As the Oscars approach and the betting grows that The Wolf of Wall Street is likely to garner the awards for Best Picture and Best Actor respectively, it’s a good time to consider Jews in the films of Martin Scorsese. Indeed, those Jews of Wolf of Wall Street have received much coverage recently because Scorsese − who is not Jewish (he has an Italian heritage and devout Catholic upbringing) − has dared to air our dirty laundry.
But let this not overshadow another fact: For such a prolific filmmaker, and with such a large body of work to his name, covering an array of genres and subjects, Jews don’t figure as very frequently as characters.
Nonetheless, there is an intriguing array of Jewish characters in Scorsese’s films. These include the minor ones: the Jewish women who are sneered at in Mean Streets (1973), the wannabe gangster and hairpiece salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low) in GoodFellas (1990), movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis) in Aviator (2004), or the briefly-glimpsed Jewish inmates of Dachau in Shutter Island (2010).
Amid these fleeting individuals are five standout Jewish characters.
1. Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in GoodFellas (1990). Superficially, Karen is a 1960s New York middle-class, affluent Jew. But when she falls for gentile mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), her life becomes one of danger, sex and drugs. Karen is Henry’s partner in crime, fascinated with and complicit in his lifestyle. She participates in his criminal activities, trafficking and hiding drugs, money and guns for him on demand, even smuggling contraband items to him when he is sent to prison. Karen clearly subverts the stereotypical portrayal of mob wives and Jewish girls in film.
2. Sammy “Ace” Rothstein (Robert de Niro) in Casino (1995). Sammy is a professional gambler hired by the mob to look after their casino, The Tangiers, in Las Vegas. Ace does not belong among the city’s good-old-boy network and refuses to adhere to its code of goyim naches, revealing just how the cowboy-hat wearing establishment feel about an East Coast Jewish bookie they do not accept among their ranks. It doesn’t help that he struts around in a variety of flamboyant pastel-colored suits, directing the casino’s activities.
3. Bob Dylan, as himself, in No Direction Home (2005). Scorsese’s documentary tells of the life of Dylan, and his impact on American popular music and culture of the 20th century. His film, which contains much unprecedented footage, sympathetically covers Dylan’s beginnings, his rise to fame in the 1960s, his then-controversial transformation from an acoustic guitar-based musician and performer to an electric guitar-influenced sound, and his “retirement” from touring in 1966 following an infamous motorcycle accident. Scorsese’s film thus covers the very point at which Dylan (né Zimmerman) was outed as Jewish in November 1963. Significantly, it is the only one on my list where the Jew is actually played by one.
4. Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort is a lying, dishonest, coke-snorting, philandering trader. Although his ethnicity and religion is played down, even if downright whitewashed by having DiCaprio play him, we know that Belfort is Jewish in real life. Yet Jewish director Rob Reiner plays his father, Max, in the film and Belfort is surrounded by an entourage of explicitly Jewish friends and family, many of whom indulge in the same behavior. One of those is Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill).
5. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Although it’s hard to think of Dafoe as Jewish, there he is playing Jesus in Scorsese’s adaptation of the controversial 1953 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. But he is no more unbelievable as Jesus than Charlton Heston as Moses. And just like Jordan Belfort, and as befitting a film about Jews, he is surrounded by a cast of Jewish actors, including, as Judas Iscariot, Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel, who had earlier appeared in both Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (1976).