My Favorite Jewish Movies
Posted by Jew from Jersey
3 June 2021
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)Mordechei Richler may have written better books than the one this movie is based on, but for my money the movie is definitely the best work by actor Richard Dreyfuss or director Ted Kotcheff. The setting is the Jewish community of Montreal in the late 1940s. Young Duddy works in his rich uncle’s garment factory (the uncle, like most Jewish factory owners, is a socialist). Unlike his American coreligionists of the period as depicted in The Chosen, Duddy isn’t interested in the Talmud or Zionism or even studying Psychology. He wants to become a millionaire, preferably legally, but not necessarily. The only other interests that seem to matter to him are women, and a not uncommon Jewish obsession with owning land.
But Duddy is no cutthroat. It is high principle that instructs his placing financial interests above all else. For example, it clearly pains him to have to cheat his gentile business partner. Unlike Mr. Farber, a local rich Jew and Duddy’s mentor, Duddy will not convince himself that all gentiles are out to get him. Duddy doesn’t even have any qualms about hiring an anti-Semitic communist upper class Brit to film bar-mitzvas as part of one of his far flung business ventures.
An interesting twist is that the ambitious Duddy doesn’t want to assimilate. He’s proud to be a Jew. He doesn’t want to be like the gentiles, he just wants to buy them out. It’s his shy brother the good student who turns out to be the assimilationist, if not a full-fledged self-hating Jew. In good Jewish tradition, Duddy generously supports his brother’s studies and asks for nothing in return. He’s proud to have a brother who’s a scholar with clean hands. Yet the brother is ashamed of Duddy because Duddy is a money-grubber and unapologetic about his background.
The Believer (2001)Of all the movies made recently in America about Jews, The Believer is the first one in a long time (maybe since The Chosen twenty years earlier) with a real insider’s point of view. Many movies, like the TV show The Nanny, simply trade in ethnic stereotypes, funny as they may be. The Alan Arkin character in The Slums of Beverly Hills is named Abramowitz. The women in his family trade secrets on how to bleach facial hair. It’s not a bad movie, but that’s as Jewish as it gets. Even Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons goes deeper than that. Many American movies that try to say more about Jews just don’t know what to say, as is the case in several of David Mamet’s movies. Often, they’re out of their element. In one scene in Mamet’s script for Lansky, young Meyer Lansky’s parents sit down to their Sabbath meal and give Meyer money to go out and buy a challah, on a Friday night! The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did their homework and evoke a wonderful spirit of yiddishkeit, but it’s essentially a museum piece, there’s nothing new to be said. The Believer has a lot to say and it spares no sensitivities.
The Believer will never be widely viewed because of its overtly Nazi content. This is understandable and there seem to be no apologies or regrets on the part of the filmmakers. The movie opens with a Brooklyn skinhead beating a Yeshiva student and leaving him for dead and it ends with a Manhattan synagogue getting blown up at the end of the ne’ila service on yom kippur. Even more problematic, The Believer is no sob story or condemnation of violence either. The heart of this movie, however, is every bit as Jewish as Fiddler on the Roof and its state of mind is profoundly more so. Fiddler on the Roof is easily accessible to all audiences. The Believer will probably not make much sense to anyone who isn’t Jewish. In fact, it may not make a lot of sense to many Jews either. For instance, the significance of the synagogue bomb going off at the end of ne’ila is not explained in the movie. You have to know that according to belief, this is the moment when God’s decision of who will live and who will die is finally sealed. I think The Believer will probably be most accessible to Jews who have both embraced their religion and questioned its relation to the modern world.This is the second understandable misfortune of The Believer: those most likely to appreciate it are those observant Jews who will probably not even hear of it, and who would be disgusted if they saw it. The Believer is a rare thing indeed: a movie for tradition-oriented Jewish outsiders. It’s iconoclastic, to say the least, but it’s not anti-religious either. It’s not the Jewish version of The Last Temptation of Christ. If The Believer is hostile towards Judaism, it’s because it takes Judaism seriously, unlike a simply anti-religious movie like Amos Gitai’s Kadosh. The Believer deals with serious, too seldom discussed conflicts within the Jewish religion and the identity of the Jew in the modern world. It is inevitable that such discussions will touch on anti-Semitism. The premise of The Believer takes this inevitability to an exaggerated level for dramatic effect. The plot is loosely based on the true story of Daniel Burrows, a 1970s neo-Nazi from the Bronx who committed suicide when a New York Times reporter doing a story on Burrows’ group published the fact that Burrows was Jewish. I know little more than that about the Burrows case and I have no reason to assume The Believer follows it too closely. It’s almost certainly far more interesting than the true story could have been.
Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) is smaller than most of his Nazi friends. He’s also more bookish and more argumentative. Even before you’re told, you must be thinking: this guy acts like any Jew in America among his gentile colleagues. Danny is also more anti-Semitic than his friends. That somehow fits too. Danny is obsessed with the idea that Jews are corrupting the world down to its tiniest details. It soon becomes clear that Danny is also obsessed with Jewish religious law. When Danny and his friends enter a Jewish deli, they just want to smash the place up. Danny, who is becoming the gangleader, first insists that the proprietor explain why the deli won’t serve a roast beef sandwich with cheese. During the argument, Danny uses well-polished Talmudic locutions to refute halakha. Then they smash the place up.
Danny Balint delivers his own interpretation of the story of Isaac to a hapless Brooklyn yeshiva student.
The movie never shirks from owning up to how violent and hateful Danny is. He never repents, he simply becomes more alienated from his fellow Nazis. Danny stops his friends from desecrating a Torah scroll not because he wants to save it, but because they don’t understand how truly offensive desecrating a Torah scroll is to Jews. They think it’s just like smashing a window. Danny explains that even just touching the letters of the scroll is more offensive than anything else they could do to the property. They are not interested and so Danny takes the scroll for himself.
Furthermore, Danny is disgusted by the yuppie-like corporate takeover of his neo-Nazi organization. It represents everything he became a Nazi to get away from. Besides his street-fighting and bomb-making skills, Danny also has a way with crowds and an intuitive grasp of anti-Semitic sentiment. At a Nazi teach-in, he asks his audience: “Why do we hate Jews?” He then refutes every possible reason in true Talmudic fashion. It looks like he might be working for the Anti-Defamation League, but then he declares: “We hate them because they’re Jews!” Danny is disappointed when the new leadership want to take the movement into the mainstream and want him to be their poster boy. He wants blood in the streets, they give him a cell phone and a credit card. It’s so Jewish! This explains the scene in which he intentionally ruins a major Nazi fundraising event. It’s not that he’s had a change of heart, he’s disgusted by the bureaucratization of the Fascist movement.
Danny believes that anti-Semitism and arbitrary violence should be central to the Nazi cause. When one of the other skinheads says that the holocaust never happened, Danny says: “If Hitler never killed six million Jews, why is he such a hero?” The “new fascist” Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) rationally argues for fascism as a “form of government.” To Danny it is obviously more like a religious crusade. Curtis looks more like a yuppie than a Nazi. He wants to go to Boston “to convert the lefties” and maybe even get Chomsky to speak at a fascist event. He tells Danny that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, that Americans will never tolerate it. Danny, who has lived in America as a Jew, feels that anti-Semitism is alive and well under the surface, and that once Jewish blood starts to run in the streets, people will begin to say what they really think.
The only sign of reluctance in Danny’s Nazi convictions is his hesitance to kill anyone when it gets down to the wire. This may be something of cop-out on the part of the movie’s makers. It would be even harder to watch than it already is if Danny actually killed anyone, unless he immediately repented, and repentance would ruin the movie for sure. But Danny’s hesitance to kill does make some sense in the plot. Danny hates Jews for being weak instead of strong and for being abstract instead of rooted to soil. In a key scene following the trial for the bust-up of the deli, Danny viciously accuses a Holocaust survivor of being responsible for the death of his own family because he didn’t try to fight the Nazis. The survivor, calmly and unemotionally, tells him that fighting would only have gotten him killed as well. “Look at you now,” says Danny, “you’re worse than dead.” The survivor calmly tells Danny that he can’t imagine what it was like. Nazis in those days were not just a street gang like Danny and his friends, they were an entire bureaucratic empire. Danny doesn’t like bureaucracy.
This growing fear that he is the dupe of a corrupt ideology meant to weaken him is closely related to his hatred of Judaism, which he sees in similar terms. The violence he practices against Jews is clearly his attempt to purge himself of Jewish weakness and abstractness, but at some level, it is also intended to wake the Jews up from the shackles of Judaism, which makes them like this. When he beats the yeshiva student, his face is twisted with rage. He wants to kill him. But even more than that, he wants the yeshiva student to hit him back. If Jews cannot be redeemed by such cautionary violence, it follows that they must be killed, lest their timidity and over-intellectualized nature spread to infect the rest of humanity. But this principle would not be valid if he could not be sure that Nazism would lead him (and the rest of humanity) out of the conundrums posed by Judaism. In another scene, Danny tries to get a sympathetic Wall Street broker to donate seed money to the fascist cause. The broker smiles, then offers him a job with the firm. He says “Maybe we’re all Jews now.” This is perhaps the thought that scares Danny the most.
