How the most over-the-top bar mitzvah movie taught Jews who they shouldn’t be
This essay is part of the Forward’s list of 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes. You can find the whole list and accompanying essays here.
I don’t know if it makes anyone else’s top 10, but “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” is one of the most Jewish movies I’ve ever seen.
Or the most Jewish movie I’ve seen 120 times. I worked as an usher at Chicago’s Carnegie Theater when it premiered, in 1974, and still know it by heart. Try as I might to shake them, lines like “It’s Jews like Kravitz who give us a bad name” have been echoing in my brain ever since.
Based on the 1959 Mordecai Richler novel of the same name, the title character, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is just two years older than I was then during most of the story’s action. It’s a coming-of-age film that’s an excellent guide – for how not to behave, especially in relationships, business, and treatment of women. But it did help shape my Jewish identity, and solidify for me the idea that Jews, regardless of skin color, are not fully white. At least, not accepted as white, certainly not in the Montreal ghetto of the 1950s where it was set.
Duddy is the street-smart younger son of a ne’er-do-well cabdriver and occasional pimp Max. His older brother Lennie has made it to medical school, financed by an uncle who’s successful but childless due to impotence (the reference likely being 1950s code for gay). The only family member who shows unconditional love to Duddy is their immigrant Zayde, who’s also the lone moral compass.
While waiting tables at a Jewish summer resort, Duddy woos Yvette, a French Canadian maid who innocently shows him an undeveloped lake. Duddy’s get-rich-quick schemes coalesce with the notion of buying the lake and the surrounding land to replicate and expand the growing resort. In one of the story’s many examinations of how Montreal’s Jews survived as a distinct minority, the roadblock – other than money, for which Duddy’s wheeling and dealing can only yield so much – is in the antisemitic landowners who won’t sell to Jews.
Kravitz, however, works that to his advantage, recruiting Yvette as his shadow buyer. When a farmer turns down a bid from a competing Jewish buyer honing in on Duddy’s plans, Kravitz celebrates with an appallingly gleeful chortle, “Another antisemite! God bless him!”
The most graphic portrayal of Jewish otherness is illustrated in Mr. Farber, Duddy’s business mentor, whose own past is stained by unethical behavior. At Duddy’s lowest point, Farber says, “It’s war, Duddy, and the white man has all the big guns.” Lest that be interpreted as a vague analogy to cowboys-and-Indians depictions of the time, Farber continues, leaving no doubt he means whites vs. Jews: “You talk to the white man when you’re in trouble and he’ll throw you in the oven with six million others.” Similarly, an unambiguously whitebread goy remarks upon receiving a $1,000 check from Kravitz: “That’s mighty white of you!” Consider it the prequel to “How Jews Became White Folks.”
Offering levity to all this is an over-the-top film-within-the-film, “Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie!” with way more than you ever wanted to see of on-screen circumcision. Think of it as another “Springtime for Hitler” (whose title character also cameos) that unexpectedly turns out to be a hit.
Perhaps I should have said “spoiler alert” before that last bit, but that’s as much of the plot as I’ll divulge, except to say Kravitz in the end is a role model for no one. I recall reading about the remorse Dreyfuss felt afterward, thinking that the role could permanently typecast him as a master deplorable. He quickly accepted a spot he’d previously declined in “Jaws” (1975), followed by an even more sympathetic role in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Yet I remember the shadow of Duddy Kravitz reaching long enough to convince me he’d dump Marsha Mason at the end of “Goodbye Girl” four years later. No longer Duddy, he didn’t (sorry – another spoiler!)
So is it really among the top Jewish movies of all time? Absolutely, in the uncensored way the characters ceaselessly talk about their Jewishness and its placement front and center in their relationships with others. It’s a carryover true to the book, though we are spared the N-word and equivalent slur for Chinese written by Richler and uttered by Max, whose unfunny joke about nuns and abortion does make it in the movie version. There’s no brushing off any of this beyond the requisite product-of-its-time excuse, though it’s also a classic example of an oppressed group behaving like crabs in a barrel.
And Duddy Kravitz most definitely influenced me, if as an on-screen scared-straight warning or “Clockwork Orange” treatment, repeated 120 times. Jews like Kravitz do give us a bad name, and the white man indeed has all the high-powered weapons. My coming-of-age lesson was learning to navigate the world between them.