- On Abrams's The New Jew in Film
Jewish men and women have been represented by stereotypes in films since the inception of cinema. Heavily influenced by sociopolitical developments in both Europe and the United States, these representations underwent changes throughout the twentieth century. In The New Jew in Film, Nathan Abrams sets out to explore the transformations that Jews have undergone in world cinema since 1990. The book, which is a collection of some previously published articles and book chapters, consists of an introduction and eight chapters.
In the introduction Abrams presents a concise background of the portrayal of Jews in American and European films during the twentieth century in order to contextualize his thesis that, since the 1990s, representations of Jews not only have become more prominent in cinema around the world but also have paralleled the assimilation of Jews in different societies as well as their attainment of middle-class status. The author identifies the widespread depiction of Jews in cinema as representing a global trend that has become more noticeable in the last three decades. Abrams also makes the case that this trend is the result of a new generation of actors and actresses, screenwriters, and directors who take pride in their Jewishness. (Here he borrows Daniel Boyarin’s term, “Jewissance,” or [End Page 108] pleasure in being Jewish.) The author argues that many of these new portrayals originate with the Jewish directors, screenwriters, and actors who deploy reverse stereotypes as a way to challenge prevailing perceptions of Jews. This study builds on previous work by Lester Friedman and Patricia Erens, who surveyed Jewish cinematic representations up to the 1980s, and challenges David Desser and Lester Friedman’s assertions from 2004 about the final flowering of American-Jewish cinema (18).
Chapter 1 presents a history of the Jew in film, concentrating on two opposing self-images: the tough Jew and the sissy Jew. The latter has been perceived as an image of Jewish passivity, but for Abrams he embodies the new characterizations of Jews in film through the lenses of multiculturalism and pluralism. Furthermore, he argues that new varieties of Jewish masculinities have emerged, including the stoner Jew and the working-class Jew. Such changes are seen, for example, in Woody Allen’s 1990s films, in which the hysterical schlemiel has been replaced by less lovable characters; in David Mamet’s screenplays, which depict sexist and aggressive Jews; and in the Coen brothers’ films. Similarly, European films have also depicted working-class Jews, notably in the work of the French-Jewish director Mathieu Kassovitz. The same images can be found in the comedies of the Jewish-American director Judd Apatow, where Jewish characters assume the roles of badkens (slackers). These new representations of Jews in film have also transformed the penis from a locus of shame to one of comedy, and blatantly critique the values of the dominant Gentile society.
The second chapter centers on the depiction of the Jewess in film. Whereas earlier depictions of Jewesses had them relegated to secondary roles as the overbearing Yiddishe momme or the asexual and materialistic Jewish American Princess, Abrams identifies in post-1990s films the “Jewess with attitude,” who evolved from the feminist movement and found expression particularly in the positive Jewish female film roles played by Barbra Streisand. In addition, Jewish female directors presented the feminine Jewish gaze in films such as The Governess (Sandra Goldbacher, 1998). Iconoclastic Jewish female characters also were depicted in Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, 1999) and Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006).
The subsequent chapters examine film depictions of Jews in relation to sex, passivity, agency, religion, food, and bathrooms. The fact that Jews and Jewesses are represented as sexual predators, erotic beings, and porn stars is interpreted by Abrams as a sign of a heightened confidence on the part of Jewish and non-Jewish directors to take on these portrayals. The topics of exogamy and endogamy are [End Page 109] also explored, leading...