Monday, April 17, 2006

The Great Burden of Hollywood Jewish Collective Guilt

The regular accusation Jews have to face from the right and occasionally the left is that 'Jews control Hollywood' and that therefore Jews, collectively, are responsible for Hollywood movies. When these criticisms are issued from the Christian religious right, they're usually issued by the same sort of people who argue that Catholics can't be held responsible for the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, but that Jews must take collectively responsibility for the actions of some wealthy Hollywood executives and producers in funding movies by Catholic directors like Martin Scorcese or Kevin Smith that Christians find offensive.

But let's consider how Hollywood actually portrays Jews. First of all Hollywood rarely ever portrays Jews. This is a situation that has held up pretty well from the golden age of cinema right up until today. Those Hollywood figures who are Jewish don't like to be reminded of it or associated with anything Jewish

When Ben Hecht was working to organize a fundraiser to cover the costs of transporting Jews to Israel through the British blockade he asked David Selznick (Producer of King Kong, Gone With the Wind) to sign on as a prominent Jewish figure. Selznick asked Hecht what made him think that he David Selznick was Jewish. Hecht bet him that he could call any three people in Hollywood and ask them if David Selznick was a Jew and get the right response; which he promptly did.

After WW2 when Jews became somewhat more tolerated in America, Jewish figures in the public light became more open about their Jewishness. Today we even have the bizarre spectacle of public figures suddenly rediscovering some Jewish roots in time for a media blitz, as Gwyneth Paltrow did around Oscar time.

This hasn't however changed Hollywood's portrayal of Jews. When counting out the old line comedians, TV tends to portray Jews as nerdy, pushy, annoying and cheap. Jewish men on TV are almost always intermarried. Jewish women on TV, when they appear, are usually more obnoxious than the men. But even they rarely appear because mostly patently Jewish characters played by Jewish actors are transformed into non-Jews on a regular basis. Consider for example that on Seinfeld Kramer, George and Elaine were described as non-Jewish.

Jews rarely appear in movies altogether. When asked to think of a Jewish movie the average person would probably list the grotesque figure of Woody Allen, whose career is dedicated to self-hatred in a way that the Amos and Andy couldn't even being to aspire to or Schindler's List, whose two main characters were Germans and in which Jews appeared only as supporting characters. This is the usual state of affairs. As on TV stories involving Jewish characters are transformed into non-Jewish characters. Max Apple wrote a short story about his reaf life experiences living with his 107 year old grandfather. The movie version transformed the characters from a Jewish family to a Polish family. The very Irish D.B. Sweeney was cast to play the grandson and the director attempted to cast Robert Mitchum to play the the grandfather but finally had to settle for all too Jewish, Peter Falk.

How does a real life Jewish family become a Polish Catholic family on screen. It begins when the Jewish executive producers hire a non-Jewish director and screenwriter to transform Jews into non-Jews. Such incidents are not isolated but common place. Jewish characters have a narrow place in Hollywood in comedy where they are permitted to portray grotesque characters who ridicule Judaism and Jews; but even there the odds aren't so good.

Witness the current state of affairs where in time for Pesach, two movies about Jewish holiday celebrations are being released. First there's 'When Do We Eat,' the portrayal of a household full of thoroughly depraved and dysfynctional characters prepearing for a Passover meal. It goes without saying that Judaism is mocked and that the Jews there are portrayed as disgusting and that the only source of spirtuality there is an African-American woman wearing a cross around her neck.

Then there's 'Keeping Up With the Steins,' a movie about an average Jewish family if the average Jewish family were wealthy socialite Hollywood millionaires. It centers around a Bar Mitzvah, one that is of course devoid of spirtuality or religious significance, and is only a way of keeping score with the neighbors. Of course you'll hear much less about 'Keeping Up With the Steins,' because these Jews may be shallow stereotypes but they are human beings and they do learn and grow. By contrast 'When Do We Eat' is heavily hyped by the usual liberal Jewish publications such as JTA, The Forward and the UJA weeklies because it is exactly the display of nauseating Jewish self-hatred that Hollywood approves of. Much as blacks were limited to jolly displays of tap dancing, Jews are limited to appearing as grotesque neurotics.