Danny is disturbed by the Jews’ studiousness and civility when so many of them have been killed. Through flashbacks, we learn that in his childhood, he became convinced that Abraham betrayed the Jews by agreeing to sacrifice Isaac. He comes to believe that Abraham really did kill Isaac, that Jews have their own blood on their hands. At the same time, the Jews are Isaac, and so live in eternal fear. The entire Jewish religion is then an intellectual trick designed to keep people docile by endless sublimation of the truth. So Danny became a body-builder and a sadist to escape the life of the mind that led him into anguish and despair. His hatred extends into his theology, which he never really leaves behind. He’s a devout Nazi. He is now the slayer of Abraham, but this means he is also the avenger of Isaac. This is why he has nothing but hatred for the Holocaust survivor, but is surprisingly defensive about the members of the survivor’s family who perished.
The Jewish trick of the mind is to deprive the Jew of everything physical, beginning with any physical manifestation of God. Thus, it is no wonder the Jew has no physical roots, and is obsessed with abstraction. Danny doesn’t see deracinated Jews like Freud, Marx, and Einstein as Jewish rebels. They are simply taking abstraction to a higher level, which is a natural outgrowth of their Judaism. Thus, it is Jews who contribute disproportionately to the rise of modernity. Subsequently, the rise of modernity saw a massive increase in Jewish influence in world affairs, especially in the intellectual sphere, as well as an accelerated deracination of the rest of the human race. But this same modernity then led to genocide of Jews on a scale unthinkable in the pre-modern age. Thus, the anti-intellectual aspect of Danny’s anti-Semitism can also be seen as defensive.
In the flashback, young Danny tells the rabbi that God is a vicious bully for asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and he stands in front of the class and dares God to strike him dead. But it seems that his understanding of the divine has matured in later years, even if his hostility hasn’t. The Jewish conception of God is so abstract, that it doesn’t matter if a Jew believes in Him or not. Secular Jews worship abstraction through science and cosmpolitanism. For religious Jews, God is so abstract, you can’t even think about him. He might as well not exist. You affirm his existence through performance of irrational acts. Danny’s Nazi girlfriend (Summer Phoenix) asks “and belief follows?” Danny replies: “Nothing follows.” It’s the most persuasive argument for religion she’s ever heard. She concludes: “He commands it whether He exists or not.” That’s probably the most persuasive argument for religion he’s ever heard.
I doubt how much any of this has to do with the real Daniel Burrows or even if such a creature as Danny Balint is possible, but a lot of what goes on in his mind says a lot about Jews in the modern world, especially since the Holocaust. Hitler may have only killed one third of the Jewish people, but the other two thirds didn’t survive intact either. In The Chosen, the Hasid says to the Zionist: “Hitler destroyed the Jewish body, but you are destroying the Jewish spirit.” He has a point. The state of Israel was consciously predicated on the creation of the new “whole” Israeli Jew on the ashes of the old “neurotic” Diasporic Jew. This new Jew was quite clearly neither religious nor respectful of the non-Israeli Jewish past. But neither the Jewish religion nor the old Diaspora have gone away, while the new Israeli Jew developed new neuroses all his own. As a result, many secular Israelis remain both more hostile to and in some respects even more ignorant of their own religion than their Diasporic counterparts. At the same time, many Hasid and other ultra-orthodox Jews today still refuse to support Israel and those who live in Israel refuse to serve in the army. Any lesson contemporary Jews attempt to draw from the Holocaust, Israel, and the fate of their own religion and identity in the twentieth century is bound to be heavily contradictory. Danny Balint is all of those contradictions personified. Maybe there never was any Jew like Danny Balint in the real world, but has any Jew alive today managed to resolve these contradictions?
For all of Danny’s obsession with Jews and Judaism, he seems to have little to say about Israel. He only says two things regarding Israel, and both times only because he’s asked point blank. Before his Jewish cover is blown, Danny tells the New York Times reporter that Israelis are exempt from his anti-Semitic theories, since they have “regained their soil.” After the cat is out of the bag, he defends his Nazism to the yeshiva students who were once his friends by accusing Israelis of being “stormtroopers in the territories” and saying that early Zionist literature reads just like early Nazi literature. It’s possible that one or both of these positions are disingenuous on his part, but he doesn’t seem to have much else to say, either. Neither do a lot of American Jews.
The Jewish Nazi has been met twice before in movies. The first time was in Europa Europa, the true story of Solomon Perel, a German Jewish boy who survived the war by joining a Wermacht Unit on the Russian front, eventually being adopted by its commanding officer and sent to an elite school in Berlin for Hitlerian youth. The second time was in Luna Park, a post-Soviet Russian movie about Moscow skinheads, one of whom discovers he has a Jewish father. The Believer easily addresses every single issue addressed in either of these two movies and then some.
Europa Europa was rather shallow, and mysteriously silent as to whether the German unit young Solomon fought with on the Eastern front encountered any Jewish villages on any of its cleansing operations. Perhaps Solly never did, although there’s still something suspicious and superficial about that film.
Luna Park was the second movie by director Pavel Lounguine, whose first movie, Taxi Blues, also featured a Jewish character. Both movies are good, although neither has much to say about Jews for the simple reason that neither the director, nor the supposedly Jewish characters in the two movies, seem to know very much about Jews. The Jewish Saxophone player in Taxi Blues and the Jewish pianist and composer who is the father of the skinhead in Luna Park are both Jews in nose only. They look sort of like Robin Williams’ grandfather in Moscow on the Hudson. They are clowns, artists, libertines, alcoholics, party-loving, uncommitted freeloaders. This is the classic Soviet anti-Semitic stereotype promoted by Stalin. There are of course many Jews, as well as gentiles, who fit this description exactly. However, in both movies, each is the only Jewish character and his lifestyle is presented as distinctly Jewish. The director obviously intended this kind of lifestyle to contrast positively with that of the soulless Soviet workaday life in Taxi Blues and the scheming Fascist ideologues who manipulate the skinheads in Luna Park. However, there’s never anything more shown to being Jewish than that.
This is of course not a critique of Taxi Blues or of Luna Park. In fact, both of them introduce many original themes that are taken up and expanded upon in The Believer. This is especially true of Luna Park. Andrei, leader of the skinheads, does not even know of his Jewish ancestry until the middle of the film. Unlike Danny Balint, he is a rather simple-souled Nazi (or “fascist,” at they prefer to say in Russia nowadays). When he learns of his Jewish father, he is disappointed, now he can’t be a fascist anymore. What is fascinating is his friends’ reaction. They seem to have known all along and they tell him not to worry about it! “If you’re a Jew,” they say, “then we’re all Jews. Then Arnold [Schwarzenegger] is a Jew. Then there’s no end to it. Put the thought out of your mind.” Only then does Andrei enter Danny Balint’s world. This is the first instance I know of in film of the idea that anti-Semitism can be a fear of being Jewish yourself and that both Jews and anti-Semites in the modern world share a certain kind of fragmented and conflicting identity. Also like Balint, Andrei turns against the fascists only when he meets the crafty corporate types who manipulate his skinhead buddies.
Luna Park is a nice comment on post-Soviet Russia. During the Soviet era, Jews intermarried so thoroughly with Russians that now a great many Russians fear they are part Jewish. Similarly, the remaining Jews are largely ignorant of their own heritage. For centuries, the liberal, western, humanist view held that such peaceful coexistence and loss of Jewish uniqueness would end the “root causes” of anti-Semitism. As recent Russian history shows, and Luna Park nicely illustrates, these trends can serve as new anti-Semitic rallying points.
Fictitious Marriage (1989)Since the 1980s, the political allegory for export has become a mainstay in Israeli cinema. The earliest feature film of this type that I am aware of is Hamsin (a.k.a. Eastern Wind) from 1982. The best movie of this genre is probably Rafi Bukai’s 1986 Avanti Popolo, a very well made pacifist fable set in the aftermath of the six-day war. The worst was without a doubt Assi Dayan’s 1992 Life according to Agfa, a self-indulgent mess that looks a lot like Monty Python’s parody of Sam Peckinpah, except that it’s apparently meant to be taken seriously. Thanks to Amos Gitai, Israeli government funding, and a slew of Awards from European film festivals, these kinds of movies will probably continue to be made for a long time.
My personal favorite of this genre is Fictitious Marriage, probably because despite its subject matter, it looks and feels more like an older type of Israeli movie. It’s funnier, too. The allegory, however, is no less heavy-handed than any other film of this type. The fictitious marriage of the title refers to both Israel’s marriage of convenience with America and its marriage of circumstance with the Palestinians. Everything else in the movie is dually symbolic too.
