Not all entertainers embrace their Jewishness like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen. Although much of Hollywood is a Jewish-run industry, it hasn’t always depicted a clear American Jewish identity in the movies. Many popular films have had to sneak their way around, while leaving an all-too-obvious Semitic trail behind.
In the 1930s, the schlemiel trio, the Three Stooges, made 190 shorts, 40 percent of which included at least one Hebrew or Yiddish term/expression even though they refrained from mentioning that they were Jewish. Malice in the Palace (1949) is set in the Middle East where Moe explains to Shemp and Larry: “Start here at Jerkola, through Pushover, across Shmowland, to the stronghold of Shmow.” Similarly, in the Marx Brothers’s Animal Crackers (1930), during the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” number, Groucho asks, “Did someone call me schnorrer?”
In the midst of World War II, Casablanca (1942) was released featuring Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo, a renowned fugitive Czech Resistance leader who escapes a concentration camp and leads a Nazi rebellion, albeit his religion is never established.
During the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) blacklisted liberal “anti-American” writers “because of Jewish influence.” In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror No. 5 (Jack Klugman) clearly represented the underprivileged Jewish worker while Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec) symbolized the (Jewish) immigrant American who tries to integrate into American dominant WASP culture, although his religion is never identified.
By the 1960s, the American counterculture and its explosive sociopolitical climate even permeated The Sound Of Music (1965) where “Uncle” Max Detweiler’s feminine mannerisms and fiscal concerns alluded to his being Jewish and gay amid blatant anti-Semitism. Ironically, it is he who helps the von Trapp family to flee from the Nazis.
In the sexually revolutionary The Graduate (1967), Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is an alienated nebbish who defies 1960s cultural WASP hegemony (even though his family seems to fit right in). In one scene, he strikes people with a cross inside a church. In fact, most of Hoffman’s roles are very palpable, but unmentioned Jewish characters: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Tootsie (1982), etc.
Likewise, Albert Brooks adopted a stereotypical Jewish persona (though unspecified in his films) as the hapless, high-IQ and intelligent voice of reason in Taxi Driver (1976), Broadcast News (1987), Defending Your Life (1991) and Mother (1996). Furthering this role, Billy Crystal’s desirable, funny and romantic schtick in When Harry Met Sally (1989) and City Slickers (1991) created a more fashionable leading Jewish man (albeit no religious affiliation) to contrast with past depictions of neurotic, Woody Allen-archetypes. In the same way, Jeff Goldblum, though not labeled onscreen as a Jew, plays a geeky scientist in The Fly (1986), Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996) and The Lost World (1997).
Much like their Yiddishekeit predecessors, including not explicitly stating their Jewishness but nevertheless blatantly expressing it through humor, “kosher” comedians began making movies. Rodney Dangerfield incorporated his on-stage schtick in Caddyshack (1980), Easy Money (1983) and Back To School (1986); Jackie Mason provided flagrant one-liners in The Jerk (1979) and Caddyshack II (1988); and Eugene Levy played a schlemazel, yet endearing schmegegge in Vacation (1983), Splash (1984), Armed and Dangerous (1986) and American Pie (1999). In Ghostbusters (1984), Dr. Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis) is a bespectacled, nerdy and socially awkward member of a crack team responsible for taking care of paranormal activities in the Big Apple.
Even in the classic raunchy comedy, Animal House (1978), Donald “Boon” Schoenstein (Peter Riegert) is the poor schmuck who – much like the main characters in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues (1988) and Lost In Yonkers (1993) – is ambiguously Jewish but tacitly assimilates into WASP society. At one point, he even tells his frat house, “Bad news; I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house, and they say all our answers to the Psych test were wrong.” In the teenage hit comedy, Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) doesn’t bat an eye when her best friend nonchalantly drops “kvell” into a conversation.
On a larger scale, big-budget productions, such as Cocoon (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987), hired mostly Jewish casts to portray outlandish Yiddishkeit characters who never utter “Jew,” but may as well have broken into a Hora. And that she does (sort of) in Dirty Dancing (1987), where Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) keeps her identity in a corner even though most of the families, including hers, are screaming Jewish.
As an homage to European refugees who had come to Ellis Island to provide their children with a better life, the immigrant story resurfaced in Avalon (1990), where a family is so obviously Jewish (though it is never mentioned) that in one scene they happily invite their relatives who “managed to get out” of Nazi Europe to live in their tiny Baltimore tenement apartment. In the animated An American Tail (1986), the “Mousekewitzes” flee to America after an army of Cossack cats destroys their Russian village, although “Jew” is never mentioned.
In more contemporary films, omitting the ethnic identity of Jewish characters but nonetheless providing them with Jewish traits, personalities and circumstances continues to be a trend in The Squid and the Whale (2005).
So, why keep it in the closet? Years ago, Jewish identities were coded in order to conform to the dominant (white gentile) culture, but audiences today have more saykhel with a more finely tuned Jewish radar.