All posts by Nathan Abrams

I teach and research film, media and history. These thoughts are my private musings, mainly.

The Secret Jewish History of Dogs

adorable blur breed close up
Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

Even though I own two of them (or they own me), Jews and dogs are widely believed to be an oxymoron. Consider the Yiddish proverb, “A Jew with a dog? It’s either not a Jew or it’s not a dog.”

An 18th-century German rabbi, who allowed the ownership of dogs for economic or security reasons, ruled that owning one merely for pleasure is “precisely the behavior of the uncircumcised.”

Certainly, growing up, dogs were not a common sight among our Jewish friends and acquaintances (although cats were, including our own).

Anyway, where does this bias come from? Dogs have been considered unclean animals, and in the modern era, there is the association between dogs and Nazis.

But the evidence is that the relationship between Jews and dogs is more multifaceted. In  A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog throughout Jewish History, academics address the relationship between Jews and canines throughout the ages.

In the Bible, dogs are generally depicted in a poor light. Deuteronomy 23:19 states,

You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Elsewhere, dogs are referred to as feeding on dead bodies, as beasts that maul at human beings. The Eyptians, who enslaved the Hebrews, worshipped the the jackal-headed dog, Anubis.

On the other hand, during the tenth plague — the death of the first born — dogs remained silent, which is considered a good thing. Dogs are also mentioned as working animals, in the context of shepherding and hunting, rather than as pets.

Confirming this, archaelogical digs in Israel revealed the largest known dog cemetery in the ancient world. 700 skeletons of the Canaan dog were excavated in Ashkelon and it is believed they were revered but also served as guard and herd dogs for the ancient Israelites. But when those inhabitants were expelled from their lands, the dogs became wild.

Thousands of years later, these dogs formed the core of a military corps of service dogs for the precursor to the IDF, the Haganah.

CanaanDog3.jpg

In fact, dogs received their first mention, albeit not directly, in Genesis 2 where it recounts that all animals were created by God as a source of human companionship. But then, not being fully up to the task, God created Eve for Adam…

Later Jewish writings and superstitions continued the negative rather than the positive portrayals. Kabbalistic works connected dogs with demons. In the medieval period, according to Joshua Tractenberg,

The disconsolate howling of a dog is a certain indication that the angel of death is strolling through town. If a dog drags his rump along the door in the direction of the door, this too is a token of approaching death.

Jews didn’t really get a chance to learn otherwise in the Diaspora because, being  forbidden from hunting and owning land, the need for dogs was negated.

In contemporary popular culture, as I said above, dogs are associated with Nazis and thus appear in many Holocaust films.

In Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum plays a Jew who survived the Holocaust by acting like a dog for an SS officer. After the war, he has delusions that he is a dog.

A more unusual take on that is the bestselling Israeli novel, “The Jewish Dog,” by Asher Kravit, which has also been made into a film, Shepherd: the Story of a Jewish Dog.

Likewise, in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the Jews are mice and the Germans are cats, dogs represent non-Jewish Americans are dogs.

Conversely, in Franz Kafka’s story “Jackals and Arabs,” the dogs have been read as an allegory for Jews.

In 1972, the Israelis even created Azit, the Paratrooper Dog, for a movie. In a later Israeli TV show, the cracking Shitsel, a young Jewish student is expelled from his yeshiva (seminary) for hiding a stray dog. When he shows his grandfather, we learn the above Yiddish proverb.

On the other hand, a Jewish director who loved dogs was Stanley Kubrick and he featured dogs in a couple of his movies.

Comedian Louis C.K., who has Jewish ancestry, voices Max, a Jack Russell Terrier in The Secret Life of Pets. Other famous movie dogs, owned by Jews, include Walter Sobchak’s ex-wife’s dog in The Big Lebowski and Bernie Focker’s Moses in Meet the Fockers.

Schnorbitz, was the sidekick of British-Jewish comedian Bernie Winters (born Bernie Weinstein). Appropriately, Schnorbitz was a St Bernard. Her name sounds like a Yiddish expression.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is a rare example of a rabbi who owns a dog. He wrote the book Things My Dog Has Taught Me.

