Nathan Abrams. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012. x + 258 pp. $72.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-5340-5; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-5341-2.
Reviewed by Shai Ginsburg (Duke University)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Jews and Cinema, Stereotypes, and Self-Images
Recent years have seen a fast-growing interest in the cinematic representations of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism (henceforth I shall shorthand it to the question of Jews and cinema). The frustratingly narrow shelf of English-language books on the subject has all of a sudden greatly expanded, and the number of books exploring Jewish identity and religion in cinema more than doubled in the last two or three years. Most pertinent in this context are two recent edited volumes: Lawrence Baron’s The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (2011), which seeks to provide a general overview of the issue, and Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson’s most recent Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema (2013), which, as its title suggests, focuses more specifically on American cinema. Here one should also note Eric A. Goldman’s forthcoming book, The American Jewish Story through Cinema. To these one should add five or six new titles on Israeli cinema in particular (in addition to a 2010 reprint of Ella Shohat’s 1989 groundbreaking study on the subject, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation), with at least three more titles expected before the end of the year. And one cannot ignore here, of course, the flood of new titles focusing on Holocaust cinema, with at least fifteen--according to my count--new English titles (addressing also pre-WWII cinema), not to mention numerous books that explore other themes and areas, yet still dwell at length on the cinematic representation of Jews and Judaism.
This scholarly explosion certainly reflects the interest of students and scholars as well as that of publishers and testifies to the fast-changing map of Jewish studies (along with the humanities and “soft” social sciences in general). It points not only to the growing number of cinema courses in Jewish studies, but also to the growing importance of films in courses across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences that make up Jewish studies, including disciplines that until not too long ago frowned upon films as a legitimate pedagogic tool. Many have commented on the reasons that led to this change: on the growing scholarly interest in visual studies on the one hand and on the shifting interests, as well as skills, of students of this day and age, on the other hand. What is commonly left unaccounted for is the impact of this scholarly and pedagogic change on one’s understanding, conception, and perhaps even apprehension of the matter at hand: In what ways has the undeniable importance of visual culture transformed academic pedagogy? In what ways is it the same or different from textually focused pedagogy (a particularly important question for religious and cultural practices that are said to entertain animosity toward the visual and to privilege the textual, as Judaism(s) and Jewish cultures are)? And what does the growing importance of visual culture in general and of films in particular in Jewish studies tell us about the way Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism are perceived and taught?
It is with these questions in mind that I approach Nathan Abrams’s The New Jew in Film. Abrams identifies a real lacuna in the growing scholarship on the question of Jews and cinema: the paucity of scholarship on contemporary American and European cinema beyond the pale of Israeli cinema, on the one hand, and beyond that of Holocaust cinema, on the other hand. To be more precise, scholars have indeed paid attention to contemporary films, and yet what is still lacking is a comprehensive study of contemporary cinema, a study that would chart and assess not just individual films (or a small, select number of films) but the field as a whole. To address this lacuna, Abrams builds on Lester D. Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (1982) and Patricia Erens’s The Jew in American Cinema (1984), and seeks to extend the analysis of these two foundational works both temporally and spatially. Temporally, Abrams takes the discussion of Jews and cinema beyond the early 1980s--where Friedman’s and Erens’s books necessarily end--to the present. And spatially, he takes it beyond American cinema--the focus of the earlier studies--to consider depictions of Jews and Jewishness in other cinemas, mainly British and French, though he also alludes to films made elsewhere.
The New Jew in Film centers its discussion on a probe of Jewish stereotypes and self-images in contemporary cinema. Abrams’s main contention is that 1990 marks a watershed, after which the cinematic Jewish stereotypes and self-images underwent a dramatic transformation. In the past, he notes, “in order to see onscreen Jews and Jewishness, films with a significant and overt Jewish content had to be viewed. Since 1990, however, there is a growing number of films in which the addition of the Jewishness to a character, or of a Jewish character, makes no major difference to the trajectory of the story, plot or narrative arc, except to insert a gag line or an ‘in-joke’ to be read by those who understand the cultural codes” (p. 13). Pre-1990 American films gave expression to the desire of Jews to assimilate in their non-Jewish environment and to the anxiety of stirring hostility, not to mention outright anti-Semitism. Hence, films tended to suppress the particular ethnic and religious markers of their Jewish characters and endeavored to universalize Jewishness. Since 1990, however, cinematic representations of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism show a growing Jewish composure and self-confidence. No longer anxious and afraid of raising anti-Semitic sentiments, filmmakers evermore publicly identify themselves as Jews and look to put onscreen a greater variety of Jewish images and experiences, uncontained by the strictures of old. The book, however, follows a thematic, rather than a historical organization. Its first six chapters examine and reevaluate traditional categories of cultural analysis in this context: the Jew, the Jewess, sex, passivity, agency, and religion. Each chapter underscores the transition from pre- to post-1990 cinema. As becomes evident, the transition is between binary stereotyping to more nuanced, inclusive, open, and diverse representations.
