Rubbed Raw

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.

5 thoughts on “Rubbed Raw

  1. Shirley Gould

    This takes me back to the comment about Garrison Keillor’s column. I wrote something like what you said today, that I hoped we Jews are beyond crying over every little possibly derogatory mention; then the computer refused at first to print it.

    I was deeply moved by The Serious Man, one of the few movies I’ve been able to see this year. To me it related to the Jewish folklore of the Dybbuk as personified evil returning to harass someone “good”. If we’re in the mainstream now we have to be able to endure the possibility of being depicted as less than perfect.

    There’s no denying that such characters – and characteristics – are all around us today, even as situations such as Goodbye Columbus were rampant a generation ago. The Coens have illustrated humanity with all its bumps and bruises; let us accept it as a work of art.

  2. Sydney Hart

    I saw “A Serious Man” and enjoyed it, warts and all. My son was troubled by the lack of closure, but he’s only 12 so a clear-cut world is still possible in his mind.

    The biggest issue in popular culture portrayals is diversity. Are Jews (or any group) always and only shown in one way? If so, there’s a problem. If Jews (or any group) are shown as fully human, not perfect, not evil, then it’s fine. And it’s not just in a single movie (where you might need a truly evil villain, for example), but in the types of portrayals one sees overall.

    For example, if every portrayal in popular culture of a gay man is “nelly,” or the wacky gay neighbor, or the sexual predator, then we’ve got a problem. If, in SOME movies/tv shows gay men are show as “nelly” and in others, they’re shown in a manner similar to straight men, and in others…. you get the picture, then we don’t have a problem.

    In truly great art, even heros and villains get to be fully human, with positives and negatives. Here’s a geeky example (and the “great art” part is certainly in question)–in the X-Men comic books, the single most dangerous and evil villain is Magneto. He’s usually portrayed as a Jewish (but ocassionally as a Gypsy–there’s a lot of different writers involved in over 40 years of stories) Holocaust survivor. His life history, experiencing the Shoah and the subsequent death of his wife and child caused by bigots who set fire to his home, is depicted as explaining why he behaves the way he does. And, his bad behavior (which usually involves threatening or killing people), is often explained by his desire to protect his own kind. The protagonist (Professor X) is equally flawed, although he’s a WASPy blue blood confined to a wheel chair. The X-Men comics, like most, is quite heavy-handed but its quest for fully human, fully ethnic people is admirable.

    Do we need to monitor popular culture portrayals still? I think so. It’s very easy to slide back into stereotypes and stereotypes can be damaging to any group. Do we need to quake at every negative portrayal? I think not. We need to see ourselves in context and no single portrayal provides that context.

  3. Ruth Rosen

    Thanks for your take on movies and Jewish paranoia. I must say that your photo of Garrison Keillor was off-putting, but don’t mess with the Coen Bros. Serious Man! The funniest movie of the year!

  4. Howard Ellegant

    Saw “An Education” this afternoon and a “Serious Man” last week. I wondered why David was portrayed as a Jewish man in the former… have to read the memoir to see if he really was. Emma Thompson’s headmistress character’s remark “…you know, don’t you, that the Jews killed our Lord?” was for me a commentary about both the time (60’s) and the British school system deeply rooted in both the Church of England and the class system. BTW while we are at it, David is also a real “ganif” as well as a seducer of young girls, and a philanderer. I liked the car, a Bristol, though! Real class even if David was not. “A Serious Man” could have been about a neurotic Greek or Italian American family as well. So Jews live in Minnesota?(:-)

  5. Rebecca Lillian

    Thanks for this, Brant.

    To Howard, Brant, Hallie, everyone: the character in the memoir on which “An Education” was based is indeed Jewish, and Hornby just kept it that way.

    Love your blog!

    Your fan,



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