Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The New Jew in Film: A Q&A with film historian Nathan Abrams
In advance of the film series Jewish Tales from Wales, which we are co-presenting with the Welsh Government with the support of Bangor University, Wales, U.K. next month, we asked one of the presenters, film historian Dr. Nathan Abrams, to chat with us about Jews in Wales and his new book, The New Jew in Film. As you can read, he had some fascinating things to say. You can hear him in person on March 11 and March 14 and pose your own questions.
MJH: How were Jews first depicted on film?
Dr.Nathan Abrams: The earliest representations of Jews were crude and overtly anti-Semitic racialized portrayals. The image of ‘the Jew’, which erased all intra-group differences (religious, regional, national, linguistic, class, socioeconomic, political), was that of a subhuman, avaricious, unrefined, venal, grasping, greedy, shifty and menacing cheat and/or dangerous subversive. He was defined physically by his swarthiness, hunched-back, hook nose, bald head, oversize feet, and paunch belly. The Jew was an ‘outsider’ and ‘invader’ to be feared.
MJH: How are Jewish characters different in very recent films compared to some of the iconic Jewish characters in Woody Allen and Mel Brooks films?
Dr. Abrams: Often, in the past, in order to see onscreen Jews and Jewishness, films with a significant and overt Jewish content had to be viewed. Today, though, a character’s Jewishness is something other than the main point of his or her presence in the story. Jewish cinematic characters today are unselfconscious, normalised, casual matter of fact even ordinary. Indeed, this is so much so that, at times, Jews frequently seem ‘gratuitous’ or ‘superfluous’. One can hardly see a mainstream US film these days without a Jewish character, reference or an in-joke appearing, often with no intrinsic value other than a nod and a wink to those members of the audience it is presumed will understand such insertions.
MJH: What does that say about how Jews are viewed in society?
Dr. Abrams: It says that Jews are accepted, comfortable and free, although in my book I am more interested in how Jews feel rather than in how they are viewed.
MJH: Who are some of your favorite New Jews in film both in front and behind the camera?
Dr. Abrams: The Coen brothers, Darren Aronofsky, David Mamet, David Cronenberg, Adam Sandler, Jason Biggs, Judd Apatow, Mathieu Kassovitz, the ‘Jew Tang Clan’, Sandra Goldbacher, Melanie Laurent. I like many Jewish characters too, often played by non-Jews such as Walter Sobchack in The Big Lebowski.
MJH: What is the most surprising thing that you discovered in writing this book?
Dr. Abrams: That the New Jew in Film is global, not just in Israel and the United States. The New Jew is bold and assertive and scatological.
MJH: Let’s switch to the topic of Jewish Tales from Wales. You’ve become a bit of an expert in the Jewish Welsh experience. Why is it compelling and how does it differ from other parts of the U.K.?
Dr. Abrams: The Welsh-Jewish experience stretches back to the medieval period and many Anglo-Norman castles are testament to this. It is compelling in that it is so little understood in the wider context of British- and European-Jewish history. Very little academic work has been done on the subject and that which has been done focuses largely on the South and anti-Semitism. Wales has its own distinctive culture, history, geography and language. These have combined to provide an experience for Jews that is similar to other parts of the UK but not the same. For example, the continuation of the Welsh language, which some believe derives from ancient Hebrew, provides a clear contrast to the other parts of the UK where other, indigenous languages, have all but died out. Wales, by and large, has a history of tolerance that England does not share. Wales, by and large, has a history of tolerance that England does not share. The dominant forms of religious non-conformism in Wales are also much more based on the Hebrew bible and one sees place names in Wales such as Nebo, Golan, Hebron, and so on. Finally, and on a personal note, Wales has provided a very accepting and congenial place for me to write this book over the past five and a half years.
MJH: What do you think viewers should think about when watching the films in the series?
Dr. Abrams: Viewers should consider the specificities of the Welsh experience and what this has provided for Jews. All three films focus on the small-town and rural Welsh experience in which Jews have lived. What is it about Wales that has motivated these three filmmakers to set their movies in that context? They should also look out simply for the beautiful Welsh landscape which these films feature. Finally, they should consider the Jewish sensibility of all three works which becomes progressively less explicit with each film. How might these films be considered as ‘Jewish’ movies?