The real discrimination in Hollywood is that it is run by liberals who dislike religion and despise and slander any political view but their own. If Jews collectively have any relation to Hollywood it is as victims to a degree that is far more pervasive and unspoken than anyone else.


Anonymous said...

You are way, way off on "When Do We Eat". I'll start by pointing out that not only is the entire cast Jewish (with the exception of Cynda Williams), but so is the entire production team, especially the writer/director Sal Litvak, a pretty religious and observant Jew himself.

The comments from rabbis of all denominations is another indication that the reality of this movie is the exact opposite of what you're implying. See for various quotes.

I won't further trash your opinion because it's clear you haven't seen the movie yet. Go see it... though I agree with most of what you've posted, there are certiain things that go against the norm... and this is one of them.

Lemon-Lime Moon said...

Anonymous you arent Jewish thats plain to see.
Also why do people like you who have such pissy things to say to others never use a name?
Well the answer is obvious on that also.
The *rabbis* you talk about are reform, conservative and 2 so called *hassidic* dudes no one ever heard of and ..who really don't go to movies. And a progressive something or other rabbi.
Not one real Orthodox Rabbi in the bunch.
You can pay anyone to come up with a good opinion.
One of the rabbis actually says people can learn more from the movie than from learning talmud.
Garbage. Pure Garbage.

Sultan Knish said...

as I'd said, When Do We Eat has Jews and follows the tradition of only allowing Jews to portray grotesque stereotypes which is what the movie does.

That Sal Litvak has some limited affiliation to Chabad, while still being basically Reform, and that two Chabad Rabbis from the same Chai Center he attends, have said nice things about the movie doesn't change the basic facts of the movie.

None of what you've said actually challenges what I've pointed out about the movie. The characters are utterly dysfunctional and grotesque stereotypes, their religion is a joke and they fill the only role that Jews are allowed in Hollywood, to be dysfunctional neurotic and amusingly unstable.

Anonymous said...

I'm anonymous because I don't have a blogger account, and what difference does that make? Make up a fake name for me if you like, it's not like you've ever heard of me.

To address the points in the two messages above:

I most certainly am Jewish. I don't have a clue how "Jewish" you are, but i was Bar Mitzvahed in an Orthodox Shul. Not that that makes any difference, at least to me. Let's, certainly for the sake of this argument, stipulate that a Jew is a Jew.

Again, it's evident that neither of you have seen this movie, so we're discussing points that we'll never agree upon because you're not familiar with what's behind it.

So to tackle the more obvious, where the hell have you ever seen a Jewish grotesque stereotype that included a sex surrogate, a druggie, a lesbian, an autistic kid, etc?? Are these typical Jews you hang out with? Or that you've ever seen in a movie?

Call them grotesque if you like, certainly each his/her major disfunction... but they're very atypical from a Jewish perspective. What's very Jewish is the journey these characters travel during the movie.

Again, try to see this movie. There is far more to it than what you're giving credit.

Keliata said...

I think the only movie I've seen that portrayed religious Jews in a favorable light was a mystery film released years ago (1980s?) called A Stranger Among Us with Melanie Griffith (she doesn't play a Jew, she's a detective in the movie investigating a murder in a chassidic community in New York City.

There's an absolutely beautiful scene in which a large family celebrates shabbat, and orthodox women are definitely viewed favorably. The main female (Jewish) character is knowledgeable, modest, and soft-spoken, not loud and abrassive as I've seen on TV and is often in movies.

Griffith has to go under deep cover in the community to investigate the crime and is assisted by this Orthodox Jewish woman who explains to Griffith the importance of dressing modestly, why there are two friges in the house and so forth.

During the scene in which Griffith goes to put a dairy product in the meat fridge, the very patient Jewish women stops her and explains, "When we were a desert people..." The tone with which these words are delivered is one of patience, kindness and respect.

Griffith also learns about finding her soul-mate from a Jewish perspective, and this information that she obtained during her stay in the Chassdic community eventually helps her in her personal life.