For the record, now that I have moved to semi-rural northwest Wales, pretty much as far from Jewish North London as one can get in the UK, it is de rigeur to own a dog. I possess two — Pepper who is a Cockapoo and Moose who is Golden Doodle (I even have green wellies).

img_20200413_140901021

 

The Secret Jewish History of the Beatles, Part I*

beatles vinyls
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

* This is a work in progress.

As we know, beetles are not kosher but maybe the Beatles are.

Let’s put this in context. Liverpool, where the Beatles hail from, has been a magnet for Jews since the eighteenth century. According to JCR-UK, there have been over 20 synagogues in the city and district at one time or another. It also has a Jewish High School and other facilities. At the end of the Second World War, the community numbered 7,500 Jews.

It was in this context that the band was formed, taking advantage of their many Jewish connections. John Lennon’s pre-Beatles band, The Quarrymen, got a gig at Lee Park, a Jewish golf club.

Alan Swerdlow, who was a friend of John Lennon, photographed the Beatles in their early days. He also ran the Greenbank Drive Synagogue’s youth dances and so it’s possible the Beatles may have played at one of them. They did play the annual boat ride on the River Mersey organized by the Jewish community of Liverpool.

For his part, George Harrison was excempt from religious assemblies in the morning, along with Laurence Isaacson. George used to beat him up daily.

In Liverpool and beyond, Jews in Britain played a major role in pioneering its entertainment industries. They provided the entrepreneurial energy, ambition, financial acumen, willingness to take risks and vision essential in building a modern industry that was, despite severe difficulties, sufficiently robust to survive ferocious American competition.

Jews were active in the postwar music business in Britain. John Lennon once remarked, “Show business is an extension of the Jewish religion.” Whether he was being provocative or not is unclear (the Beatles did make antisemitic comments because this was postwar Britain in which open antisemitism was still common), but he had a point. The music business in Britain after the Second World War was a Jewish affair, including such names as Larry Parnes, Lionel Bart,  Malcolm McLaren, and Marc Bolan.

It was at the Cavern Club whose manager, Alan Sytner,  was also a member ofthe Greenbank Drive Synagogue, that  Brian “Eppy” Epstein, heard them play. He was born in Liverpool on Yom Kippur into an affluent Jewish family who owned a furniture and record store. In a demonstration of his chutzpah, after hearing the band playing in a local club, in 1961, he became their self-appointed manager, despite any previous experience or management acumen. For their part, the band agreed, in part, because, as McCartney allegedly stated, “Jews are good with money.”

Becoming known as the “Fifth Beatle,” Epstein smoothed the four boys’ rough, proletarian edges into cleancut and stylish icons in neat, dark business suits so he could take them home to introduce to his mother. He took them out of the dark cellars and showed them the light. Epstein’s music management business was almost exclusively Jewish; David Jacobs negotiated the deals that made the Beatles a worldwide brand. 

Lennon often addressed Epstein to his face as a “rich fag Jew.” Epstein died in 1967, aged 32. The Beatles learned of his death while they were staying at the university in Bangor, on stage in the building in which I work (another Jewish connection).

There were other Jews who also claimed to be the “Fifth Beatle.” They included three radio hosts from New York City. Murray “The K” Kaufman carried out the Beatles’ first in-person American interview. This began a long and symbiotic relationship between radio personality and band. 

And Bruce Morrow introduced the Beatles at their landmark Shea Stadium concert in front of 55,000 fans. This gig, the first outdoor concert an an outdoor sports arena, was organized by Jewish impressario, Sid Bernstein.

The second major Jewish influence behind the Beatles was Dick James. He got them, among other things, their first nationwide television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars.

In addition to Brian Epstein, other Jews helped to craft their iconic “look.” Beno Dorn, the first tailor to provide them with their first suits out of his Birkenhead shop, was Jewish. From 1966, until they broke up, Leslie Cavendish was their hairdresser. Cavendish apprenticed with Vidal Sassoon. They were snapped by Jewish photographer, Dezo Hoffman, who first met them in 1962 and became their official photographer until 1967.

