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Combatting Stereotypes via 'The Zohan'

Even when a group is well represented behind the camera, Hollywood finds it's hard to add nuance to ethnic characterizations.
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Adam Sandler's latest film, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, is the usual Sandleresque cornucopia of frat-boy stupidity, toilet humor and cinematic anarchy. But its lead character is something not often seen on multiplex screens — a totally confident Jew with sexual firepower and the ability to kick anyone's ass.

Zohan is, in fact, a far cry from the long parade of urban neurotics who seem to typify Jewish male portrayals in the mainstream media. Think Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Jeremy Piven in Entourage. Jerry Seinfeld in his self-titled comedy series or David Schwimmer's Ross Geller on Friends. And, of course, there's the eminence grise of all things whiny and Jewish, Woody Allen.

Yet even the Sandler character — a former Mossad agent — is a stereotype of sorts, the macho Israeli who revels in his physical side. And therein lies a cultural conundrum.

"Yes, there is this caricature of the Jewish male, but popular culture is made up of caricatures," says Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward. "Pop culture needs easy stereotypes to get people emotionally attached. But there are a lot of TV shows and movies with African-American characters, and within that niche there are loads of nuanced characters. Should there be a related universe in which Jewish characters get their nuance?"

The answer to that would seem to be yes. But what is really intriguing about the issue of Jewish male imagery is the fact that ever since its inception, the film industry, and by extension television, has had a very strong behind-the-scenes Jewish presence. From Samuel Goldwyn to Steven Spielberg, Jews have played a major role in the ways in which we see ourselves and others. So how come Jewish images seem to come off so poorly?

"Why would Jews treat themselves differently than any other group?" asks Ami Eden, editor-in-chief at JTA, the Jewish news agency. "You could argue that Hollywood in general tends to stereotype, so what's fascinating is why Jewish artists can't figure out a better way to portray Jews. Maybe when you're in the establishment, that just kicks in — you go with the formats and the stereotypes, no matter what the group."

Adds Newhouse: "There are people who would argue the Jewishness of Hollywood is responsible for the Jewish stereotypes. It's anxiety on the part of Jews about seeming too self-congratulatory."

It's not that there aren't commanding, or fully rounded, Jewish characters to be found. Russell Crowe in American Gangster plays Richie Roberts, a police detective who proudly wears a Jewish star around his neck. The members of the Jewish assassination team in Munich are certainly no one's idea of wimps. And the upcoming film Defiance stars Daniel Craig in the true story of Jewish brothers who joined Russian resistance fighters to battle the Nazis.

In fact, says Tahl Raz, founder of the online magazine Jewcy, "there are exceptions all over the place. I actually think the older generation is more sensitive to these kinds of issues. The fact is it's more accepted to be Jewish these days. Herzl's dream (Theodore Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement) hasn't been realized in Israel but it has in America. American Jews are as assimilated, celebrated and accepted as they have been anywhere in the history of Jewry."

Alana Newhouse takes this idea of a Jewish generation gap one step further, saying that younger Jews may actually embrace these stereotypes not necessarily because they've assimilated but because "they've re-embraced their Jewishness. There's a sense of a younger generation wanting an ethnic and religious identity. They are choosing it, embracing it in all its complications, which means there will be stereotypical images which don't offend them. It washes off their back because it doesn't relate to their Jewishness at all."

A number of observers point to the films of writer-director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) as examples of this. Many of Apatow's characters are Jews played by Jewish actors (Apatow also co-wrote Zohan) like Seth Rogan, Jason Segal and Jonah Hill. But unlike Woody Allen, whose character in Annie Hall is utterly paranoid about the anti-Semitism of his girlfriend's family, these contemporary Jewish types feel totally comfortable in their own skin.

"The characters in Knocked Up are not ashamed of who they are," Eden says. "They are happy with who they are. Sasha Baron Cohen is someone who is proud of his Jewish heritage. People like him and Sarah Silverman are coming from a more comfortable place. We might have young Jews mining this neurosis line, but I don't think they are uncomfortable."
"You now have a young generation of Jewish writers and entertainers; they don't give a fuck," Raz says. "They're writing from personal experience."

So maybe things aren't so bad after all because, Eden notes, "there was a time when (Hollywood) didn't want to have Jewish characters at all, so maybe this is progress."

But Newhouse feels there are still hurdles to overcome, no matter what the ethnic portrayal. "The problem is not that people are not making" films or TV shows with three-dimensional ethnic characters, she says. "It's whether you can get them to break into the mainstream market. There are people in every niche community making art that portrays fully nuanced characters. The question is whether mainstream culture wants to see that."

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