There are a couple of TV shows on now that feature Jewish characters. One is called The War at Home.

The War at Home is a half hour comedy on FOX about two parents Dave Gold (played by Michael Rapaport, from "Boston Public") and Vicky (played by Anita Barone, from "The Jeff Foxworthy Show") and their daily battles against their teenage children to keep their home, their children, and themselves in order.

In a recent episode Dave Gold's youngest son claims he wants a bar mitzvah and tries to convince his dad that he's serious about it. He talks to a liberal rabbi who claims he will help him in a short period of time.
Dad is thrilled but wants him to go to Hebrew school and "do it the hard way" like he did. But when he learns the kid just wants a Bar Mitzvah party and money dad scraps the whole idea of the boy learning about Judaism entirely. No further discussion.

There's a lot of back and forth between Dave and Vicky about their respective religions. Nothing of substance. And it's the Jewish religion that takes a beating.

In one episode Dave objects to his son dating a non-Jewish girl--not because she is a gentile but because she is overweight and ugly, though he repeatedly uses the excuse that he doesn't want the girl "polluting the Jew pool."

Both comments on the show, about the jew pool and the jokes girl being ugly came off as extremely cruel and insensitive. Catholic mom Vicky comes across as very kind and understanding.

The producers of Wil & Grace allowed Jewish actress Debra Messing to play a Jewish character on the show, Grace Adler. There are referrences to her Bat Mitzvah often, as well as shul, but rarely anything of substance.

The other down side of the show is the extremely off color and at times vulgar language and pro homosexuality themes.

I haven't seen When Do We Eat but I don't think I want to.

Sultan Knish said...

"where the hell have you ever seen a Jewish grotesque stereotype that included a sex surrogate, a druggie, a lesbian, an autistic kid, etc?? Are these typical Jews you hang out with? Or that you've ever seen in a movie?"

The stereotype part is that Jews and Jewish families are portrayed as bizarre, grotesque and neurotic which the above definetly fits. Variations on this same theme aren't unusual except this movie chose to throw out every possible bizarre freakshow for maxiumum effect.

And one more thing anonymous, this movie is apparently being promoted using blogs which frankly I suspect is why you're here and that you have some association with the promotion of the movie.

Sultan Knish said...

yes anotheruth, A Stranger Among Us was a rare and wonderfull exception to the rule. The screenplay came from Robert Avrech who also wrote The Devil's Arithmetic, one of the better movies about the Holocaust and has a very nice blog here, and he's written extensively on how difficult and nearly impossible it is for someone with an orthodox jewish viewpoint to work in hollywood

I had no idea the War at Home characters were jewish, I never watched the show, but the content doesn't surprise me. It does break stereotype somewhat in that it is a sitcom about a jewish family at all and that they're just crass in the King of Queens style that's more working class than specifically Jewish. Oh well.

All told I'd be happier really if there were no Jewish characters at all on tv or film than the kind that there are though I guess the flip side of that may be Jewish kids from secular backgrounds identifying with non-Jewish characters and developing that being Jewish is not a legitimate identity

Louis De Palma said...

You arent anonymous because of that, there is an "other" option.

Lemon Lime Moon said...

Hollywood needs to be put in cherem by all Jews really since its where its belongs.
This is one powerful reason why orthodoxy Judaism discourages movies and television viewing.
There is nothing good that comes from it and on the contrary watching it supports the businesses that approve of these disgusting themes and views of Jewish people.
If there are bright moments in movies or tv, a person who watches them as a matter of habit still has to wade through miles of filth to pick one flower.
The damage done to the mind by all this is inestimable.
These people who put out programs like this make a huge chilul Hashem if they are Jews and if not they are Amalek who pick off G-ds people on the sly and they should be battled til they are stopped.

Keliata said...

I agree with both comments, SK. At least some shows with Jewish characters (such as South Park) makes fun of Jews, they make fun of just about everyone else too. Well, one exception: Scientology.

Hollywood handles Scientologists with kid gloves for some reason. Probably because they'll sue for defamation at the drop of a hat.