Eldi Natan (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is supposedly a schoolteacher who lives in Jerusalem and is leaving his wife and two sons to fly to New York. We never learn why he’s supposed to be flying. Presumably it’s business if he’s going alone, although why would a schoolteacher go on an international business trip? Also, the stately Arabic stone house we see him leave in the opening scene is way more than an Israeli teacher could afford. In fact, it’s more than an Arab teacher could afford. It is undoubtedly a house once lived in by a very wealthy Arab family. Yet both anomalies are crucial to the film’s symbolism. As an Israeli, he must be shown living in a formerly Arab house, it’s just that most of the only Arab houses still standing when the movie was made were the really, really nice ones. It’s not really the filmmakers’ fault. Furthermore, he has to leave the country alone, because he is leaving his Israeli identity behind, at least temporarily, so he can observe it from the outside. This point is made clear at the airport, where he abandons his suitcase before proceeding to the gate. The bomb squad is summoned, and the lock is blown off the case. When the security personnel open it, they find only 5 items inside: a Hebrew Bible, a pressed and folded reservist’s army uniform bearing the rank of captain, a phonograph record of the popular comedy trio HaGashash HaHiver, a bag of toasted sunflower seeds, and a packet of instant falafel mix.
The symbolism continues when Eldi escapes from the airport, takes a taxi in to Tel Aviv, and checks into a small hotel called “Hotel California”. He signs the hotel register giving a Manhattan address. The hotel is owned and operated by a young woman named Yehudit (Irit Sheleg) who is obsessed with the idea of moving to America. The only other employee there is an Israeli Arab named Bashir (Eli Yatzpan, who was not yet well known at the time this film was made). But wait, the symbolism continues, and remember that it will all be symmetric. While pretending to be an American at the hotel, Eldi goes for a walk and sits on a park bench that turns out to be a pick-up point for Palestinian day laborers. Before he can say anything, he is pushed into a pickup truck and carted off to a construction site in an affluent northern Tel Aviv suburb.
Displaced Israeli Schoolteacher Eldi Natan is in danger of blowing his cover, as well as missing his share of lunch on the construction site. He is unable to lean forward on his haunches to eat as the Arab workers do.
This impersonation of a Palestinian laborer may actually be one of the less unrealistic things in this movie. The same year the movie was made, journalist Yoram Bin-Nur published the book My Enemy, Myself in which he recounts doing just this. His main obstacle lay not in his ability to speak Arabic or even in fabricating a past, but in his body language. While we know from an earlier scene that Eldi can speak Arabic, as a construction worker he decides to pretend to be a mute, perhaps to avoid questions about his background. He runs into trouble at lunch time, however, when the workers crowd around a newspaper on the floor to eat their lunch of bread, cottage cheese, and raw vegetables. They all squat forward on their haunches and eat with their hands. Eldi tries his best, but can’t do it without losing his balance.
Now back to the parallel symbolism: we later learn that Eldi has been having trouble talking to his wife. Yet he effortlessly seduces two other Israeli women: one who believes he is a rich American, and another who believes he is a disenfranchised Palestinian. Possibly the farthest pushed point of symbolism in the entire movie is that the affluent Israeli artiste who believes herself to be sleeping with a Palestinian laborer never actually speaks with him, since in his Palestinian guise Eldi is mute. She paints a flattering portrait of him and then invites her girlfriends over to show them the painting and announces that she’s decided to attend a meeting with Palestinians... in Romania.
The final scene is in my opinion, too overdone even compared to the rest of the film. My favorite scene is one of the least symbolic scenes. Just before he is picked up by the construction crew, Eldi has the following conversation with an obscure old man he meets in the park:
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)Fiddler on the Roof is a celebration of everything traditionally Jewish, warts and all. It is also a lament for the loss of innocence that traditional Jewish life has suffered in the modern age. The time is the turn of the 20th century, a time when Jews in Western Europe were already well on their way to being modernized, but the place is Eastern Europe, where Jews can only begin to guess at the changes to come.
Tevye the milkman (Haim Topol) and his family and neighbors in the fictional Ukrainian village of Anatyevka are certainly not innocent of the violence their gentile fellow countrymen are capable of. When the local policeman tells Tevye a pogrom is being planned, the life drains out of his eyes so completely that it is clear the collective memory of all the horrors of anti-Semitism is almost second nature to him. And yet his entire way of life (symbolized by the fiddler playing precariously on a rooftop) is predicated on such violence being cyclical, like the phases of the moon, almost a part of the way of life itself, no matter how tragic. There is no recognition that events are rapidly approaching that will end this way of life forever. The massive exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe is only hinted at in the end of the film, and the holocaust is never mentioned at all. However, knowledge of the destruction to come hangs over the entire film like a shadow.
Tevye the milkman takes his troubles to the Lord. You just can’t get any more Jewish than this.
The way of life Tevye clings to is not so much ideological or fundamentalist. His workingman’s clothing would be frowned on by the ultraorthodox Jews of today. And it is clear from his folky references to what “the good book says” that his knowledge of what it actually says is somewhat muddled. What no scholar or fundamentalist today could rival is Tevye’s faith, his personal relation with God of a sort that no longer exists in the modern world. And as he states in the opening song, he owes everything to tradition. This tradition is in the short run nothing but resistance to change. But when observed for countless generations, it nourishes a communal folk life that can carry oppressed people through hard times better than any ideology or political system.
And yet the traditional way of life depicted for most of the three hours of running time is not at all static. Signs are everywhere that change is coming. Perchek, an itinerant “student” never stops talking about working people seizing the riches of the world. Tevye’s daughters are deciding on their own whom to marry, instead of accepting arranged marriages. But just as no one can conceive traditional Jewish life coming to an end, no one can conceive of the loss of political and sexual innocence either. Everyone in the village sees Perchek as nothing more than a harmless lunatic. They think it is scandalous for Tevye’s daughters to decide on their own marriages. Yet each of the girls falls hopelessly in love with the first boy she meets, the first boy she has ever really spoken to, within just a few moments of conversation. All of these people would be shocked and horrified at the modern world. All except for Perchek. Even as every other kind of innocence has vanished from the world, his kind of naiveté is more common now than it was then. And the ascendant Percheks of today are far less tolerant towards the recalcitrant Tevyes among us now, than the Tevyes of the world were towards them then.
Topol’s unforgettable portrayal of Tevye probably owes some debt to his earlier role in the Israeli movie Salah Shabati, directed in 1964 by Efraim Kishon. Salah was also a patriarch trying to preserve his family and traditions in a changing world: a Jew from an unnamed Middle Eastern country who is settled in a dead-end transit camp in Israel in the 1950s.
The Hebrew Hammer (2002)The Hebrew Hammer is the world’s first Jewish Christmas movie. This is something all American Jews should be able to relate to, even if this movie is too tasteless for most. It follows squarely in the comic tradition of Austin Powers and The Naked Gun, as well as 1970s blaxploitation movies like Shaft, Superfly, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and also Naked Gun style parodies of blaxploitation movies such as I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. And it’s Jewish. Like The Believer, this movie is tailored to a very narrow audience, but it should do well in pleasing that audience. It is a very funny movie and like The Believer it has substantive, non-trivial Jewish content. It is also unique in having walk-on cameos from both legendary blaxploitation director Melvin Van Peebles (“Hey, I’m just taking a page from Sweetback...”) and former New York congressman and mayor Ed Koch (“Can you take care of some of those parking tickets for me?”).
The Hebrew Hammer (Adam Goldberg) is a private-eye cum superhero who dresses like a hasidic hipster. He wears a long black coat that looks more like leather than gabardine. He sports a pointy broad-brimmed black hat and wears his talit around his neck like a scarf. He struts through the streets of Williamsburg (“The Chood”) muttering phrases like “Shabat shalom, mama” and “What’s shakin’, yente?” He drives a shiny Cadillac with an Israeli flag on the antenna and a vanity plate that reads “LCHAIM”. He gives kids Hanukkah presents and admonishes them to “stay Jewish.” But his own level of religious observance is unclear. He doesn’t seem to lead a pious lifestyle. However, one scene suggests he will not eat a bacon cheeseburger. Another scene shows him to have a fatal weakness akin to superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite: he becomes weak and slumps into a state of rest when the sun sets on Friday evening. Mostly though, he just likes giving goyim a hard time. He walks into a skinhead bar, orders a Manishevitz (black label) straight up, and then asks “Do you take shekels?”
Of course, the talit and the aversion to cheeseburgers don’t make the Hebrew Hammer any more religious than the flag and the shekels make him Israeli. They are all just superficial extroverted symbols with which to assert a distinct Jewish-American ethnic identity. Even so, to fully achieve this identity he also needs help from distinctly black American symbols as well.
The main plotline is a nice twist on the grinch: the bad guys are a renegade Santa Claus (Andy Dick) and sinister Tiny Tim (Sean Whalen) who are trying to “steal Hanukkah.” The Hammer is hired to save the holiday by the Jewish Justice League, a bombastic Jewish organization headed by a heavy-accented, cream-cheese eating Moshe Dayan look-alike named Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Peter Coyote). The League has many subcommittees, such as the Anti-Denigration League (“I’m a denigrator? You’re a denigrator! You can’t handle the denigration.”) and the Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy (“you want us to make more copies of Fiddler On The Roof and The Chosen? How about another Adam Sandler movie?”). Not surprisingly, it is rather ineffective. The Hammer is aided in his mission by Esther (Judy Greer), Bloomenbergensteinenthal’s daughter, and by Mohamed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles, son of Melvin and director of such movies as New Jack City and Panther, among others), leader of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front.
