Over the last few years, stories focused on Jewish communities and Jewish characters have become noticeably more prevalent in mainstream media.
This may be particularly true regarding television, with shows like “Unorthodox,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Shtisel” all focusing their attention on Jewish characters making their way through the world, often through a positive lens.
From time to time, though, old stereotypes continue to rear their heads, often in unexpected places. “I would say that there are a real range of depictions of Jews in media and the arts, including film, literature, music,” said Sara Shalva, the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s chief arts officer. “There are some old stereotypes that come up again and again and again, with Jews being frail and small and weak and around money and around power,” Shalva said.
Jews and Money
The old stereotype about Jews and money is ever lingering. Writing for Middle East Eye, Oscar Rickett traces the stereotype from Judas’ betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver to 17th and 19th century British literature. “This concept of the Jewish moneylender in Europe,” Rickett writes, “most famously embodied by Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (first performed in 1605) and later by Charles Dickens’ Fagin in Oliver Twist (1839), is shown to be at the heart of associations between Jews and money.”
Stefani Chudnow, in The Jewish News, points out its presence in the sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” specifically regarding the show’s sole Jewish representation: the Saperstein family. “The father is a rich doctor who scams people out of their money,” Chudnow writes. “Moreover, his daughter, Mona-Lisa, is stereotypically obsessed with money, always asking the other characters for cash with her catchphrase, ‘Money please!’”
The stereotype also emerges in less direct representations of the community. The goblins in the Harry Potter series, for instance, are a group of diminutive, untrustworthy bankers with elongated noses who control the wizarding economy. In fact, in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” a very large Star of David can be briefly seen carved into the floor of the goblins’ bank. Meanwhile, the alien, Watto, from “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” is an unscrupulous merchant who features a hooked nose, short stature and gangly appendages. In the second film of the prequel trilogy, he returns bearing a metallic cap that is not all that different from a yarmulke.
A more complex discussion revolves around the depiction of Jewish women in the American media. According to Grinnell College Assistant Professor Amanda Lee, who has written about the portrayal of Jewish women on television in The Washington Post, female Jewish characters in the U.S. tend to be either emblems of wholesomeness and family values or oversexualized seductresses. Lee traces these caricatures back to 19th century French attitudes toward the Jewish community, which were later imported stateside via early American modern dance’s interest in French ballet.
Lee sees the first of these two tropes, the Jewish woman as a paragon of family values, in Miriam Maisel, the title character of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which centers around a late 1950s/early 1960s Jewish housewife who performs standup comedy. Lee points to the protagonist’s interactions with her family, where she’s “portrayed as this loving mother, loving wife, someone who … very much has the ideal in mind of being the best wife and mother possible.”
Lee sees the second trope, the Jewish woman as femme fatale, in the acts of Jewish comedians like Ilana Glazer from “Broad City” and Sarah Silverman.
Lee sees both at work in the program “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The latter, Lee said, takes the form of the “incredibly seductive” main character Rebecca Bunch, who, with her “uncontrollable sexuality,” decides the key to her happiness lies in stalking one of her old flames. The former is found in Rebecca’s mother, Naomi, who is “extremely present, extremely loving, if at times difficult.”
However, there are shows that don’t succumb to the dichotomy of either super-mom or seductress, according to Lee, such as the HBO series “Girls.” While Lee views the series’ female Jewish characters as displaying a “liberated, millennial engagement with sexuality,” she did not see “their upbringing as Jewish women linked to their sexual preferences or freedom.”
Jews as Outsiders and Insiders
One particularly long-standing perception is the portrayal of Jews as outsiders in whatever society they are living in, according to Leonard Greenspoon, the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University. Greenspoon explained that “Jews [kept] in touch with their relatives and friends pretty much throughout the world at a time period when others weren’t.” This in turn led to many non-Jews to view Jews as the other, and to the idea that Jews owe their allegiance first and foremost to each other (or, in the modern day, to the state of Israel) rather than to the countries they live in.
This portrayal of Jews, or specific Jewish communities, as a foreign other may be alive and well today. For example, although “Unorthodox” has received critical acclaim (and eight Emmy nominations), it has also drawn mixed reviews for its portrayal of the Satmar Hasidic community. Frieda Vizel, writing for The Forward, said the show portrays the Satmar community as a group of unrecognizable outsiders. “It’s okay to show the dark side of Hasidism, but the portrayal still needs to be human. The characters in Unorthodox are othered. They are cartoonishly evil. Their kind moments seem out of character and are unconvincing. They are not like any humans I have met ever, Hasidic or otherwise.”
According to Eric Goldman, an adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, this sense of American Jews not being wholly American had historically been felt by America’s Jewish community. Despite the significant inroads that American Jews made in the early American film industry, Jewish movie makers were reluctant to place a spotlight on their own communities until the 1950s.
“Early on, in effect, Jews did not want to attract attention to themselves,” Goldman said. “And that was largely because the comfort level that they had in this country was not great, and the fear was you attract too much attention, and you just make things worse.”
Goldman describes pre-World War II America as a country with growing anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism, which resulted in a “fear factor” for the nation’s Jewish community. The HBO drama “The Plot Against America” exemplifies this sense, he said, and the risk of Nazi Germany sending assassins to Jewish studio heads made Hollywood reluctant to highlight Jewish issues or criticize the Third Reich.
The real sea change, Goldman said, came with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate the nation’s public schools, and its subsequent enforcement by the Eisenhower administration. “It was a signal from the government,” Goldman said, “that minorities were entitled to equal rights, to some extent. And this changed the feeling on the part of American Jews.”
The effect on the film industry seems clear, with the release of the “Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959, “Exodus” in 1960 and “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961. Goldman views this as an era of “Jews as hero films,” pointing to pictures like “Exodus” and “Cast a Giant Shadow.” With the cultural changes during the time of the Vietnam War, this in turn gave way to 15 to 20 years of a Jewish “anti-hero period,” where Jewish artists started poking fun at themselves, such as in 1969’s “Goodbye, Columbus” and 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid.”
More modern films like 1999’s “Liberty Heights,” by Baltimore-born director Barry Levinson, explored the reluctance of some American Jews to express their Jewish identity openly, Goldman said, while 2000’s “Keeping the Faith” saw Ben Stiller playing a rabbi who had fallen in love with a non-Jewish woman and fretting over how his congregation would react.
These films have added to the ever-expanding diversity of ways in which American Jewish filmmakers represent themselves and their community.