Hollywood's Stereotype of the Wimpy Jew Refuses to Die

Even as we celebrate Jewish athleticism at the Maccabiah Games, it has long been a staple of Jewish humor that Jews do not do sports.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

While we enjoy the spectacle of the Maccabiah Games, it must be remembered that the Jewish cinematic world has largely chosen to ignore the Jewish contribution to sports history. It has long been a staple of Jewish humor that Jews do not do sports.

The stereotype has an extensive history. In classical times sport, as it then existed, clashed with Judaism’s system of beliefs and values. The ancient Greeks combined physical and spiritual activities. They used sports, especially the Olympics, as a sacred rite to honor their gods. Jews who participated, therefore, were rejecting their religious and ethnic origins, as a statement of profound dissent from Jewish life and/or in order to assimilate into the Greco-Roman world.

It was during this period, and certainly before the Common Era, that the rabbis first sought to prevent Jews from becoming practicing athletes or even to be interested in arena events. They emphasized the primacy of observing Jewish law, the mitzvoth. If rabbis did encourage Jews to look after their bodies and maintain their physical fitness, it was to be better able to fulfill the mitzvoth. As the renowned Jewish sports scholar Jeffrey Gurock put it, "Judaism has never honored the athlete as its quintessential man or woman."

Instead, the rabbis valued meekness, physical frailty and gentleness. They privileged the pale, scholarly Jew who avoided the worlds of labor and warfare and was defined by his softness, weakness and lack of physical activity. This Jew was intellectual, he was insufficiently, incompetently and inadequately masculine. Effeminate, timid, studious and delicate, he never used his hands for manual labor, exercised or paid attention to maintaining his body. He devoted his life to the study of Torah. This led Sigmund Freud to observe, in "Moses and Monotheism," that Judaism denied the "harmonious development of spiritual and bodily activity."

This ideal self-image of the Jewish body eventually merged with 19th-century anti-Semitic caricatures of it. The Jew’s physiognomy and physiology was characterized as unmanly, passive and weak. The Jew’s legs and feet, in particular were characterized as nonathletic, unsuited to nature, sport, warfare, brutality and violence. This Jew was seen as pathologically "hysteric" as a result of the lack of healthy and outdoor activity.

The result is that cinematic stereotypes, dating back almost to the birth of the medium itself, portrayed the Jew as a weak, frail, small, nonathletic, urban (ghetto) businessman. Jews were tailors, peddlers, pawnbrokers, moneylenders (like Shylock), or just plain thieves (like Fagin), not athletes. Jews were marked by their intelligence, cunning and quick wit. They had brains, not brawn.

For decades cinema reflected these stereotypes, downgrading Jewish involvement in sport no matter how extensive it was in reality. Although there have been many Jewish athletes in real life, in cinema they are few and far between. Rather, the odd idea of the Jewish athlete has been lampooned in many films. The classic articulation of this is "Airplane!" (directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980). When a stewardess asks a passenger if she would like something to read, the passenger inquires "Do you have anything light?" and the stewardess suggests a leaflet, "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." In "The Hebrew Hammer" (Jonathan Kesselman, 2003) the seats for the delegates of the Coalition of Jewish Athletes" are predictably empty.

When Hollywood does depict Jews playing sports, they’re often doing it for fun rather than competitively or professionally. Consider, for example, the Jewish Children’s Polo League in "A Mighty Wind" (Christopher Guest, 2003), that rode Shetland ponies rather than full-size horses, or the Jews playing recreational basketball in such comedies as "Keeping the Faith" (Edward Norton, 2000), "Eight Crazy Nights (Seth Kearsley, 2002), "Along Came Polly" (John Hamburg, 2004), and "Prime" (Ben Younger, 2005).

Although racket sports feature in Woody Allen’s films, they are not taken seriously. Allen plays squash in "Manhattan" (1977), inasmuch as he’s on a squash court, using a squash racquet and a squash ball. But he's just hitting the ball around. As I pointed out in a previous column, he plays tennis in "Annie Hall" (1979), a movie with recurring tennis references, and the sport provides the central conceit as well as the title of his "Match Point" (2005). But in these films, tennis symbolizes an unattainable world of gentility.

The exception to this rule is boxing, possibly because it is the one sport in Britain and the United States at which Jews have excelled. The late 18th century has often been described as a golden age of Jewish boxing. Daniel Mendoza, the great great-grandfather of actor and comedian Peter Sellers, was credited with developing the "scientific" style of boxing. Sellers' character Inspector Clouseau was a fervent admirer of Mendoza, whose portraits grace Clouseau's apartment in the "Pink Panther" series. As Clare Quilty, Sellers even dons boxing gloves at the start of "Lolita" (Stanley Kubrick, 1962), saying, "I wanna die like a champion," most likely in deference to his ancestor.

By the turn of the 20th century Jewish boxers emerged in London and New York as Eastern European immigration filled the cities with a new eager breed of Jewish working-class fighters. Films about and with Jewish boxers include "His People" (Edward Sloman, 1925), "Body and Soul" (Robert Rossen, 1947), "Métisse" (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1993), "Jakob the Liar" (Peter Kassovitz, 1999) and "Cinderella Man" (Ron Howard, 2005). All of them reject the Jew-as-weakling stereotype.

Other exceptions feature Jewish main characters who are defined by their athleticism, in such sports as sprinting ("Chariots of Fire," Hugh Hudson, 1981), fencing ("Sunshine," Istvan Szabo, 1999) and cricket ("Wondrous Oblivion," Paul Morrison, 2003). And Jews have featured in documentaries about chess ("Bobby Fischer against the World," Liz Garbus, 2011), baseball ("The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," Aviva Kempner, 1998) and swimming ("Watermarks," Yaron Zilberman, 2004). In many films sports offer Jews a means of assimilation.

The Maccabiah, named after the Maccabees, Jews who opposed hellenization – antiquity's equivalent to assimilation - was meant to break with this conception of the Jew as weak and nonathletic. But in Hollywood, generations of Jewish executives, directors, screenwriters and actors have maintained these long-held stereotypes.

A still from the movie "Annie Hall."
A still from "Airplane!," 1980. Lampooning the idea of the Jewish athlete.
Still shot from the movie "The Hebrew Hammer".Credit: courtesy
Israeli artistic gymnast Alex Shatilov.Credit: Sharon Bokov
Israeli swimmer Yaacov Tomarkin.Credit: Israel Swimming Association's website

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