The history of Jews in cinema, Abrams notes, is synonymous with the representation of the Jewish man. Whereas pre-1990 films represented the Jew as a professional, economically comfortable in the middle class, post-1990 films introduced a greater spectrum of Jewish men, including the queer Jew and the tough (not to mention criminal and murderous) Jew. The transition from the hard white bodies of the 1980s to the gentler multicolored bodies of the 1990s and 2000s is, indeed, not unique to cinematic representations of Jewish men, but Abrams sees the new image of the Jewish man as the vanguard for this more general cinematic change. The Jewish man has thus been rendered closer to the non-Jewish man; in other words, he has been normalized. The cinematic Jewess has undergone an analogous transformation. The Jewish mother, self-abnegating yet overbearing; the castrating “Jewish American Princess” (JAP); and the sexualized and victimized belle juive are still present, but cinematic representations are no longer confined to these three archetypes. In pre-1990 cinema, the Jewess’s body served as a screen upon which male characters (and filmmakers) projected their social, economic, and sexual anxieties. Post-1990 films introduced female characters who assert themselves for their own needs and desires. Indeed, no longer defined solely and exclusively in relation to the Jewish man in her life, the Jewish woman appears to gain interiority.
The markers of these transitions, Abrams implies, are most manifest in the treatment of sex, passivity, and agency. The new Jew and Jewess in cinema are eroticized and sexualized. Whereas earlier films shied away from showing the Jewish naked body, not to mention that body engaged in a sexual act, contemporary cinema--in line with the growing graphic nature of mainstream American cinema in general--increasingly presents the Jewish body and the sexual act for view. Indeed, contemporary cinema appears to embrace sexuality (and a greater variety of sexual behaviors), pointing to the growing self-confidence of Jewish filmmakers and their characters. Similarly, Abrams contends that contemporary cinema moves away from the stereotypical depiction of Jewish passivity and agency. Whereas earlier cinema depicted the Diaspora Jew as feminized and hysteric, post-1990 films complicate the question of Jewish victims and victimization, and present Jews as evermore deserving their fate. The previously weak Diaspora Jew is now supplanted by the hyper-masculinized Jewish tough man (an image previously reserved for Israeli men). Contemporary cinema thus undermines the binaries that structured earlier representations and upsets the implicit social hierarchies that these representations reflected.
In the chapter on Judaism, Abrams somewhat modifies his argument for, as he notes, little thus far has been written on the cinematic representation of Judaism. Past studies (and, in fact, pre-1990 films) have focused on Jewishness, that is, on ethnicity as the main analytic category. Abrams however correctly underscores the distinction between “Jewishness as racial, ethnic, political and cultural identities, and Judaism as a religion and set of beliefs, behaviors and values” (p. 134). Moreover, Abrams notes that pre-1990 films, inasmuch as they alluded to Judaism as a religion, conflated it with the all-too-easily recognized ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Failing to note other stripes of Judaism, they also elided the variety within the ultra-Orthodox world. Made from the outside, they brought to the screen an inaccurate, one-dimensional portrait of the ultra-Orthodox world as monolithic, oppressive, constricted, and misogynic. Contemporary cinema, in contradistinction, shows interest in an “increasing range of Jewish religious identification” (p. 142).
Abrams sees his main contribution in the final two chapters, in which he breaks new ground in the context of the scholarship on Jews and cinema, broaching the subjects of food and bathroom. Once again he notes the paucity of scholarship on these two themes. It is not merely that Jews have been represented and stereotyped through food--through what they eat, but also through how they behave while they eat. Cinematic food thus connotes lack of manners, not to say vulgarity; it stirs the question of Jewish tradition itself, of betraying it or holding on to it. Food, and the question of kashruth in particular, serves as a main site of clash between Jews and non-Jews, indeed as the main marker of Jewish difference and an obstacle for Jewish assimilation. Ultimately, food serves as a test as to how worthy a Jew is of being accepted into society. The bathroom is likewise a site of Jewish anxiety, in which the boundaries between the Jew and the non-Jew become manifest. As the Jewish (male) difference is exposed, Jewish Otherness and marginalization are reinforced. Consequently, the bathroom becomes a site of uncontrolled aggression, the cathartic expression of inner rage. Abrams’s discussion thus implies that this is the site of failure, where Jews (in fact, Jewish men) finally have to face themselves.
