A Jew and a Lawyer Are Sitting in a Bar...

The Wire

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
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Watching “The Wire,” HBO’s serial drama about the gritty underbelly of the Baltimore streets, one sometimes gets the impression of honest men and women trapped in a hopeless machine of corruption, violence and despair. Many of the show’s most likable characters are killed off, while those who remain have a world-weary look in their eyes. Skillfully written and shot, in part by acclaimed filmmaker Ed Burns, “The Wire” is rife with moral ambiguity — perhaps the only defensible position in a system gone haywire.

Maurice “Maury” Levy, the Jewish defense attorney played by Michael Kostroff, is, in contrast, a cog in the machine. Unlike the major characters in the series, who are nothing if not ambivalent, Levy rarely evinces any distance between himself and his role defending murderers, or haggling in the plea-bargaining sessions that are grist for the legal TV mill. He is often exasperated, but never conflicted.

He is also obviously Jewish: In addition to his name, he has a New York accent and the quintessential pale skin, brown hair and Ashkenazic nose of the typical American Jew. In the ethnic soup of “The Wire” — mostly African American, with plenty of Poles and Greeks and very few WASPs — Levy stands out as the only visibly Jewish cast member. And, as skillfully portrayed by Kostroff, he manages to be less trustworthy than the killers he represents.

Levy’s absence of conscience is perhaps to be expected from a supporting character, but the degree to which he conforms to the stereotype of the corrupt — and Jewish — lawyer is still somewhat striking. His lips curl with a smile when he outwits his opponents on behalf of his crooked clients. And if he has any compunction about using technicalities to free the iniquitous, he doesn’t show it. On the contrary; he seems only too willing to be a pawn in the vast chess game “The Wire” depicts.

These are time-honored stereotypes about lawyers

generally — as brilliantly shown in a study of lawyer jokes called “Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) by Marc Galanter, a professor of law and South African studies at the University of Wisconsin — and in Jewish lawyers particularly. There are recurrent themes to this caricature: dishonesty, economic parasitism, moral turpitude, an excessive legalism, even — I would assert — a deficiency of “manliness,” which stems from what is arguably the Shylock lawyer’s dominant trait: his lack of soul.

These are not merely traits of evildoers: No one calls Osama bin Laden a “parasite,” for example. Rather, they are particular to Jews, and to lawyers — a particular kind of soulless, slimy villain. Maury Levy exemplifies all these traits. In one memorable moment during season two, Levy calls a man who murders drug dealers “a parasite,” and the murderer replies, “Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.” Indeed, in the scene it’s clearly the manly, deep-voiced murderer who wins the jury’s (and our) confidence.

Levy is befuddled by this murderer; he is first exasperated, then humiliated — not unlike Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice. And like Shylock, Levy is a cunning master of the technicalities of law, but he doesn’t seem to regard a court of law as part of a system of justice.

And then there is the gender. Just as Jews have been “feminized” by antisemites for generations, so, too, in a show dominated by masculinity — 35 of the 41 cast members are male — Levy stands out. He tends to mince around his scenes, gesturing and occasionally rolling his eyes. His voice is higher than all the other men on the show (and several of the women, as well), and it swells and rolls around his lines. And he is one of the only characters in the show not shown to drink, curse and fight.

None of this is to complain, exactly, that the show’s portrayal of Levy is biased. But it’s interesting to observe how easily the stock character of the Jewish lawyer fits in with the milieu of the show, and elicits groans of recognition from us in the audience. Why is Levy so familiar? Galanter’s book shows that many of today’s best “lawyer jokes” were once told about Jews. These are age-old stereotypes, transplanted to a new villain. Perhaps one reason Levy is so natural a type is that he, like the antisemites’ version of the Jew, reminds us of a part of ourselves we don’t like — the part that, to live under the rule of law, must sacrifice a bit of the soul.

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