As recounted here, Sir Paul McCartney has had a “love affair with all things Jewish for the past half-century — including collaborators, business associates, girlfriends and wives.”

His first Jewish girlfriend was 23-year-old screenwriter Francie Schwartz (while he was engaged to Jane Asher). After McCartney and Schwartz broke up, McCartney went out with Linda Eastman. They married in 1969 and remained so until her death in 1998. Lindawas a photographer and entrepreneur, both very Jewish professions. Their daughter, Stella, became involved in the rag trade.McCartney married another Jewish woman, Nancy Shevell, in 2011.

When the Beatles’ long-term manager, Brian Epstein died, McCartney favored his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, an entertainment lawyer, to replace him. But John Lennon wasn’t in agreement: he wanted the former Rolling Stones manager, Jewish accountant Allen Klein. This dispute over management was a major factor in their break up. Eventually, Linda Eastman’s brother, John Eastman, later took over from Lee Eastman and remained McCartney’s manager for many years.

The Secret Jewish History of Time Travel

black and white photo of clocks
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

My challenge tonight, as suggested by Helen Goldrein is, like yesterday’s, another toughie.

Jews are obsessed with time but what about time travel?

In the realm of science-fiction, time travel is very popular. Jewish writer Isaac Asimov wrote about it his 1955 novel The End of Eternity.

In the Star Trek universe, which is very Jewish, (television series, films, and spin-offs), time travel has featured in many episodes.

One of the most famous time travellers in popular culture is Doctor Who who, as I have argued elsewhere, can be read as Jewish. James Jordan has described him as “The Wandering Who.”

Perhaps some of the most famous films about time travel are the Back to the Future trilogy. The three films were co-written by Bob Gale, who is Jewish.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), another time traveling odyssey, was co-written by Ed Solomon, who is Jewish. On their eponymous adventure, they meet Sigmund Freud.

Steven Spielberg made Minority Report in 2002 which imagined a “PreCrime” unit of police officers that, using pre-knowledge, prevented crimes from happening.

Other films featuring time travel which have been directed by Jews include Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis), Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld) and Spy Kids 4 (Jeremy Piven).

On a personal level, my favorite time travel film is Time Bandits which my sister took me to see when I was eight or nine years old.

Jewish actors Josh Bowman and Adam Pally feature in Making History and Time After Time respectively.

Jews have obvious reasons for wanting to travel back in time and change history. Jewish writer, Stephen Fry, dealt with his in his book Making History in which he creates an alternative reality in which Hitler never existed.

One academic article imagines “a virtual time trip to different episodes of Earth history, to see what might be available for an observant Jewish time traveler to eat.” Amusingly, the article is called “Jurassic Pork.”

Food restrictions aside, it would be difficult for Jews to travel back to most periods and places in human history, given the historical antipathies to Jews and Judaism.

On the religious front, one rabbi argues that “We Jews actually know a great deal about time travel. We don’t need a DeLorean to go on this journey.”

 

The Secret Jewishness of “Broken Wear”

Keith Kahn-Harris set me the challenge of doing a Jewish reading of Broken Wear, suggesting that some texts resist a Jewish reading.

To explain, my approach is not to claim a text is Jewish but to apply an interpretetive method that ignores authorial intention and reads the narrative, symbolism, iconography, and words of the text itself.

So, in this vein, the first thing to point out is the predominant use of the color red. Along with yellow, red was used to demarcate Jews (e.g. as in Rothschild or “rothen Schild” meaning “red sign” in German).

We encounter a train, an old locomotive at that with obvious connotations of the Second World War.

The segment on the ferry reminds me of Jackie Mason’s quip that the biggest schmuck in the world is a Jew on a boat. Makes me think of the saying, “Either it’s not a Jew, or it’s not a boat.” And this character is certainly a schmuck.

When he wakes up, he splashes water on his face. Before sleep, a cup of water is prepared so that, on waking, a Jew can wash their hands. A Chabad custom is that the water should be poured on to the hands from a vessel, not a tap, which this chap certainly does.

Later on, he performs Jumping Jacks. Jack is short for James, which is the Anglicization of Jacob, the name of the Hebrew patriarch.