Abrams’s celebration of contemporary cinema is, however, less a study of cinema and more one of sociology. Through cinema, Abrams’s book seeks to highlight the transformation of the socioeconomic position of Jews, mainly in the United States, but also elsewhere. In this it seems to represent wider tendencies in the writing on the question of Jews and cinema, tendencies about which one ought to ponder. The first question to ask is what is the relationship between the sociological Jew and the cinematic Jew? The New Jew in Film assumes a direct, even a causal relationship. Jewish producers, directors, actors, actresses, scriptwriters, etc., make Jewish films and directly represent themselves in these films without mediation and bias, and their Jewish characters are to be understood as stereotypical self-images. Such characters provide a window through which the Jewish psyche of their creators as well as contemporary social reality are revealed. Such a model of representation--we may call it naïve realism--is problematic on several grounds. For one, such realism inconsistently portrays the function of the cinematic image. If cinematic images reflect the psyche and social reality of their creators, why single out Jewish characters? On the one hand, would not all characters in a given film, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, equally give access to the minds of their creators and their social reality? On the other hand, if such images are stereotypical, in what ways could they truly be considered genuinely Jewish? Would they not be indebted to general codes of representation that are not necessarily Jewish? Could they be employed, indeed are they not employed for “non-Jewish” modes of identification? And why limit their deployment to Jews? Would they not be equally available to non-Jews?
Moreover, such realism mystifies the complex process through which commercial feature films--the exclusive focus of The New Jew in Film--are made, distributed, and consumed. Films are collective, not individual, products (this is true even of the films of very strong filmmakers, like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg), and so could not be ascribed to any single individual. Indeed, as commercial products, they are made with an eye to an audience, and so, notwithstanding the ethnic or religious identification of the people involved in their making, they are best understood as anticipating their audience, which is anything but exclusively Jewish. As images and stereotypes circulate between these multiple producers, transmitters, and consumers, their origin and point of reference are much more difficult to pin down than The New Jew in Film would have it. Last and, I believe, most important, films, like other works of art, never simply represent or reflect socioeconomic or psychological reality. Rather, they refract that reality, producing simulacra of reality only to manipulate it and subject it to their internal cinematic logic, logic different from the logic that one recognizes in psychological or socioeconomic patterns. What one sees on the screen is not reality: this, I believe, should be the core of all film classes alongside classes that turn to films as pedagogic aides. By and large, however, The New Jew in Film fails to explore cinematic logic and elides it in the face of psychology and social reality.
The analysis of The New Jew in Film is anchored, then, between stereotypes and self-image. It appears to take its lead from Homi Bhabha’s discussion of stereotypes, an excerpt of which serves as a motto for its introduction. Abrams amends Bhabha’s comments by turning to Slavoj Zizek, who underscores the enjoyment produced by stereotypes, and to Daniel Boyarin, who coins the term “Jewissance,” as denoting the particular Jewish sense of reassurance and pleasure. The New Jew in Film, however, does not remain true to this theoretical framework and not only because its idiom is anything but the poststructuralist idiom of the three names it invokes. To remind the reader, Bhabha, Zizek, and Boyarin all underscore the ambivalent and contradictory character of the stereotype, indeed its indeterminacy. Yet The New Jew in Film treats its subject matters--both cinematic and sociological--as anything but ambivalent and indeterminate. Thus pre-1990 films, on the one hand, are presented time and again as structured by simple, not to say simplistic, stereotypical binaries that overdetermine their plot and characters. Post-1990 films, on the other hand, are presented as producing so much pleasure or, to be more precise, Jewissance that whatever ambivalence and anxiety they may articulate dissipate.
The sociological and anthropological discussion in The New Jew in Film similarly fails to acknowledge the ambivalence and indeterminacy that inform its subject matter. Overall, I believe three points should be reconsidered. First, the book ignores the tensions and bitter conflicts that cut across American Jewish identity and that alienate divergent segments of American Jewry from each other. Second, it conflates Jewish diasporic communities worldwide and collapses them all into the American Jewish community as if they were all subjects to the same political, sociological, and economic forces and processes that have shaped Jewish identity in the United States. Yet is the place of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in France or Italy, for instance, one and the same as the place of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in the United States? It seems to me that even a superficial skimming of the French Jewish news would reveal how far French Jews feel from the celebratory self-assurance that The New Jew in Film assumes to characterize contemporary American Jewish identity and, by extension, diasporic Jewish identity in general. Third, the book conflates all Jewish cultures to Ashkenazi culture. It notes in brief the difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures, but it fails to consider that difference as analytically significant. Characteristic in this respect is the interspersion of Yiddish words throughout the text, especially within the first two chapters, to designate key terms, presumably to underscore the Jewish flavor of the discussion. Ultimately, then, and notwithstanding its celebration of the nuance and diversity in contemporary cinema, the social forces and processes that inform contemporary Jewish identity, indeed that identity itself, are portrayed stereotypically as homogenous and uniform throughout the Jewish world.
Nevertheless, it should be stressed that the New Jew in Film does break new ground by bringing into the fore contemporary cinema as a corpus for study and by asking whether it marks a continuation or a break with earlier cinema. It provides the useful ground upon which further study of the question of Jews and cinema should be probed.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Shai Ginsburg. Review of Abrams, Nathan, The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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