Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Representations of Jews changing in film (but only for Jews and only in film?) - (Books The New Jew in Film by Nathan Abrams)

Nathan Abrams, a lecturer in film from Bangor University in Wales, has written The New Jew in Film, about to be released in paperback, about the representation of Jews and various aspects of Jewishness in film since 1990. It's a contemporary take in the era of identity politics, meaning the book is about representations of self in the medium of film. However, in this case, these selves have been historically appropriated and given the role of 'other' by society (at best) or mercilessly persecuted (at worst) for a few thousand years. Abrams traces the evolution of the depiction of Jews in film prior to the last decade. He starts with the classic anti-Semetic stereotype such as the male lascivious money grubber, intellectual nebbish, and hairy sex-addict, and female chicken soup-pushing interfering loudmouth, followed by films that tried to depict Jews as anxious but cute - Fiddler on the Roof or Woody Allen's heroes, and films that attempted to show that Jews are just like everyone like The Graduate, and then films that took on the subjects of anti-semitism in general and the Holocaust in particular.

Abrams cites two influences that distinguish the post-1990 depiction of Jewishness in film from the preceding period. For centuries, Jews were so consistently excluded by the societies in which they tried to work and live that there developed a yearning for a 'Promised Land.' Jews were a society in diaspora. There are scholars who claim that Jewish people are now beginning to think of themselves as being at home in the many places in which they live, producing the gradual emergence of what Abrams referred to as "the new Jew" in his title. The second is not specific to Jewish people, but is rather a phenomenon observed in the relations between many persecuted groups and their societies. It is an increase in frankness about ethnicity in general. This results in more confrontation of stereotypes and more ability both within the group and in the society of which it is a part to reflect on the group identity as complex and on the identity of the groups members as individual. I observe this evolution occurring in regard to race in American society, but can see in that context how it also leads to complacency - witness they whole we have a black president, surely we must now be a post-racist society assumption. One can also see within the oppressed group, as Abrams writes, a seizing back of the lexicon that was used as a weapon, diffusing the hostility by turning it back on themselves, such as when Jews choose the name 'Heeb' as a title for a magazine or homosexuals refer to themselves as 'queer' or blacks as 'nigga.'

I tend not to be much of a fan of academic criticism of film or literature. I find most of it reductive and the language insular and convoluted, but what is interesting in this book is Abrams's argument that post-1990 one sees Jews in film as nationals, cowboys, skinheads, gay and many other categories and that the body of work by and about Jews in this period conveys the message that 'there is more than one way to be Jewish.' This is about as anti-reductive a message as one could hope for and is the strength of this book for my money.

I would have appreciated less repetition within the individual chapters a weakness Abrams concedes but considered necessary. I also felt that, although the book considered sexuality and gender in the context of film, it made scant mention of a key question I kept asking as I read: is this evolution of the depictions of Jewishness in film peculiar to Jews and peculiar to film, or is it one of many examples of a broader shift in confronting race and ethnicity in general and in multiple media? I think the failure to take on this distinction in depth ends up reducing the book to an academic conversation about film that was too narrow to excite me. It is probably unfair to criticize Abrams for not writing a different book. I also imagine that I bring a particularly American slant in considering broader questions of identity psychology and race to a book about film by a Welsh academic who doesn't profess to be a sociologist, but these are among the more important and pervasive issues facing the culture in which I live (and in which this book is being released). Not being a film specialist, I wanted a broader perspective.

Oh, and I should say, this edition by L. B. Tauris will be released shortly and I received a publicity copy to read.


Criticlasm said...

Such an interesting post and (sounds like) book. The two films that made me the most frustrated in the last few years were about Jews - A Serious Man and Inglorious Basterds. I suppose you could argue that just because Jews were central to these films it's a change in atmosphere, though in the Coens' film there's a fair amount of stereotyping, and in Tarantino's there is not a Jew alive at the end of the movie.
I would agree with your idea that it might just be film in general, and that the increasing democratization of the medium has just made it possible for more voices to be heard. If you look at major releases, I'm not sure if a lot has changed. I guess there was The Debt last year, but as for main characters in films whose Judaism is central to their character (I'm excluding Adam Sandler, etc, here), you might be hard - pressed.

A complex situation, and interesting to ponder.

Ted said...

Hey Cc
Long time no...

Embarrassingly, I have no yet seen any of the films you mention, though theyt are all on my list. But I associated your thinking with the scholarly critical style that characterizes this book, so I think you would find it very interesting.