Name a Woody Allen movie that has a leading black actor in its cast. Now, mention a “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine, Jerry, George and Kramer socialize in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with some Korean friends. How about a story with Cuban Americans, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer?
Movies, television and literature — these three American Jewish giants offer a striking picture of urban life in the United States. Their portrait of New York City in particular is complex: The landscapes range from the old building on East Broadway where the Jewish Daily Forward was, to Tom’s, the corner cafeteria on 113th Street near Columbia University; from a scenic bench on the banks of the Hudson River to a Central Park reservoir. At times they also depict Miami as a tropical heaven for retirees and Los Angeles as a capital full of star-struck lawyers and athletic fulfillment. The composite image, one might confidently say, is nothing short of hypnotic.
Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, Willa Cather, and the Bloomsbury group, once ingeniously suggested that had Dublin been destroyed by air strikes in World War II, it would be possible to re-create it, street by street, tavern by tavern, using James Joyce’s “Ulysses” as a map. One might say something similar about Manhattan. Thanks to gargantuan media exposure, the degree of familiarity with Manhattan among people who never have set foot in it is eerie. Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” TV show episodes such as the legendary one in “Seinfeld” of the Nazi soup kitchen, and such novels as Singer’s “Shadows in the Hudson” are essential maps.
But even maps are subjective. Just as Joyce’s image of Dublin is the product of a begrudging Irish émigré stationed, at various times, in Italy and France, the representation offered by Jewish artists is a skewed one. Where, in our most famed representations, is the multifaceted, ethnically diverse population of Manhattan: the Dominican restaurants of Washington Heights, the African-American chess players in Harlem, the Asian street vendors of Delancey Street? And how about portraits of ethnic Jews whose roots aren’t in the Pale of Settlement: Asian Jews, Latino Jews, black Jews, all part of that elusive category, “the American Jew”?
Yes, there is the tropical scene in “Bananas,” a movie in which Woody Allen becomes a Fidel Castro-like leader of a fictitious South American country. Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical “West Side Story,” an updating of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” distills a Jewish sensibility, even though the play is about Puerto Rican and Italian gangs and set in the projects. And there is also the “Seinfeld” episode featuring the Puerto Rican Day Parade. The last of these made headlines for the wrong reason, but isn’t it proof — albeit tangential — of a Jewish propensity for multiculturalism?
It is also true that other Jewish writers have offered more consistently intricate multicultural pictures than other ethnic groups. Think of Jewish figures within the Beat Generation, especially Allen Ginsberg, or the poetry of Philip Levine, the plays of Tony Kushner, the stories of Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley, and the novels of E.L. Doctorow and Bernard Malamud. Or, again, of poetry, in particular the work by Adrienne Rich, who reaches for a far more private note in her poem “Yom Kippur 1984”:
These explorations have allowed for some incisive meditations on the Jewish body itself, which break with pre-established molds of perception. Sander L. Gilman has discussed the way plastic surgery has defined female beauty for white, secular Jewish women. He also has reflected on Freud and Kafka as paradigms of the male Jewish physique. The famous photograph by Diane Arbus of the Jewish giant and his parents, grotesque as it is — and her art surely walks the boundaries of the gothic and monstrous — has become a benchmark. Add to this Bernard Malamud’s black messiah, Julius Lester’s memoir “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew,” Rod Steiger and Jaime Sánchez in the Oscar-winning 1964 movie by Sydney Lumet, “The Pawnbroker,” about a Holocaust survivor and a Puerto Rican in New York, and the efforts by rappin’ groups such as Hip Hop Hoodios to intertwine Jewish and Latino influences. Maybe even Barbra Streisand dressed as a yeshiva bocher in her atrocious Hollywood musical “Yentl” passes as a feminist critique of Jewish tradition.
These good-will examples are exceptions to the rule. In fact, the opposing view is the prevailing one. In “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks includes a scene with Indians — with Brooks himself as their chief — speaking in Yiddish; the leading character, played by Cleavon Little, is the Old West Sheriff Rock Ridge, whose race becomes the target of numerous jokes. Does the movie use stereotypes to undermine these characters? Maybe, in so far as it is a critique of racism and all its attendant destructiveness and absurdity. (After all, Richard Pryor helped write the screenplay.) But that is, it seems to me, the extent of Brooks’s trans-ethnic adventures. Through its humor one is able to understand the approach that Jews take to other groups in the Melting Pot: They coexist with them but never attempt to understand their circumstance.
The same might be said of films like Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” in which the director includes a black female actress, but makes her character a prostitute. In such movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” the cast incorporate Italians but, again, they are invariably Mafiosi commissioned to perform a killing job. Likewise with Philip Roth’s “The Dying Animal,” in which a Latina is a protagonist but only as a sexual object. Forget about Cynthia Ozick, whose oeuvre appears to be constructed as a Platonic vision of the United States.
The absence of well-rounded, ongoing multicultural faces in Jewish depictions of the American scene, and in depictions of the community itself, is indeed disconcerting. Yes, the cultural map is a falsifying one. The efforts at depicting other ethnic groups in our neighborhoods are pious but insufficient. And the look we’re ready to give to our own mirror, appreciating our siblings among us who are not from Eastern Europe but from the former Ottoman Empire, Asia, South Africa and the Americas, leave much to be desired. More than at any other point in the past, assimilation, conversion and mixed marriages are redefining the texture of American Judaism. We’re no longer an Ashkenazic monolith. Nor do we live at a time when Europe is the sole source of cultural maintenance.
California and Texas are the first states in which whites are a minority. The rest of the country will follow suit quickly. How should American Jews react to this transformation? When will we be ready to recognize that multiculturalism has become the rule of thumb in our own families? Will media representations ever be courageous enough to mirror the change?
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor at Amherst College. This is an excerpt from his catalog essay, published by Yale University Press and accompanying the exhibit The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography, which opens in New York on September 20 at The Jewish Museum.