Finally, we see basketball being played. Basketball, was once referred to as a Jewish sport. According to Douglas Stark, “Shortly after the game was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, it spread throughout the country and became particularly popular among Jewish immigrant children in northeastern cities because it could easily be played in an urban setting. Many of basketball’s early stars were Jewish, including Shikey Gotthoffer, Sonny Hertzberg, Nat Holman, Red Klotz, Dolph Schayes, Moe Spahn, and Max Zaslofsky.”

So, Keith, how did I do?

The Secret Jewish History of the Quiz Show

abundance bank banking banknotes
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have decided to be motivated by whatever I’m reading or watching for this blog. The book I’m reading is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy which, halfway through, couldn’t be less Jewish if it tried which makes it an excellent candidate.

So, I’m turning to what I’m watching which, among other things (HomelandBetter Caul Saul — both too obvious for a blog unless you think otherwise), is ITV’s Quiz, a three-part dramatization of the time, in 2001, that a married couple, Major Charles and Diana Ingram, together with an accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, successfully cheated their way to winning the quiz show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The first thing to say is that Diana Ingram (née Pollock) and her brother Adrian who is also depicted on the show are Jewish. They went to the same synagogue as Jewish journalist, Jon Ronson, as he recounts here. You can see them both in the trailer for the drama.

The judge in the trial, Geoffrey Rivlin QC, is, I’m pretty certain, Jewish.

The drama suggests that the rather nice but dim Major is manipulated by his smarter Jewish wife and her brother.

Widening the parameters, this game show, like all quiz shows, is about accumulating vast amounts of cash, quickly, and with very little physical effort — something Jews have been accused of doing throughout the ages.

Secondly, it is predicated on being smart and knowledgeable — more traits stereotypically associated with Jews. It would be interesting to know how many Jewish winners of the world’s quiz shows there have been and whether this figure is disporportionately high (or not). In the meantime, with a hat-tip to Glyn Green, you can watch what Yair Rosenberg in The Tablet called “The Most Jewish Performance Ever On A TV Game Show” here:

I would amend this to “The Most Jewish Performance Ever On A Diaspora TV Game Show” presumably because most Israeli game shows are pretty Jewy.

In the ITV dramatization, Quiz, as in real-life, the then Controller of Entertainment for ITV was Claudia Rosencrantz who, you guessed it, is Jewish. The co-inventor of the game show format was David Briggs (not Jewish as far as I’m aware) but portrayed by Elliot Levey who is. Michael Sheen, who does a good impression of host Chris Tarrant, went out with Sarah Silverman between 2014 and 2018.

In the drama, it is revealed that they based some of their format, the quiz master’s chair and low-key lighting, on that in the legendary British quiz show, Mastermind. The man who devised Mastermind in 1972 was a former RAF gunner Bill Wright who based it on his experience at the hands of the Gestapo during World War II. His interrogator’s demands for name, rank and serial number were transformed into the game show’s “name, occupation and specialist subject.” Wright retained the darkness, the intimidating chair, and its host was labeled as “Interrogator.”

One of the appeals of the show, is as one writer points out, “because it makes them feel smart. We sit on the couch and answer all the questions while watching the shmo on TV sweat it out.” I’m not going to claim that this joy of watching other people suffer, or schadenfreude, is an exclusively Jewish trait. But nor am I going to deny that we don’t also suffer from it.

Back to Quiz and one of the most famous game show cheating scandals was that of Twenty-One as depicted in the 1994 film, Quiz Show, where John Turturro plays Herb Stempel who it is revealed is part of a scam whereby producer Albert Freedman fixes his loss so a more ratings friendly contestant, Mark Van Doren, can win. The scandal is uncovered by an even smarter Jewish lawyer, Richard N. Goodwin.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was adapted and shown on Israeli television for the less impressive sum (in British terms at least) of one million Israeli shekels (current approximate value of £220,000).

Proving that not all Jews are clever is the fact that there has been only one winner of the jackpot.

The Secret Jewish History of My Little Pony

They’re not kosher animals but the horse features somewhat frequently in the Hebrew bible (in addition to the parts where it tells you not to eat them).

