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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.