Born to a Reform Jewish family in Philadelphia with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage, film director Susan Seidelman knows from depictions of Judaism in cinema…not least because many of her quirky, intelligent movies — from Desperately Seeking Susan to Making Mr. Right to Boynton Beach Club — feature characters with Jewish names and identifiable characteristics. And although she didn’t have an extremely religious upbringing (and says she regrets “not knowing more of the traditions”), she supplements her cultural understanding these days with books and continual endeavors to learn more. Intrigued by the “Jewishness” of her body of work, I spoke to her recently about portrayals of Jews onscreen and how they have changed over the years, as well as celluloid anti-Semitism. An affable, insightful person, Seidelman offered some particularly introspective responses to my questions on the subject. Here they are; surprises await.

Q: How have representations of Jewish characters in film changed over the past 50 years, and can any improvement on such portrayals be made?

Seidelman: In the early days, I think Jews were identified in films mostly by their religious and social “outsider” status. They were basically stereotypes: the rabbi, the scholar, the salesman or peddler, the pawnbroker. Their Jewishness was their identity, and they represented “types” rather than fully fleshed-out characters. The industry seemed to move away from those stereotypes sometime during the 1950s and ’60s, as Hollywood started to see the emergence of Jewish superstars such as Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Paul Newman, to name just a few. These actors played “leading men” but were not identified as being Jewish. Jews knew they were Jewish, but I don’t think non-Jewish audiences made that connection. There was an overt attempt by the studio system to hide the ethnicity of these stars (hence their name changes) to make them more appealing to a mainstream, worldwide audience, as there was still a perceived stigma that being Jewish meant you were an “outsider”…and that was considered unattractive.

As we moved into the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we started to get characters that were clearly Jewish by their names, mannerisms, physicality and personalities — certainly they were identifiable to Jewish audiences as such. This included actors such as George Segal, Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss. And they didn’t change their names. They used their ethnicity (and “outsider-ness”) as part of their humor and onscreen personas. You didn’t have to be a detective to say, “That’s a Jew.” They embraced their Jewish characteristics and made them a part of the characters they played onscreen.

During this time there were also several popular movies with very identifiably Jewish characters, yet they were never identified as being Jewish on screen. For example, in When Harry Met Sally…it was never stated that Billy Crystal’s character Harry Burns was a Jew. But he clearly was. All the “codes” (body language, speech patterns, anxieties and mannerisms) said “Jewish.” The same holds true for the characters portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler in the film Down and Out In Beverly Hills, written and directed by the Jewish director Paul Mazursky. The family is never outwardly identified as anything other than nouveau-riche Californians, but Jews could read the clues and the “in-jokes” and knew they were Jewish.

I would include Desperately Seeking Susan in this group. Gary and Roberta Glass are a suburban, upwardly mobile Jewish couple, played by Jewish actors Mark Blum and Rosanna Arquette in a script written by a Jewish writer, Leora Barish, and directed by a Jewish director. In all these films, being Jewish has nothing to do with the plot, nor does it make the characters any less relatable to non-Jewish audiences. Their religion and ethnicity add “flavor” to the characters, but do not define them. Their Jewishness is never stated, unlike in the 1980s films of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks, where being Jewish and being an “outsider” is part of the films’ Ashkenazi humor.

What I find interesting is looking at the next generation of Jewish actors in the 1990s and 2000s. These performers seem to be so comfortable and confident about who they are, so fully assimilated into American life, that they can easily flaunt their Jewish backgrounds and sprinkle their conversation with a few Yiddish words remembered by their grandparents. Perhaps as fourth- or fifth-generation Americans, they no longer consider themselves “outsiders.” Being an American Jew is just a casual part of their background, like being an Irish American or an Italian American. This group includes actors such as Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler, who paved the way for an even younger group of actors such as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Andy Samberg. They feel free to use their Jewishness or dismiss it or play with it as a source of cultural humor. And their brand of secular Jewish humor has just become a part of American humor.