It goes without saying that this is a far less intellectual movie than The Believer. Its main theme is the resentment that a lot of Jews in America feel during the Christmas season. Of course, the same resentment is present in a lesser form during the rest of the year as well. The source of indignation might be summed up as resentment of being put on the spot to explain and defend one’s beliefs and traditions in a way that Christians never have to do. This reaches a crescendo at Christmastime. While giving ample voice to this rage, the movie also suggests that one of the reasons Jews feel so threatened by the Christmas spirit and by religious identity in general is that they are unsure and ignorant of their own identity. At the end of the film, when the bad guys are apprehended, the Hebrew Hammer says: “You know what the trouble with you always was... You never understood the true spirit of Hanukkah.” The bad guy replies: “What is the true spirit of Hanukkah?” The good guys all laugh heartily, and then stare at each other in complete silence. The movie also suggests that it might not have been such a good idea on the part of American Jews to take Hannukah, traditionally only a commemorative holiday, and try to build it up as a counterbalance to the all-important Christmas. When his mother berates him during Shabbat dinner, the Hammer tries to defend himself: “But Ma, I saved Hanukkah!” Mom: “Hanukkah, Shmanukkah, it’s not even a High Holy Day. Now if you’d saved Rosh Hashana... (turning to Esther:) He’s good boy, my son.”
The Hebrew Hammer has a lot of fun with certain aspects of Jewish identity that make younger Jews wince. Foremost among these is Jewish whining. When the Hammer first enters the headquarters of the International Jewish Conspiracy, he is forced to undergo a series of tests to prove he is Jewish. In one test, he is left alone in an empty room. He begins to pace back and forth, complaining about all the time this is taking, how hard it was to find a parking space, they didn’t even offer him anything to nosh, etc. When his whining reaches fever decibels, a little red light lights up that reads “Jewish”, and he is allowed into the building. In another scene where the Hammer and Esther are escaping from K-Mart (“Jews in aisle 12!”), they flee through an underground tunnel that turns out to be an amusement park ride that takes them through Disneyland-like scenes of Jewish persecution throughout the centuries. As soon as the canned music and voiceover starts, they both start to yawn. And look out for what the “ultimate Jewish secret weapon” at the end turns out to be!
The Hebrew Hammer is an anomaly because he is a tough superhero hipster Jew, but of course he isn’t after all. He’s at his mother’s every Friday night, where he’s forced to eat four different kinds of chicken and is berated for not getting a real job, like his mother’s friends’ sons. When he first confronts the evil Santa at K-Mart, two of Santa’s buxom blond female helpers corner him, clad in red and white Christmas lingerie and necklaces with diamond-studded crosses hanging into their cleavage. One of them whispers in his ear: “I just love Jewish men. You’re so well read and sensitive.” Hammer: “You know, it’s actually funny you should say that. I was just rereading um, it’s this incredible Victor Frankel book about, well he’s the founder of logotherapy...”
Besides Christmas, the other big theme of The Hebrew Hammer is race relations, or maybe not so much race relations, but the one-sided Jewish fascination with and reliance on black American politics and culture. This may be an issue for white America as a whole, but it is particularly acute for Jewish America. It seems that in the United States, for some reason, professional and economic success come at the expense of group pride and spontaneous behavior. It’s not just ethnic either. Until the 1950s, even the most Anglo-Saxon Americans used to have a distinctive folk style and took pride in their group identities. This easily translated into patriotism. For ethnic minorities, group pride didn’t always translate into American patriotism, but it wasn’t entirely alien to it either. Witness the scene in The Godfather where Sonny Corleone accuses his brother Tom of being a “Jap-lover” because he’s not sufficiently angry about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and then calls his brother Michael a “sap” for enlisting in the marines because that’s “risking your life for strangers”. As they become more prosperous and less working class, many white Americans are having trouble finding a sense of either group pride or patriotism. Jews, the most successful and professionally overrepresented minority in America, are close to paranoid about even being identified as Jews, let alone being associated with any Jewish cause. While this process began for most white Americans in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s, Jews have been experiencing it since the 1920s, and possibly even before they arrived in America. By the 1990s, it’s only Italians who are still trying to hold out, and even they are having trouble, which is the central theme of the successful TV series The Sopranos. It is only black Americans, while they continue to suffer from high levels of poverty and crime in largely segregated communities, who seem alive and vital and hold their heads high proudly expressing their blackness, or at least so they appear to white Americans, and especially to Jews.
This has been true at least since the early 1960s, when Jews were disproportionately active in the Civil Rights movement. While Jews did little to speak for their own people in Europe during WWII, they spoke out fearlessly and relentlessly for the rights of blacks. There were probably two reasons for this. First, it let Jews express their own rage without expressly calling attention to it. Second, they really idealized what they saw as unselfconscious and unapologetic black pride. They hoped that if they marched with blacks, some of it might rub off on them. Some blacks might think that Jews only helped them because they expected to get something in return, such as support for Israel. This makes sense theoretically, but it’s far too rational to have been a real motivation. All Jews ever really wanted from blacks is a license to be angry and a chance at being hip.
Since the 1970s, Jewish-black relations have deteriorated and the chance of Jews ever becoming hip looks more remote than ever. Furthermore, since the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and major Supreme Court rulings in the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights politics have become less inspirational and idealistic and more like just another special interest, in this case for blacks and a reserved list of other minorities, which does not include Jews. Subsequently, while economic opportunities have grown and legal barriers have fallen, the able and the ambitious have moved out of the old black neighborhoods, leaving the streets less vibrant and more violent. Thus, while blacks are still viewed by others as the most culturally and politically vibrant minority in America, they are not what they were in the 1970s. That is why The Hebrew Hammer is so stuck in the 1970s. Jews idolize those soulful, righteously indignant streetwise hipsters like Shaft and Sweetback and Priest from Superfly. Jews need these mythical heroes more than blacks ever did and they miss them. The loss of the vibrant black inner city neighborhood of the 1970s symbolizes to Jews the loss of the vibrant Jewish inner city neighborhood of the 1920s. Most Jews today earn far more money than their immigrant great-grandparents could have ever have dreamed of, but they do not live in neighborhoods that have any Jewish character. While Jews mourn the loss of their communal identity, they cannot regain it without reverting to a closer adherence to their religion. Only the most religious of Jewish neighborhoods in America have survived to retain a Jewish character in the twenty-first century. Yet most American Jews are not religious and cannot even tolerate more than token doses of religion once or twice a year. The actual Jewish neighborhoods of their ancestors, as well as the modern-day hasidic sections of Williamsburg, or even the more liberal Crown Heights, are far too strictly religious to appeal to anyone as irreverent as the makers of The Hebrew Hammer. How they must envy blacks who retain their identity and community simply by virtue of their physical constitution!
Thus, we get the fictionalized “chood” of the opening title sequence, an incongruent and ahistoric fantasy of Jewish communal nostalgia filtered though 1970s blaxploitation films. It’s only a silly scene in a silly movie, but it speaks volumes about the psyche of the American Jew today.
The Hebrew Hammer arrives in his imaginary New York neighborhood, carrying a Hannukah present.
Even more revealing is the opening scene that precedes the titles. It seems that young Mordechai Jefferson Carver (the Hammer’s real name) didn’t grow up in the “chood” at all, but in an all-white, all-gentile neighborhood where he went to an all-white, all-gentile school. His identity was forged not by contact with blacks or even with other Jews, but by being teased by his schoolmates and teacher on Christmas. When a sadistic dime-store Santa Claus stomps on his dreidel after school, he snaps. It is this traumatic experience that turns him into the Hebrew Hammer. In fact, these are the most honest scenes in the entire movie. Not that Santas are frequently seen stomping on dreidels, or that boys with peyes as long as Mordy’s usually go to schools where Christmas is celebrated. But this is how Jewish children often feel in America because most of them do grow up in all-white mostly-gentile surroundings. It is in such surroundings that Jewish identity in America today is forged, and where Jewish fascination with black culture begins. Everything else in the movie is fantasy, albeit of a very telling nature.
Another of the movie’s many conceits is that it pretends that all blacks celebrate Kwanzaa and that Christmas is an exclusively white holiday. The KLF leader is named “Mohamed” to give him a black separatist aura, completely ignoring the fact that black Muslims are even less likely to celebrate Kwanzaa than black Christians. The storefront black militant group KLF is itself yet another relic of 1970s of the sort The Hebrew Hammer revels in. This is precisely the kind of thing that was viciously ridiculed by Keenen Wayans in his 1988 comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
In the worst scene in the entire movie, a WASPish onlooker says in astonishment: “You just called him a kike, and you... you just called him a nigger!” Mohamed says: “Well, it’s OK when we calls each other that.” It doesn’t even matter whether this scene was meant to be ironic or not, it makes you wince just the same. The number of Jews who call blacks “niggers” and live to tell about it can’t be much greater than the number of blacks who’ve ever even heard of the word “kike”. Mario Van Peebles puts some decent effort into playing Mohamed, but the whole character doesn’t work for the same reason that line doesn’t work. It’s clear why Hammer needs Mohamed. Without black approval, the struggle for Hanukkah would be as boring and as whiny as the pageants in the underground tunnel under the K-Mart. Mohamed is necessary to make the movie work. But Mohamed himself doesn’t work because it’s never clear why he needs the Hammer. He just sort of hangs around in his dashiki and leather jacket and shades, occasionally letting loose with the jive. The only thing that suggests any motivation on Mohamed’s part is when he says of the evil Santa Claus: “Hanukkah might be his first move, but Kwanzaa might be next.” Again, this makes sense theoretically, but it’s far too rational to be convincing.
