dynamic at play when these kind of portrayals come from Jews themselves. I’m thinking particularly of the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” another recent movie that engendered similar conversations in the Jewish community. Though I personally loved it, I was struck by how many of my Jewish friends were put off by the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in the film: the neurotic main protagonist, his son’s hilariously horrid Hebrew school experiences, the three nutty rabbis, etc.
It seems to me this kind of raw self-reflection is a time-honored Jewish phenomenon. I’d say “A Serious Man” is part of a grand tradition that dates back to the books of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, and the stories of Sholom Aleichem – and if we’re going to be truly honest, to the Bible itself, which itself contains innumerable flawed protagonists who often behave in troubling ways. (I can only imagine what the ADL would have to say about the King David story if it was published today…)
I’m sure that Jews have been wincing about popular portrayals of their folk from time immemorial – and I imagine that members of other ethnic groups have done just the same. But at the end of the day, isn’t it true that the narratives that speak to us most deeply tend to be the ones in which that include imperfect characters struggling to survive in an imperfect world? (I can’t think of one great work of literature that contains a perfectly well-adjusted protagonist living a happy life with no problems to speak of).
I also think we need to put these portrayals in context. I’m reminded of a comment made by one of my undergraduate Jewish lit professors years ago regarding “Annie Hall:” if some of the Jewish characters were often neurotic, the non-Jewish characters were often downright psychotic (exhibit A: Christophen Walken’s hilarious turn as Annie’s little brother, above). Of course they are stereotypes in both instances, but I don’t we’d wouldn’t laughing if we didn’t recognize a deeper truth underneath.
I’d like to think we Jews are secure enough in our skin in this day and age to bear warts-and-all-portrayals in the popular culture. It’s all too easy to cry self-hatred or anti-Semitism every time we come across something that makes us wince. I’d say it’s much more fruitful to expend less energy worrying what the non-Jews might think and accept that the best and most worthwhile stories are the ones that rub us a little raw.