If in the past, Jewish men were portrayed as overly intellectual, physically inept or neurotic — especially in film and TV comedies (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jewish women were also stereotyped as either the nagging, overbearing, Jewish mother or the spoiled, self-involved Jewish-American princess, filing her nails in bed while her husband wants to have sex. As generations have changed, film portrayals of Jewish women have changed as well. And there is now a younger generation of Jewish actress-comediennes such as Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and Sarah Jessica Parker who play against these stereotypes — portraying career-oriented, sexually liberated women with a strong sense of personal independence and a raunchy sense of humor.

Q: Can films be critical of Jewish or presumably Jewish characters in this day and age without the content being construed as anti-Semitic? Do you feel that Gary Glass in your outstanding picture Desperately Seeking Susan is evidence of this?

Seidelman: I hope so, because I’m not anti-Semitic! I strive for authenticity in the film characters I create, and because I’m Jewish and grew up in the suburbs, I knew the world of Roberta and Gary Glass. Roberta could very easily have been me. On the flip side, I also knew the world of Downtown New York City in the 1980s — and the character portrayed by Madonna also includes aspects of me. I wanted the core of the characters to feel truthful and authentic…even though I was clearly using comedic exaggeration to make some social comments.

In terms of making Gary Glass a bad, slimy guy — yes, he’s cheating on this wife and is a self-promoting salesman, but he’s also a bit vulnerable and funny — none of this has anything to do with his character being Jewish. That was part of the underlying “feminist” theme of the movie. I wanted to portray a woman who was unhappy with her life and marriage, someone who was looking to change her life and reinvent herself. I didn’t want to make her husband an out-and-out philandering slimeball, but I did need to give her a good reason to be unhappy and leave him in the end. (By the way, the character of Roberta Glass was played by Rosanna Arquette, who is also a Jewish actress.)

Susan Seidelman

Susan Seidelman

It’s interesting that in many of the films that deal with Wall Street or scandals in the financial world, there is an underlying strain of what could be interpreted as anti-Semitism. Certainly you can hear non-Jewish people saying, “Those rich New York Jews control all the banks and the media.” This can be dangerous, and so Jewish (and non-Jewish) filmmakers need to be aware of this. I’m not suggesting that facts be whitewashed. The reality is that there are a lot of Jews in finance. Yes, Bernie Madoff is Jewish and he was a lying scoundrel. Still, if you are making a film, you have to be sensitive to how things can be misinterpreted or negative stereotypes can be exploited. I think many minorities, such as the African-American community, are also very sensitive to how they are portrayed onscreen to avoid negative stereotyping.

Interestingly, Israelis have a different film persona from American Jews. Israelis are usually portrayed as strong, aggressive and heroic fighters — not neurotic or self-deprecating intellectuals. It’s weird how the mainstream public differentiates between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

Q: Do Jewish directors have an obligation to address bigotry in their art or outside of it? What connection, if any, is there between art forms such as cinema and social justice?

Seidelman: There always has been a large pool of Jewish documentary filmmakers who have addressed social injustice and political issues, whether it’s Barbara Kopple in Harlan County U.S.A. or Frederick Wiseman. My guess is Michael Moore may be Jewish — he doesn’t claim to be, but I would make him an honorary Jew.

When it comes to standing up for the underdog, especially at a time when it was unpopular to do so, you can point to Stanley Kramer or Sidney Lumet, or screenwriters such as Paddy Chayefsky and Budd Schulberg. Of course, there are Jews who look at life from a more philosophical or even spiritual perspective. Certainly, Woody Allen addresses major philosophical issues in most of his films. He seems to be constantly questioning man’s place on earth, the point of our existence and our need to create meaning out of the chaos of life: religious and spiritual concerns, seen from a Jewish point of view. These same questions are raised in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

I think it would be very interesting to see more films that deal with the religion itself and its belief system. I’ve always wanted to make a film about the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. My son used to live in Williamsburg across the street from a large Hasidic community, and I’ve spent time walking around this neighborhood. It’s interesting to see that this community interacts daily with their young “hipster” neighbors, yet chooses to maintain its Orthodox way of life. To me, exploring that dynamic would make for a really interesting film.