My Little Pony (MLP) is a creation of Hasbro, the toy firm created by three Jewish brothers, who also created such other Jewish toys as the Transformers and Mr. Potato Head.

My Little Pony: The Movie (1986) features the voices of such Jewish actors as Madeline KahnRhea Perlman and Tony Randall. Likewise, Twilight Sparkle has been voiced by Rebecca Shoichet in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series. Liev Schreiber voiced  The Storm King.

Dr. Hooves/Time Turner was named “Doctor Whooves” by fans because he allegedly resembled David Tenant’s Doctor Who who I have argued elsewhere is also Jewish.

Someone even went to the extent of adding a My Little Pony next to the little boy in the infamous picture of the Warsaw Ghetto roundup during the Holocaust.

Finally, it has been suggested here that My Little Pony is “a Jewish conspiracy to keep white men virgins and unable to breed.” This idea has been repeated elsewhere.

The Secret Jewish History of Harry Potter

artem-maltsev-3n7DdlkMfEg-unsplash

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

(Below are some impressionistic thoughts not based on any recent or detailed reading of either the books or the films.)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been criticized for “its complete lack of sexual identity, gender and religious diversity” given that all of the “main characters are all white, Christian, cisgender and heterosexual.” What is more, it has an echt-English setting, drawing heavily upon its elite public boarding school culture that are overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, Jewish undertones in “Harry Potter” are abundant. Consequently, if you Google around, he’s been read in terms of Judaism, the Bible, Kabbalah, and Jewish history.

One rabbi argues that Harry is a metaphor for Jewish life: The evil wizard Lord Voldemort is slavery in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust rolled into one. Another suggests that one can learn valuable lessons about the Holocaust from reading the books and watching the films.

Academics have got in on the act, too, arguing that “Harry Potter seems to follow a kabbalistic path of spiritual development.”

That’s because all sorts of mythologies and religions underpin the series but also because Potter is a blank, a floating signifier onto which we can project our own image.

Harry Potter’s backstory resembles that of Superman, himself based on Moses. His parents are killed and he is orphaned. Homeless, he is rescued and sent to live with his Muggle aunt and uncle. But rather than being raised in Pharoah’s palace or rural Kansas, he is domiciled in a cupboard under the stairs in suburban anonymity where his whitebread aunt and uncle seek to hide him, embarrassed by his Otherness.

Like most Jewish men, he is indeliby marked, with a scar burned onto his forehead.

Harry realizes his difference but just does not know where it comes from. In this sense, he resembles the “Hidden Jews,” or conversos, those Jews whose descendants were forced to convert to escape the Inquisition.

He also echoes Daniel Bell’s observation of the young Jew who is “helpless,” recognizing his distance from the Jewish culture from which he came and the Gentile culture into which he cannot enter. In this respect, Jewishness equals wizardry and muggledom is Gentility. Such a Jew wears a “double set of glasses” — did this characterization, I wonder, influence Rowling in any way?

Judaism, Jewish history, and the Bible is full of magic, divination, witches, golems and the like so it’s not a stretch to connect Jewishness to the world of wizardry.

Like Superman, his given names are bland, mundane, and ordinary. The sort of names a Jew wishing to hide his identity might choose. And like Clark Kent, as Sean Alexander has pointed out, he is bookish, bespectacled, and awkward around girls.

At the same time, the name “Potter” carries biblical connotations. In Jeremiah 18, God is compared to a Potter.

Harry is a mensch, championing the oppressed and the underdog (elves, giants, and the like). He is a model of self-sacrifice often putting himself in harm’s way to protect others.

Harry is also a messianic figure, there to save the world from the forces of evil and darkness which he does in a final, apocalyptic battle. He performs tikkun olam, ultimately saving the world, becoming a messianic figure.

Harry opposes a fascistic death-worshipping cult, led by a dictatorial ruler, who wishes to cleanse his race of any impurities. His followers use the racalist, eugenicist language of the Nazis. They inflict death and suffering. As Jenny Singer wrote in The Forward, “Rowling’s books borrow tremendously from the experience of Jews and other targeted groups in the Holocaust.” This metaphor has been seen by plenty of others who have observed traces of the Second World War in the franchise.

