Is the Jewish Swindler Ready for His Close-Up?

The Changing Image of the Tribe in Hollywood

Hustler: A long way from Al Jolson and the Jazz Singer.
Sony Pictures
Hustler: A long way from Al Jolson and the Jazz Singer.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 07, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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Right now America is thinking about the unending financial crisis. And when we think about the crisis, we encounter names like Lehman, Goldman and Sachs. Like Fuld, Blankfein and Greenberg. We taught ourselves and our neighbors years ago not to notice when names like those surface in these situations. Noticing can spawn ugly thoughts.

The question is, how much longer can we expect folks not to notice? Maybe that’s what these movies are saying. Maybe something is bubbling in America’s subconscious that we need to think about.

You can trace the evolving image of the Jew in the mind of America by looking at the movies. Leaving aside the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” movies about Jews in early Hollywood were infrequent, cautious and mostly high-minded. “The House of Rothschild,” a regal biopic, was nominated for best picture of 1934. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, two 1947 movies about American anti-Semitism were nominated — “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which won, and “Crossfire.”

The Holocaust itself starred in five Oscar-winning films over next two decades: “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), “Ship of Fools” (1965), “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1970) and “Cabaret” (1972). A handful of movies depicted the new state of Israel, including the wildly successful “Exodus” (1960) and the unjustly neglected “The Juggler” (1952). A few films, including “Body and Soul” (1947) and “Marjorie Morningstar” (1958), dissected Jewish family and assimilation.

It was in the mid-1960s that Jewish themes became standard Hollywood fare. They’ve come in waves ever since, reflecting America’s evolving image of Jews.

The first wave was autobiographical: a long string of quirky films about schlemiels and misfits seeking their place in America: “A Thousand Clowns” (1965), “Goodbye Columbus” (1969), Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were” (1973), Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977) and many more.

Then the Holocaust returned. Beginning with the blockbuster TV miniseries “Holocaust” in 1978, the next two decades saw a nonstop flood of Nazi horror pictures: Oscar-winners “Sophie’s Choice” and “Genocide” in 1982; thrillers like “Escape from Sobibor” (1987) and dramas like “Europa Europa” (1990). And then the great Oscar rush: “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Life Is Beautiful” (1997), “The Pianist” (2002) and “The Reader” (2008). Documentaries, too — so many nabbed Oscars during the 1990s and 2000s that it became a running joke in the industry.

Early in the 21st century, though, the Jewish image shifted again. A sudden wave of films portrayed morally conflicted Jewish fighters, neither gangsters nor noble warriors but uneasy, compromised defenders of the Jews: a Mossad assassination squad in “Munich” (2005) and a vengeful band of anti-Nazi partisans in “Defiance” (2008). Jewish heroes became slapstick clowns in “The Hebrew Hammer” (2003) and “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008). For the first time, Jews were shown as flawed, capable of doing wrong as Jews.

The same message emerged in a sudden wave of Israeli Oscar-nominatees: the antiwar films “Beaufort” (2008) and “Waltz with Bashir” (2009), the noir Israeli-Arab melodrama “Ajami” (2010), the anti-occupation documentaries “The Gatekeepers” and “Five Broken Cameras” in 2013. And this year, for the first time, a foreign feature nominee representing “Palestine.” Titled “Omar,” it’s a love story set amid resistance to the occupation. Israel is no longer the hero.

Thus the stage is set for Jewish swindlers. Our protective layers of innocence, victimhood and vulnerability have been successively peeled away. A blogger at Jewlicious.com captured a widespread feeling about the 2014 nominees in a post headlined “Noble Arabs, Con-Men Jews Score Oscar Nods.”

But complaining is no longer enough. As L.A. Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman argued in a gutsy December 31 essay, it’s time for the Jewish community to start examining itself. “Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations,” he wrote, “or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities?”

“We are blessed to be living at a time of unparalleled Jewish power and wealth, and it makes us so uneasy, we prefer to talk about everything but,” Eshman wrote. “…We are enjoying unprecedented wealth as millions struggle on minimum wages, facing hunger, unemployment, benefit cuts, homelessness. We look to our rabbis and institutions for guidance, but too many of them are afraid to upset the wealthy donors upon whom they are dependent. So we talk instead about Israel, about Swarthmore, and our communities become breeding grounds for the next Madoff, the next Belfort.”

He’s right. We need to talk.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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