Locked Down: Jailed Jews or Jews in Jail*

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Inspired by the Coronavirus lockdown, I have been re-reading Jimmy Lerner’s excellent memoir of his time in prison You Got Nothing Coming, and it got me thinking about the relationship between Jews and jail, preferably fictional. (Obviously, we are aware of some recent real-life Jews in jail, including Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Michael Cohen.)

I started to Google “Jews and prison movies” and what came up was a list of Holocaust films which is not quite what I had in mind. Nor those Jews that run prisons in Israel.

So, I thought: can I compile a top thirteen list of Jews in jail on film and television?

  1. There is the excellent (and extremely violent) HBO prison series Oz which has various Jewish characters, such as Alexander Vogel, Eli Zabitz, and Lemuel Idzik.But this is an outlier as it is serious and generally Jews and jail tend to be treated as a subject for humor.
  2. Orange is the New Black, which I have written about here, contains a series of Jewish characters, prisoners, and governers played by Jews, it also has a character known as “Black Cindy” convert to Judaism, complete with mikvah. Apparently, hundreds of prisoners across the UK applied to change their religion to Judaism after seeing the episode because, as Cindy says, they have “better quality food.”
  3. A classic example is Woody Allen’s Virgil Starkwell in his Take the Money and Run (1969). As befitting a bespectacled Jew, he spends his time in jail reading. Offered the chance to take a new experimental vaccine in return for early parole, Virgil takes the vaccine but which has a temporary and (unfortunate) side effect: for several hours he is turned into a rabbi.

4. This reminds me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange which featured Jewish characters in jail, one of whom is named Big Jew, but Kubrick removed these when he adapted it into his 1971 film. However, as I have argued elsewhere, we can read Alex as conceptually Jewish.

5. Perhaps one of the most famous Jewish prisoners was the falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus who was courtmartialled and sentenced to thirty-five years on the notorious Devil’s Island in French Guiana. There have been various onscreen fictionalizations:  Pathé made The Dreyfus Affair in 1899, followed by two Dreyfus movies in 1930 and 1931 respectively, The Life of Emile Zola in 1937,  I Accuse in 1958, Prisoner of Honor in 1991 and An Officer and a Spy last year.

6. Arrested Development. When paterfamilias George Bluth, Sr. is sent to prison, he sees a Star of David shadow casat by the bars on his solitary confinement cell, leading him to become more religious. He cuts off a part of his shoe and fashions it into a kippah (becoming a ba’al te-shoe-vah, see what I did there?). He even sets up a Torah study group. As my friend Jacqueline Nicholls points out, he’s got sole/soul.

7. The Simpsons. In “Krusty Gets Busted,” Krusty the Clown is wrongly convicted of armed robbery. When Bart and Lisa do their own investigations, they discover that the real culprit was his sidekick Sideshow Bob. Krusty later does a Prison Special.

8. Seinfeld. In the finale, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are convicted for violating “The Good Samartin Law,” the requirement that they cannot be bystanders and must intervene when a crime is being committed. They are sent to trial and found guilty. In the final scene before the credits, they sit in a holding cell awaiting their prison transport. As the credits roll, Jerry is wearing a Latham County orange jumpsuit and performing a stand-up routine of prison-related jokes to an audience of fellow prisoners.

9. Stir Crazy. While it’s hard to believe that anyone called Skip Donahue is Jewish (unless he’s attempting to hide his Judaism behind an oh-so-goyish name like Clark Kent), he is a playwright and played by Gene Wilder. Skip ends up sharing a cell with a murderer named Grossberger. And the movie was produced by Hannah Weinstein and written by Bruce Jay Friedman.

10. Oliver Twist. Fagin is sentenced and condemned to death and there have been many, many adaptations of this story, from the silent era to the present.

11. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. These Jewish spies, convicted and executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the peak of the Cold War, have been subject to many fictional represenations, including Sidney Lumet’s Daniel, the HBO adaptation of Angels in America, and Citizen Cohn.

12. Paul L. Smith. Educated at Brandeis, Jewish actor Paul L. Smith had a small uncredited role in Exodus as Jewish Prisoner Peretz Geffner before serving as the sadistic Turkish prison officer, Hamidou, in Midnight Express. He subsequently made aliyah and changed his name to Adam Eden.

13. Papillon (1973). Co-stars Dustin Hoffman, as Lous Dega, a counterfeiter who, like Dreyfus, is sent to Devil’s Island, French Guiana, where he befriends the eponymous hero, so-called because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest.

*Thanks to all of those who contributed to this on my Facebook page.