The jokes in The Hebrew Hammer clearly indicate that the makers of the movie are introspective enough to know that all of these assumptions about Jewish communities and black-Jewish relations in America are sheer nonsense, but they need to make them in order to make the world’s first openly Jewish superhero at all watchable. That says about as much about the state of modern Jews as any movie I can think of except The Believer. Despite the fact that one is a screwball comedy and the other is a political thriller, there are certain parallels. Both Mordechai Jefferson Carver and Danny Balint are outsider Jews. Balint is a Nazi who can outargue any Talmudic point. Mordechai is “the only Jew too radical” for the international Jewish conspiracy. If Danny Balint has to become a white supremacist in order to escape his Jewish identity, maybe it’s only natural that Mordechai Jefferson Carver has to become a black wannabe in order to embrace his. American Jews simply don’t believe they can make their own case in their own right. They need to make someone else’s case, or have someone else make theirs. As Tevye put it: “Without our tradition, our lives would be as shaky as...”
ha-Hesder, aka Time of Favor (2001)This movie was released in the United States under the title Time of Favor, which is taken from a loose translation of a verse from a prayer that is heard in one brief scene. The Hebrew title ha-hesder means “the arrangement.” It’s a double meaning, since a yeshivat hesder is also a kind of Israeli yeshiva, the kind attended by the main characters of this movie, in which the students alternate their study time with army service.
American yeshiva-educated director Yossi Cedar set out to make his first movie sympathetic to the much-maligned religious settlers of the West Bank. As part of his research for the film, he spent several months living in the kind of isolated and idealistic settlement he intended to fictionally recreate in his movie. The result of this sojourn revealed to him much about the settler community that he found decidedly unsympathetic. As a result, the movie ends up having both a sympathetic and a disturbing aspect in its portrayal of settlers. This is probably for the better, since it will remain for a long time the only feature film portraying settlers. If it had been one-sided in either direction, many years would go by before balance would be introduced from other quarters.
These contradictory attitudes towards the settlers are exemplified by the two main characters. Menahem (Aki Avni) is the handsome and self-effacing young officer, while his friend Pini (Idan Alterman) is the sickly and violent-minded scholar. The two young friends are also both proteges of the same rabbi who sees in both of them integral parts of his efforts to create a new ideological religious movement. It later becomes clear that the ambitious rabbi does not really understand what motivates either of his star pupils. They both end up surprising him in their eventual decisions, most tragically in Pini’s case. There can be no doubt that Cedar means to say that while there are noble and heroic motives among the settlers, the movement is out of control and headed for disaster. The most positively portrayed character, the rabbi’s daughter Michal (played by an Israeli actress who calls herself “Tinkerbell”), is highly critical of her father and has left the settlement early in the movie. Menahem seems likely to soon join her.
Idealistic young Menahem is taken into custody by the General Security Service.
Even though the plot sums up as a condemnation of the settler movement, the details of the story serve to humanize the settlers, not demonize them. Everything is told from their point of view. Even the tragedy and disillusion are only revealed as they are experienced by the movement’s own children. Even the rabbi who has in effect raised all of the young protagonists is portrayed in the end as a sad and confused old man, not as a tyrant or a demagogue. This is not a movie about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, there are no Arabs in it at all and few Israelis either for that matter, besides the settlers. Nearly the only non-settler Israelis portrayed in the film are members of the security services who are investigating the settlers. Like the federal agents in David Mamet’s movies, they are not portrayed in a positive light. Ha-hesder is a movie about settlers, for better or for worse. It is their story. Ha-hesder is also the only feature film I’ve seen where Jewish religious practice is presented as a normal part of the lives of all the characters. It is not on display for the viewers. The characters are seen worshipping and observing the Sabbath the same way characters in other movies might be seen hanging out in a bar or playing softball. There’s nothing exhibitionist or educational about Judaism the way there often is American movies where some guiding voice informs the viewer that “The Jews believe that....”
Homicide (1991)Since his directorial debut House of Games in 1987, David Mamet is divorced from actress Lindsay Crouse, the female lead of that film. However, Joe Mantegna, the male star of that movie, went on to appear in Mamet’s later films. By Mamet’s third movie as director in 1991, Homicide, Mantegna had become something of Mamet’s alter-ego, the way Jean-Pierre Leaud became Truffaut’s alter-ego in the 60s. In Homicide, Mantegna looks every bit as stereotypically Jewish as he looked stereotypically Italian in House of Games.
The setting of Homicide is Mamet’s now familiar universe of cops and crooks in a timeless tough-talking American metropolis, presumably Mamet’s hometown of Chicago. At first there is little to cue us in to the Jewish theme of the film besides a racial slur by a pompous city bureaucrat (not a WASP, but daringly for Hollywood, a middle-class black) in one of the opening scenes. Soon though Mantegna’s character Bobby Gold is investigating the murder of an elderly Jewish candy-store owner in a now-black neighborhood and it becomes clear that the movie is not really a thriller at all but one of those “discovering-your-denied-roots” movies. Since Mantegna is Mamet’s alter-ego, and since it is Mamet who is Jewish and also the writer and director, it is not so much Bobby Gold, but David Mamet who is getting in touch with his roots. It is still not clear though until the second half of the film just how much of the movie’s plot has been subverted to work out Mamet’s personal identity issues.
As might be expected, Gold is forced against his will to work on the Jewish case. He is resentful of both his fellow cops and the Jewish victim’s family who all assume he should be the one to handle the case because they are “his people.” As might further be expected, Gold soon becomes over-interested in the case and the Jews involved, to the point of questioning his former loyalties. Other expected themes that crop up include Gold’s previously denied realization at how prevalent anti-Semitism is. In his over-sympathy for the victim in the case, he is of course reliving numerous anti-Semitic events in his own life that he previously swallowed and ignored for the sake of his career. Also, there is the sense of estrangement and guilt he feels in the face of the other, more “authentic” Jews he encounters while investigating the case. This is undoubtedly at least as much Mamet’s estrangement and guilt as anyone’s. The giveaway is how unrealistically the other Jewish characters are portrayed. Mamet is so estranged from other Jews that he portrays them far more poorly than a non-Jewish director in Hollywood would have. Mamet portrays them so bizarrely not so much because he doesn’t know them, but because he imposes on them all sorts of fears and longings of his own in a way that a non-Jewish (or more comfortably Jewish) director would have no reason to do. This ends up taking over the entire plot mechanism to the point where it is unclear what the plot is anymore. The movie ends up like a dream that is so incoherent that it ceases to be a dream and the sleeper wakes up.
The first Jews that Gold encounters, the victim’s family, are normal enough. They appear to be obsessed with anti-Semitism. This is not so unbelievable. What is far harder to accept is that they appear to have absolutely no sense of humor. Jews are often paranoid in real life, yes, but they almost always are the first to make jokes about it. One might possibly swallow this very un-Jewish inability to laugh or even crack a smile on the grounds that they are in mourning for their relative. Things get much harder to believe though when Gold visits the Jewish family’s mansion. Most of the family’s visitors seem to be former Hagana gun-runners and Israeli secret agents. Like the mourners, every last one of them is inhumanly serious and seemingly physically incapable of smiling. Even worse, they give each other conspirational glances and nods and exchange curt and choppy phrases in Hebrew (which for some reason is heavily French-accented). This scene is utterly preposterous to anyone who’s ever been to a Jewish family get together, even during a time of mourning, even when some of the relatives present really are working for the Israeli military. Jews are incapable of not telling jokes and long stories. Any family reunion is bound to turn up at least one uncle who’s always clowning around. And no one talks louder or longer than Israelis. Even Israelis in the military are very unmilitary in this way. This kind of taciturn coldness looks like something from an Ingmar Bergman movie. It’s especially surprising coming from Mamet, who is so good at portraying the endless loud and lively banter of cops and criminals on the other side of town. He’s so good at making street characters and street scenes come alive and cutting through stodgy dialogue and stale stereotypes, even in the earlier scenes of this very same movie. Apparently to Mamet, Jews, or at least the kind of “authentic” Jews that his alter-ego Bobby Gold feels so uncomfortable around, are not alive in the same way as the cops and thugs are. They inhabit some kind of spiritual, ethereal world, a world where smiling is a physical impossibility. In the movie Lansky, for which Mamet wrote the script, the pious family of the young Meyer Lansky is similarly stodgy and joyless. Once Meyer grows up to become a crime boss though, he develops some personality to go along with it.
