This Sunday night, history will be made in Los Angeles: a man who has never before won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role will walk home with a coveted Oscar. One of the five possible winners is Christian Bale (who has won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) for his pitch-perfect performance in “American Hustle.” Another potential winner is Leonardo DiCaprio for his incandescent high-octane performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (If DiCaprio is again denied an Oscar, cinephiles will soon be speaking of “Leo’s missing Oscar” the same way book-lovers talk of “Philip Roth’s missing Nobel”). There is an obvious parallel between Bale’s and DiCaprio’s characters: they are both avaricious swindlers. But their characters are also linked by a less obvious— and more troubling — common denominator: both of these mountebanks are Jewish.
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These performances — as fine as they are — are symptomatic of the misleading, incomplete, and at times derogatory images of Jews that perennially emanate from Hollywood.
According to the movies, us Jews are either the nerdy, awkward, Herbie Stempel of “Quiz Show,” trying to move up and out of Bensonhurst and into accent-cleansed, neuroses-free America. Or we are the venal shucksters and shysters Hyman Roth of “The Godfather: Part II” and Sam “Ace” Rothstein in “Casino”, whose shenanigans are responsible for the usage of the word Jew as a verb. This past year, we have the good fortune of being treated to a triple portion of this variety of Jew: Meyer Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby,” Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle” (played by Christian Bale) and Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
Or, we are the dithery Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall” and the endearingly awkward Greg of “Meet the Fockers,” cowering in shame at the sight of our embarrassingly outmoded parents, fearing for our lives that these squirm-inducing creatures will be the obstacles standing between us and the shiksa goddess. If your parents were Dustin Hoffman’s Bernie Focker and Barbara Streisand’s Rozalin Focker how could you grow up to become anything other than a successfully maladjusted Jewish man?
Or, if we are not the Jews whose Judaism is comprised of guilt-tripping mothers, matzah ball soup, and self-deprecating humor, we are the Jews who wear long beards, side-curls, black hats, white shirts, and long black coats. We are the ultra-Orthodox Jews of “Ushpizin,” for whom the apotheosis of our religion is purchasing an unblemished etrog (citron), we are Jesse Eisenberg’s side-curl-sporting Hasidic drug dealer in “Holy Rollers,” and we are Renée Zellweger’s newlywed, choking under the weight of a stultifying ultra-Orthodox culture in “A Price Above Rubies.” And, this past year, we became Shira, similarly stifled by the mores of her ultra-Orthodox family, in “Fill the Void.”
Rama Burshtein’s beautifully shot, carefully wrought “Fill the Void” was Israel’s official entry into this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Hada Yaron is marvelous as Shira, the youngest daughter of an ultra-Orthodox family who is under pressure to marry a man not of her choosing. It is a sensitive, artful portrait of the ultra-Orthodox community. But it is only the latest iteration of a film purporting to give us the voyeuristic thrill-ride of peering into a segment of the Jewish community that has already received a surprising number of “inside,” “behind the scenes” looks.
Films like these further Spike Lee’s brief but harmful image of the Jew as a beard-toting, side-lock-curling, black-hat-wearing caricature in the great “25th hour.” This image appears during the unforgettable incantatory soliloquy about New York City uttered by Edward Norton’s Montgomery Brogan: “@#$% you and this whole city and everyone in it…@#$% the Hasidim strolling up and down 47th street in their dirty gabardine with their dandruff, selling South African apartheid diamonds!...let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to @#$%^&* ash, let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place.”
Yet it is with films such as “Fill the Void” upon which such stereotypes are built, and it is with movies like “Holy Rollers” and “A Price Above Rubies” through which such stereotypes are perpetuated.
It is all well and good that filmgoers have been granted these delectable characters and these wonderful films (I loved “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and believe that DiCaprio deserves to win his first Oscar for his performance as Belfort— though his now-likely impending “loss” to Matthew McConaughey for the latter's fine job portraying a HIV-positive redneck in "The Dallas Buyer's Club" would be nothing to be ashamed of), but this menagerie of characters are crude caricatures; the Fockers, Hasids, shysters, and nebishy Alvy Singer knockoffs alike are all embarrassingly shop-worn stereotypes.
Notwithstanding the Jewish demographic drift toward the poles of assimilationist secularism and totalizing religiosity, a vital center still exists of Jews who practice the laws and rituals that Shira’s family observes, but who are simultaneously as much a part of the modern world as are the Fockers and Singers. The Jewish viewpoints on sexuality and women’s rights are not exhausted by Shira’s ultra-Orthodox family’s sacred restrictions and Rozalin Focker’s romping libertinism. For modern, observant Jews who acknowledge both of these elements of the sexual experience, Jewish dating and Jewish sex is much more fraught with tension — and much more interesting—than anything we’ve seen on film thus far (with the exception of “Yentl,” which, if we’re honest, was just plain weird and even mildly disturbing).
Religious Jews who do not live in the voluntarily created shtetls of the 21st century know that all of these cinematic images of Jews are unsatisfactory at best and insidious at worst. Yet, in contrast to the Irish-American community’s demand for characters who are not drunkards and the Italian-American community’s insistence upon characters who are not mobsters, there is no outcry emerging on behalf of the Jewish community for real movies about non-stereotypic Jews.
How much longer will the cinema keep feeding us crude caricatures of Jews, instead of giving us images of real, living, breathing modern, observant Jews? Where is the film that depicts the vital center of Judaism — the Jews who are still religiously observant and who are also fully at home in the modern world? Where are the stories of Jews who maintain modern values like the right of a woman to choose a husband while struggling to maintain a tradition in which a canonical text states that “a woman is acquired in three ways: a monetary transaction, a contractual agreement, or sexual intercourse” (Mishnah, Kiddushin 1:1)?
The truth is that the ultra-Orthodox community has had its moment on the screen. Whereof the other Jew, the modern-yet-religious view, the secular-observant-hybrid Jew, the Jew who is equally adept at quoting from the Seinfeld “shiksappeal” episode and from the Talmud? Toward this marginalized Jew who abides in the vital center, “attention must be paid” — a line, of course, penned by a Jew - Arthur Miller - who won himself the greatest shiksa goddess of them all: Marilyn Monroe. The missing image of the modern, religious Jew is the real cinematic void that is begging to be filled.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He is an occasional contributor to The Weekly Standard’s Books & Arts section and the Journal of Religion & Film. He is the author, most recently, of “Gatsby: The Cinematic Illumination of a Biblical Theology” (Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter 2014).