That's the one sacred cow Hollywood won't touch. Issac Hayes quit South Park after claiming they were bigoted (odd, since he collected hefty pay check from the producers for years; the show's stance on religion didn't bother him until they aired a show critical of Tom Cruise and Scientology.)

Everyone else from Jews to Italians (how many mafia movies has Hollywood produced?!) are fair game when it comes to sterotypes and ridicule in la la land.

ES said...

anonymous, i saw the movie, and it was clearly a disgrace to Jewish traditions. Alothough i enjoyed the humor, the way the traditions are depicted is a very negative. I don't know how any rabbi can condone that movie is a postive thing.

Anonymous said...

This sort of microscopic analysis above, where every single millisecond of Jewishness in a movie or TV show, is anaylyzed on its own and then decided to be either positive or negative without any consideration of the context is... well, very shortsighted.

I guess if that's how you look at the world, you'll continually find an extraordinary amount of insulting things to be outraged about, and of course not just about Judaism but pretty much everything out there.

I'm well versed in Talmudic study and do understand what's involved in spending an hour discussing the implications of a single sentence, but the real world operates at a different level.

The beauty of this movie, considering the context above, is that a big collection of what on their own might appear as a string of negativity -- resolves itself in a "much bigger than the sum of the parts" way.

The comment above that implied the way the traditions are portrayed is a disgrace -- again, within you very narrow context of comparision, sure... but look who's performing them. Within the context of the movie, it's not just funny, but appropriate.

Somewhere above someone accused me of being involved with the promotion of this film. I'm not getting paid to write this. I was just searching Google to find other people's opinions of this movie and ran accross this blog.

Ashley said...

If people choose to be closed-minded and take from this film only negative ideas about Jews and Judaism, then that's really their choice/problem.

The people who contributed to this film are just presenting the director's vision, they aren't telling anyone "You should literally view all Jews everywhere to be just like this." think that is the message is kind of ridiculous.

The director has made it clear that this film does not set out to make people weirded out by Jews or to give people false impressions. The argument that this film is just negative and disgraceful towards Judaism seems to really be missing the whole point of the film.

I'm not Jewish and I can honestly say that my knowledge of this film has not driven me to conclude that Jews are generally "grotesque and neurotic". I haven't taken that from this film in the least bit. Just a heads up that the "negative" portrayals of Jews in the film may not be affecting people's ideas about Jews as much as you think...

(I am African-American however and know all about how Hollywood has portrayed blacks, and quite frankly I'm over it. I've decided that it isn't much worth it to fuss over how we are portrayed in Hollywood. Portrayal is just portrayal.)

(and no, I'm not directly involved with the film either since I'm sure the accusations will come...)

Anonymous said...

I would like to remind you of another good movie: Madame Sousatzka based on the book by Bernice Rubens. The child prodigy in the book, which is based in London,is Jewish, in the movie he is East Indian. To good to be Jewish. Responding to the others who commented on the movie Stranger amongst us, where have you seen an orthodox Jew slow dancing with a woman, and non Jewish at boot? It's all relative, we lower our expectations so much that we accept every crumb of decent treatment.

Keliata said...

I don't recall any scene in which an Orthodox Jew danced with a non-Jewish women. Nobody is saying that Srtanger is perfect, but it's by far one of the best movies I've seen. By no means is it a decent into indecency.

I'll take Stranger over When Do We Eat anyday.

Andy said...

I'm not reading any of the comments here but Sultan I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a Christian I see it the same way for Christian and Jews alike. There were Christians that used the name of Christ as an excuse to commit unspeakable crimes against humanity to the point where other Christians were persecuted because they believed the true word of God only and not some established church dogma. The same is with Jews. Anyone ever saw the movie "The Eternal Jew"? I haven't but my mom has since she was born in Germany in '26. A lot of the stuff that it says about Jews people believed and got sucked in into hating Jews. Even so I see Jews here in the US supporting things I never as a God fearing Christian could support, it is clear that they do not represent every Jew just like Christians who comitted or allowed for unspeakable Acts to be comitted are cleary not representing Christians per say either.

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