Things get worse. As Bobby Gold sets off to hunt for clues on the case, he encounters a secret world of hook-nosed shopkeepers, dark-suited Israeli agents, and fanatical mystics. They all seem to know Hebrew (if only that many American Jews really did know Hebrew!) and are intent on hiding what they know from him. It is only a matter of time before Gold breaks down and begs to be let in on the Jewish conspiracy. He ends up in a seemingly abandoned building that turns out to be the apparent headquarters of the Elders of Zion. He is quickly led past rooms full of intimidating communications equipment and other mysterious but impressive wonders of technology. The machines are manned by serious looking youths. These are presumably the American Jews who, unlike Gold (and Mamet) didn’t sell out to the goyim but dedicated their lives to serving their people. Other rooms are full of blackboards on which elaborate time-tables and battle-plans are scribbled in Hebrew. This is so unrealistic. Where are all the plaques commemorating the donors? It doesn’t even look like the place has a tennis court or swimming pool, let alone a steam room. What about the parking lot for all the minivans and SUVs? Has Mamet ever been to a JCC? In the main hall, Gold is interrogated by the entire cast of unsmiling spooks who were first seen at the family mansion. He is ordered to turn over classified police evidence. When he refuses, he is chastised for his cowardice, led outside, and told not to bother returning because “when you come back, everything will be gone.” What Mamet proves in this scene is that Jewish conspiracy theories can be as exciting for Jews as they are for anti-Semites.
Gold repents, however, and is given a last chance to prove his loyalty by blowing up a toy store which is said to house a Nazi printing press. Gold not only blows the place sky high, but before doing so flies into a violent rage and smashes up the store by hand. This is really where the plot begins to fall apart. We might be able to accept the sourpuss Jewish conspiracy as some kind of science fiction device, but Gold’s behavior in this scene is entirely out of sync with his character. He is a man of the world, a tough city cop with years of police work under his belt. Surely he knows there are Nazi pamphleteers out there? Furthermore, the operation he destroys in the toy store seems so dinky. The printing press itself looks like it predates Marx and Engels. The pamphlets and fliers are so technically and politically crude it is hard to imagine that someone in the late twentieth century would find them threatening. Yet Gold reacts as if he’s found Hitler’s secret bunker, with Hitler still in it. It’s almost as if he’s not only found an antique printing press, but been transported himself into olden times. Just minutes before, Gold refused to break some red-tape police rules for the Jews, now he is gleefully committing wanton vandalism. It is in this scene that it seems likely that Gold is not merely investigating a weird case, not merely discovering a surreal Jewish parallel universe, but that the plot and the movie itself have ceased to become anything but a vehicle for dramatizing the primordial and unresolved inner emotions of Gold (and Mamet). I suspect that Gold becomes violent in the toy store not because he has discovered anything there he didn’t know about before, but because the toy store exists in a deeper layer of his and Mamet’s subconscious, one where emotions are more raw.
This suspicion is all but confirmed in the penultimate scene, where Gold descends into a dark and deserted catacomb underneath a gutted Chicago slum to hunt down the criminal he has been tracking since the beginning of the movie, before he was put on the Jewish case. This type of setting should be familiar to fans of horror movies as the place where the last surviving teenager must face the slasher alone at the end of the film. It is what horror critic Carol Clover has called “the Terrible Place.” In an otherwise meaningless opening scene, the strap on Gold’s holster is broken. This information foreshadows the entire movie. He now rights himself in total darkness in the deserted catacomb only to discover that his gun has been lost in the jump. He will have to face Mr. Bad Guy (Ving Rhames) with his bare hands and whatever heavy or sharp objects he can find in the dungeon. As horror movie fans well know: modern weapons are useless in the Terrible Place because one is confronting one’s own most primordial inner bogeymen.
Homicide is fun enough. It has many recurring Mamet themes, including the heroic loners vs. the cold and sinister bureaucrats. The candy store owner turns out to have been a smuggler of guns in the Israeli war of independence and is regarded by everyone involved as a heroine. This theme came up in Lansky as well. According to Mamet, Lansky himself ran guns for Israel in 1948, saving it from destruction, only to have the Israelis turn him over to the FBI 25 years later. Mamet also portrays Lansky as using his connections with Lucky Luciano to help America win the war in Italy, only to be turned on by the feds as an enemy of society. In Hoffa, another Mamet screenplay, Jimmy Hoffa is seen making deals with the mob and with Richard Nixon, only to be betrayed by both. Bobby Gold is obviously meant to be an anti-hero. It is suggested that the police made him a hostage negotiator because he knows what it’s like to be an outsider. The hunted criminal’s mother will turn her son in only if Gold is present. It is never explained why she trusts him more than any of the black officers on the force. Even the wanted man, the Ving Rhames character, is portrayed somewhat heroically as a desperado in a doomed battle with a monolithic system.
One of the most striking things about this movie that seemingly deals with anti-Semitism is that we never actually see any anti-Semites. The Nazi printing press toy store is closed and almost looks abandoned, like something from a dream. The blacks who live in the neighborhood of the candy store are heard to mutter anti-Semitic gossip, but they are clearly not meant to seem threatening and there is a suggestion that the printing press Nazis put them up to it anyway. The only real bad guys we actually see on camera are the FBI, who are portrayed as cold-blooded killers. These themes of criminal compassion and federal evil were also addressed in Lanksy and Hoffa, where Mamet portrayed both men as the lasts of the independents. The Jewish conspirators in Homicide also come over as extremely cold-blooded. There is some suggestion that it is statehood that has done this to the Jews. In one scene, Gold asks the Israeli agent who snares him what it’s like to have your own state. Mamet didn’t think much either of the Israeli bureaucrats who turned Meyer Lansky over to the American feds. But the coldness extends to all of the Jews in Homicide; they are all implicated in the stone-face conspiracy. The only Jew (besides Gold) whom Mamet might consider a hero is the gun-running candy store lady, but she is dead as the movie opens. Like Gold, Mamet doesn’t feel comfortable around his fellow Jews. It’s not surprising his career led him to make movies about all-American tough guys. They have far more humanity in his eyes. Mamet likes the idea of being a Jew and imagines that other Jews in another time and place (like Lansky) might have been endearing in a controversial sort of way. But when he reaches out to portray modern-day Jews in Homicide, he projects all his fears onto them. They have become bureaucratized like everyone else. Maybe they’re even federalized. Worse, they might not laugh at his jokes and might snicker at him in Hebrew.
The Jazz Singer (1927)This was the first movie to have a sound track, but it’s hard to imagine that the studio bosses at Warner Brothers took it very seriously, or they wouldn’t have let it come out as chaotic as it did, or as Jewish. Even if the movie wasn’t meant to be a hit, you’d think that they would have realized that any movie that was the first to have a soundtrack was sure to be watched 100 years later, no matter how bad it was. So apparently, no one in 1927 thought that sound movies were going to catch on. On the other hand, this was before the Hayes code, before the Communist party took over the screen writers’ guild, before the war effort mobilization, blacklisting, the cold war, etc. It’s easy to forget that movies were much more innocent then, more playful and more daring than most movies made in Hollywood until the 1970s. Some of the early Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers material was as crazy and provocative as anything until Monty Python and Cheech and Chong came along fifty years later. Also, at that time, Hollywood was packed with ex-Vaudevillians, many of whom were Jews from traditional working class backgrounds. There were probably as many Jews in Hollywood a generation later, but they were not as unpretentious or as unapologetic.
A title card from the world’s first sound movie.
The Jazz Singer isn’t really a sound movie. No one had any experience making sound movies then so they made it like a silent movie, with title cards and everything. They had a soundtrack, but only used it for the songs and some brief banter by Al Jolson before and after he sings. Apparently, this small talk was completely improvised by Jolson as part of his act, and was not intended by the movie’s makers. The songs and the interludes sound great, though: spontaneous, authentic, funny, full of life, somehow very modern and not at all like the stagey musicals that were about to take over Hollywood as soon as sound movies became the norm.
There’s something incredibly authentic about The Jazz Singer. Most of the actors, including Jolson, are Vaudevillians. They’re right out of the music hall, right out of the street almost, and they seem like they’re still hustling. Furthermore, they’re playing the roles of Vaudevillians. Jolson is almost playing his own life story straight up. It’s far more convincing than the dramatized The Al Jolson Story, made twenty years later with Larry Parks playing Al. It just reminds you how modern and hip the 1920s were. They were more hip than the 1960s because people were being themselves, not acting out some TV fantasy. It was a lot more authentic and a lot less self-conflicted.
The story is the classic show business staple: a young unknown making his way to the big time. The Jewish element is so over the top, though. I don’t think this was ever done to such an extent again in Hollywood later on. Young Jakie Rabinowitz, son of a Lower East Side hazan, runs away to go join the traveling show after a fight with his dad on Yom Kippur eve. Ten or twenty years later, “Jack Robin” is back in town to open on Broadway for the first time. It’s his big break. But it’s also Erev Yom Kippur again, and his father has taken ill. Will he forsake his career in show business to sing kol nidre in his father’s place? This movie is 80 years old, so I think I can be forgiven for revealing how it ends: Al Jolson sings kol nidre in the first movie to have a soundtrack! What were they thinking? I don’t even think Adam Sandler could be persuaded to do this today. This is Yom Kippur, not Hanukah. Perhaps the growing gap between observant and non-observant Jews has something to do with it. Orthodox Jews are more segregated today. Their children are less likely to go into show business. Similarly, secular Jews are more alienated from their heritage. Their parents are less likely to be cantors who demand that they become cantors too. They are less likely to ask that their children sing kol nidre, and the children are less likely to know how to sing it. Still, how they got this movie made in Hollywood is something I still can’t get my head around. In those days, there was no “multiculturalism.” There was no specialized movie production for narrow audiences. This movie was aimed at general audiences, and it was a hit. Maybe America was more tolerant back then in some less forced way that we have forgotten now.
Another interesting aspect of The Jazz Singer is that Jews are referred to explicitly as a “race” several times. Of course, at the time, the category “ethnicity” was probably not widely used, and this may have been more what they really meant. What is clear is that at the time everyone, Jews and gentiles alike, considered Jews to be a lot more than simply a religion. The idea that Jews are “just a religion” was probably adopted after WWII and has been pursued in America ever since with a ruthless single-mindedness. The world of The Jazz Singer is the old American Jewish neighborhood of the 1920s, the one that disappeared soon after and whose loss has been ripping the American Jewish psyche apart ever since. The old neighborhood was both authentic and hip, and people knew it even back then. Today, the only Jewish neighborhoods are ultra-orthodox. They are authentic, but not at all hip by modern standards. Only secular Jews today can be hip, but they are not authentic in the sense that they are not authentically Jewish. Al Jolson was both.
The Komediant (2000)Reports of the death of the Yiddish language have most certainly been greatly exaggerated. Reports of the death of Yiddish theatre may have been exaggerated too, but not greatly. Yiddish theatre really is close to being dead, even as the language remains spoken in certain Hassidic and other ultra-orthodox communities. The Komediant makes clear why this is: Yiddish theatre was always most popular among the least religious speakers of Yiddish, while being condemned by the more religious. As I. B. Singer wrote in A Peephole in the Gate of Yiddish theatre actors in New York, they would play the most pious of roles onstage and engage in the most impious behavior backstage.
The Komediant is a very well-made documentary of the life and times of Yiddish theatre actor Pesahke Burstyn and his wife and two children, who all acted in the Yiddish theatre too. How representative this family is of the talent and depth of the Yiddish theatre is very hard for an outsider like me to say. However, their family history does seem to capture the Yiddish theatre’s major historical developments very well. Pesahke had a successful career in the Yiddish theatre in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. While in New York, on what must have been to him just another stint in his life of theatrical travels, he married the young Yiddish theatre actress Lillian Lux. After they were married, they performed together around South America and Europe. They were in Warsaw in the summer of 1939 and Pesahke was viewing favorably an offer to sign on for the entire theatre season of 1939-1940. According to Lillian, she convinced him they should return to New York and they left just days before the German onslaught. Their life continued much the same after the war, the only change being that they were joined onstage by their two children, who began acting as soon as they could walk. While the world of Yiddish theatre was gradually shrinking, Pesahke and Lillian continued to find audiences throughout their own lives. However, these were almost all audiences their own age.
This was the situation in Israel as well and The Komediant makes it clear that Pesahke and Lillian found it surprising that Israelis should not all teach their children Yiddish. It is possible that they did not understand that the Jews of the Mediterranean never spoke Yiddish in the first place. In any case, they may have wondered why Yiddish was not adopted as a pan-Jewish language, since so many immigrants did speak it in the early days of the Jewish State. Of course, the Zionist establishment in Israel had good reason to avoid Yiddish. Allowing it to flourish would make immigrant absorption and inter-immigrant strife even worse than they already were. Hebrew had to take precedence over Yiddish and all other immigrant languages for both ideological and social reasons.
While today it appears obvious to many in the United States that Judaism is primarily a religion, with possibly a political element centered on the state of Israel, these are very recent developments. To Yiddish speaking secular Jews like Pesahke and Lillian, who until nearly half a century ago were a majority of American Jews, their identity was largely linguistic and cultural, not religious or political. In Yiddish, the word “Yiddish” is simply the adjective derived from “Yid”. If you are a Yid, you speak Yiddish just as a Dane speaks Danish or a Turk speaks Turkish. Indeed, Yiddish speakers of this generation often say in English that they speak “Jewish”. This linguistic identity was primary to secular Yiddish-speaking Jews in America. The religion of Judaism was at best a distant second place. To many, that second place was instead “Yiddishkeit” or “Jewishness” — a sort of vague term for what might be called today “Jewish ethnicity”. So it is not surprising that for some, especially those less religiously inclined, the Yiddish theatre itself was perceived as a central institution of Jewish identity.
To the Burstyn children, Mike and Susan, however, the Yiddish theatre they grew up in was not the comfortable and familiar world their parents experienced. They were in many ways typical American baby-boomers and felt odd always being the only young people on stage or in the audience. As Mike says of a wedding scene where he and his sister played the bride and groom: “It was the first time the audience had seen a wedding scene where the bride and groom were actually the age of a bride and groom”. Later in the film Mike describes feeling like “a second-class citizen” wherever they performed. In Argentina, they did not perform in Spanish. In the US, they did not perform in English. In Israel, they did not perform in Hebrew. It is not surprising then, that during the family’s second sojourn in Israel in 1966, Mike, then 21 years old, accepted the Hebrew-speaking lead role in what was at the time a major Israeli hit movie: Two Kuni Lemels, directed by Israel Becker. The movie was a hit, and Mike decided to stay in Israel to pursue a career in the Hebrew-speaking entertainment world. His parents returned to New York. Mike Burstyn continued to actively perform in Israel through the 1980s, but his success never spread much beyond children’s songs and two less successful Kuni Lemel sequels. And as Mike admits, Kuni Lemel, even though performed in Hebrew, was really a stereotypically Yiddish role. The director of The Komediant, Arnon Goldfinger, has said: “I think that over the years Mike suffered greatly from the Yiddish label he was tagged with”. It is doubtful any future performers will suffer from being tagged with this label.
Snooker, aka Hagiga ba-Snooker (1975)This movie is widely known is Israel as Hagiga ba-Snooker which means “celebration at the pool hall,” but its official name is apparently just “Snooker.” Of all of the many low-budget, low-humor so-called borekas movies made in Israel in the 1970s, this one probably gleams the brightest in the mind’s eye thirty years later. It is in many ways typical. It is an absolutely unbelievable story about wholly ordinary people. It is set among working-class Sephardim in a small Tel-Aviv neighborhood that no longer exists. It also showcases the talents of almost all of the screen character actors of the period in their most typical roles. Ze’ev Revah is the fast-talking, wildly gesticulating con-man. Yehuda Barkan is the quiet tough guy with the change of heart. Yosef Shiloah is the mobster. Nitsa Shaul is the doe-eyed bride. Tuvia Tsafir is the bumbling loser, Talia Shapira is the klutzy waitress, Ya’akov Banai is the old-school rabbi, Tikva Aziz is his very traditional wife, Arye Elias is the alcoholic jokester, and Mosco Alkalai is the storekeeper (he had a bit appearance as almost the same character in the American TV movie Lansky). The themes are also staples of Middle Eastern cinema. Huge sums of money change hands as quickly and as fickly as the wind blows. Long lost relatives materialize out of nowhere. Identical twins trade places. Every bad guy ends up having a soft heart after all and of course love and family loyalty conquer all. The very catchy music is by Matti Caspi.
The borekas movies of the 1970s represent the only time when Israeli cinema was economically self-sufficient. Unlike the earlier government-made movies and the later art-house made-for-export political cinema, borekas movies paid their own way by selling out local theatres. Also, unlike the earlier and later Israeli films, borekas movies were actually set in the same kinds of neighborhoods in which they were screened. This is not to say that they objectively portrayed ordinary Israelis of the period. But they did portray these Israelis as they liked to see themselves. Earlier movies portrayed them the way the government liked to see them and wanted the rest of the world to see them. Later movies portrayed them the way the intelligentsia liked to see them and thought that European film festival judges wanted to see them.
The last Israeli movies that might be considered borekas films were 1985’s Lovesick Alex, directed by Boaz Davidzon, who also directed Snooker and possibly 1987’s The Skipper 3, a.k.a. Abba Ganuv 3, , directed by Yehuda Barkan, who starred in Snooker. Borekas cinema was born in the period of economic and cultural deregulation following the Yom Kipur war and the fall of the culturally conservative and economically socialist Golda Meir government. The collapse of borekas was largely correlated with the rise of the Israeli Fund to Encourage Quality Films in the 1980s. As its name suggests, this fund was a vehicle for putting tax money in the hands of a tiny circle of academic busybodies who got to decide what constituted “quality” for everyone else. This trend was exacerbated in the 1990s, when many of the new esoteric art-house movies began to win prizes in Europe, convincing everyone involved that the program was a “success.” The more public money gets poured into the fund, the more prizes Israeli movies win in Europe, and the more local ticket sales plummet. Still, the results are not as terrible as might have been. Occasionally a government subsidized movie is a hit locally, like Zohar, Shuru, Late Marriage, Operation Grandma. Some of these movies are good and some have been distributed abroad as well, but they are few and far between and have little in common. The bulk of the new movies are political allegories and documentaries tailored to foreign (largely European) intellectual tastes. Borekas cinema remains the only original, indigenous, locally popular industry trend in the history of Israeli movies.
To this day, borekas movies have seldom been seen outside of Israel. Recent years in video rental have been kind to foreign films from obscure countries. Iran has done particularly well and even some new Israeli films like Time of Favor and Late Marriage have found their way to a Blockbuster near you. The advent of DVD has led to many old movies being restored and re-released. The combination of these two trends might mean the American release of a retrospective series of old Israeli movies. Uri Zohar’s 1970s beach comedies have already been restored and released as a box set in Israel. Snooker was actually one of the very first Israeli movies to be released on DVD. The only attempt I know of to date to export borekas was the Lemon Popsicle series, also directed by Boaz Davidzon, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These movies were popular enough at home. Compared to his earlier movies though, Popsicle was noticeably more sexual, more Americanized in its music and stylistic devices, and more openly retrospective and nostalgic. Made mostly in the 1980s, the Popsicle series was set in the 1950s, complete with vintage cars. This was probably a reflection of the aging Davidzon’s own nostalgia, but it also removed the movies several degrees from the street credibility of early borekas. Understandably, the Lemon Popsicle movies were scorned in the west and subsequently ignored. As memory of Popsicle faded at home, it was the early borekas movies that came to dominate the local pirate video rental business in the VHS era. These were also the first Israeli movies to be released locally on DVD, not Popsicle, not Amos Gitai or any of the other favorites in Europe.
Under the Nose, a.k.a. Big Shots (1982)Many American movies that feature Jewish characters are really just American movies about characters who happen to be Jewish. Likewise, many Israeli movies are about Israelis who just happen to be Jewish. A number of Israeli movies made in the 1990s seemed almost to be making a point about how Israelis are just like anyone else in the movies, and not really Jewish at all by anything more than circumstance. The movie Shuru was a big hit in Israel in 1990 precisely because it looked like an Israeli version of a non-Jewish Hollywood comedy or prime-time TV show. Israelis were surprised it did not win an Oscar for best foreign film and did not play well abroad. It never seemed to occur to them that no one outside of Israel had any reason to watch a Hebrew language version of an American comedy. The 1982 movie mitahat la’af (“under the nose”) is in many ways no exception to this trend. It was made at the end of the period of commercially made borekas movies and just at the beginning of the period when nearly all Israeli movies became dependent on government funding. This government funding eventually transformed much of the Israeli movie industry into political art films made for export to European film festivals. Miraculously, Under the Nose actually manages the best of both worlds: a popular portrayal of local life, but with better than average acting, narrative, and production values. As a reviewer said at the time: “Never mind that the critics are praising it, go see it anyway!”
To add to its lack of Jewishness, many of the characterizations and situations in Under the Nose are lifted from the American crime thrillers of the 1970s. The movie is darkly colored like the American movies of that period, making it the closest thing to a Noir film ever made in Israel. The hard-nosed, independent-minded detective Ben-Shushan (Makram Khouri) is reminiscent of maverick American movie cops like Dirty Harry. The criminals are two-bit underworld hustlers on the skids like the thieves in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The Heist scene is reminiscent of many American movie heist scenes, particular of that in Blue Collar. Where Under the Nose rises above simple imitation is that everything has been very accurately and appropriately translated into the specific milieu of the run-down Israeli neighborhoods of the early 1980s. And the kinds of characters portrayed in Under the Nose have a reason for acting like Hollywood anti-heroes. They are precisely the type who would have grown up watching the American movies and identifying with them.
Herzl Malul (Moshe Ivgi) is an insect-like drug addict who works at the used car lot owned by his sleazy brother-in-law Yaakov (Juki Arkin). Despite or maybe because of Yaakov’s largesse, Herzl resents his brother-in-law and constantly steals from the business to finance his drug habit. By night, he pursues criminal activities with his friend Sami Ben-Tovim (Uri Gavriel), who is something of an older brother or even father-figure to him. Like all the characters in the movie, Herzl feels cheated by the world and dreams of exacting some kind of revenge in order to regain his prestige. Herzl is immature and his world is small and focused on close relationships with those around him. He could probably be happy if the people he knew just treated him with more respect. Sami, on the other hand, is a full-blown thug who imagines that the entire world owes him a living. He could never be happy. He dreams of getting enough money together to leave Israel and move to Germany or America, where he imagines pursuing criminal activities on a far larger scale. Herzl would do anything for Sami, but his reaction to this proposal is: “I don’t know, I like to go to the beach in the summer.”
The combination of Sami’s hubris and Herzl’s loyalty leads the two to hatch a bold plot to break into police headquarters in south Tel-Aviv and steal a safe full of recently recovered stolen currency, right under the nose of the police. To do this, they enlist the help of neighborhood legend Ezra Jana (Tzadok Tzarum). Jana was once a daredevil cat burglar, but now after many years in jail, he drives a taxi and is a broken man. Jana knows from bitter experience that the plot will come to no good, but his own life apparently holds so little hope, and the younger men regard him with such adulation, that he doesn’t need much convincing. The doom of this already ill-fated trio is sealed when Herzl’s used-car dealer brother-in-law Yaakov gets wind of the plot and forces his way in to the partnership. Yaakov needs the money least and has the most to lose, since he is the only one who has a family and a legitimate business. But he is also a coward who resents the other three for their street toughness. His ego demands that he prove to them and to himself that he’s still got what it takes and he openly threatens to squeal to the police if they don’t let him in on the job. From this point on it is clear that the four fiery, fatally flawed and clashing personalities will spend the rest of the movie heading towards their undoing. What makes the movie so watchable, besides the excellent production, is that the heist actually succeeds, despite everything going wrong on the night of the robbery. The thieves are complete screw-ups, but the police, it seems, are in even worse shape.
Criminal activity in Israel at the time really was relatively dinky. This was before the 1990s, when organized crime from the former Soviet Union arrived, and when the peace process let Israeli criminals expand their operations by developing business relationships with Palestinian criminals in the West Bank. The dinkiness of the police is probably on the money as well. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian criminal gangs used the entire state of Israel as a safe house for years before the Israeli police figured out what was going on. It’s not outlandish to assume they really would keep a safe with a million dollars in cash behind the door of an unguarded office. It just didn’t occur to them that someone would try to steal it. After all, it was a police station.
The evocation of time and place in Under the Nose is perfect. Much of the outdoor scenes were shot on location in the neighborhoods described, and you can really feel the broken dreams about the place. The language and mannerisms of the characters are very realistic, combining the alienation and resentment of second-generation immigrants from Middle-Eastern countries with the gangster ideals they picked up from American movies. The first thing Herzl does after the heist is to buy a boom box which he then carries around playing Zohar Argov tapes full blast. Zohar Argov’s songs are not subversive, but their popularity in the early 1980s represented an upsurge of ethnic pride and defiance. At the time, Zohar Argov’s music was only available on tapes that were sold in markets and bus stations. Despite the music’s popularity on the street, it was seldom played on the radio. Some of the songs heard in the film had just been released at the time.
On the night of the big heist, Sami Ben-Tovim practices his gangster moves in front of the mirror in his mother’s apartment. In the background, the TV blares a documentary about the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.
While Under the Nose remained popular in Israel into the 1990s, it has yet to be released on DVD outside of Israel. When and if it is, it might make interesting viewing for American Jews. It’s way better than most Israeli movies, and while it doesn’t have much to say that is specifically Jewish, it does present a real and accurate portrayal of modern Jewish street criminals. It seems there is much interest in this topic. The movie Bugsy, about mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, was popular among American Jews. David Mamet’s Lansky, about Meyer Lansky, wasn’t nearly as popular, but clearly represented a topic of fascination that went beyond just the cinematic. There’s nothing surprising in this. The Godfather and The Sopranos are very popular among Italian-Americans. For Jews the problem is particularly acute, since there are no modern-day Jewish Sopranos. Beyond mere fascination with the criminal element, American Jews are bound to feel a sense of a loss of Jewish street life per se, and of Jewish neighborhoods, except those of the ultra-orthodox, which are largely alien to most American Jews. This is a sense of loss probably shared with Italian-Americans. As a matter of fact, the sentiment is probably shared by most white Americans, at least in the old northern urbanized areas, which is one reason why The Godfather and The Sopranos remain so popular. One of the main themes in The Sopranos is that the family have moved to the suburbs and are rapidly losing touch with the old way of life. But for Jews this loss of touch has probably already occurred a long time ago. The 2003 comedy The Hebrew Hammer betrays a lot of these longings for Jewish street life and explains the fascination American Jews have with black street life. So here at last in Under the Nose we have some real home-grown Jewish street toughs. Take note, though, they don’t seem very happy.