One of more the unfortunate ways that the series resembles Nazism, though, is the representation of the goblins of Gringotts. These bankers — a profession historically associated with Jews.  are hooked-nosed and swarthy, obsessed with gold and secrey. They have been criticized for replicating anti-Jewish tropes.

On the positive side, Rowling has admitted that at least one student (she implies that there may be others), Anthony Goldstein, was Jewish. Some believe that the Black family may also be Jewish given how it is a typical Jewish last name.

In the spin-off series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them,”  sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein have a starring roles. The Goldstein sisters were confirmed by Rowling to be distantly related to Harry Potter’s Jewish classmate Anthony Goldstein. They are joined by Jacob Kowalski who is played by Jewish actor Dan Fogler. Some see a clear parallel between 1920s xenophobia and nativism in the first two parts of the spin-offs. 

In the movie adaptations, Harry is played by Jewish actor, Daniel Radcliffe, whose casting gives us the possibility of reading him as Jewish. He is joined other Jewish actors, namely by Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, Miriam Margolyes as Professor Pomona Sprout, Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, and Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Hooch.

By this token, though, the casting of Radcliffe as Harry and Isaacs and Bonham Carter as Malfoy and Lestrange respectively complicates any simplistic readings as Potter as Jewish versus the Nazi-like Death Eaters.

 

 

 

The Secret Jewish History of Tintin

He’s ginger, he’s Belgian, and he is constantly accompanied by a dog. He made his appearance in a Catholic publication. Nothing sounds less Jewish than that. To paraphrase the sage Lenny Bruce, if Asterix is Jewish then Tintin is goyish.

In fact, his creator, Hergé, has been accused of antisemitism, owing to his dodgy depictions of Jews. The Shooting Star, first published in 1941, had a stereotypical Jewish villain, a wealthy industrialist called Blumenstein. One panel depicted two Jews welcoming the end of the world because it meant they didn’t have to pay off their creditors. They were removed from the later editions and Blumenstein was renamed Bohlwinkel from the fictional country of Sao Rico (although, as Harry Thompson points out, this, too, was a Jewish surname). Thus, “[b]y a disastrous accident, Tintin was escorting a German professor and his colleagues to the Arctic to defeat the forces of the international Jewish financial conspiracy.”

Furthermore, Hergé’s early cartoons appeared in Le Petit Vingtieme, a conservative and Catholic publication with pro-Nazi leanings. He was even accused of Nazi collaboration.

Tintin’s characterization of the Congolese, the Japanese, and the Soviet Union have come in for particular criticism, owing to their blatantly racist, imperialistic, and propagandistic depictions.

And women are notable by their almost complete absence.

But is there a secret Jewish history to Tintin?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Tintin is a blank. His eyes and mouth are mere dots. And he does not even have a family name. Although he is white, male, and European, we know very little else about him. Thus, he becomes a floating signifier, a generic everyman onto which our fantasies can be projected. So, why not Jewishness, too?

As an intrepid reporter, Tintin has traveled all the world and even to the Moon (can he be added to my roster of Jews in Space or Jews on the Moon?). He is the archetypal wanderer, a nomad, faciliated by his bachelor journalistic lifestyle. His constant companion is his dog, Snowy.

Solving crimes, he brings tikkun olam to end his adventures. He is a mensch embodying the values of being an upstanding, decent human being, valuing friendship, loyalty, and honor.

Tintin fights the powerful. He has worked against Imperial Japan and other European dictatorships. King Ottakar’s Sceptre attacks fascism, with one villain named Musstler, a combination of Mussolini and Hitler. The fictional lands of “Borduria” and “Syldavia” have been read as representations of Nazi Germany and its victims respectively. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is  anti-Soviet propaganda, and totalitarianism is addressed in The Calculus Affair. Even when Tintin befriends the powerful, such as General Alcazar in Tintin and the Picaros, hed so on the condition that the General refrains from reprisal killings. 

He befriends the oppressed and champions the underdog, fighting slavers (The Red Sea Sharks), and defending other minorities such as the Roma (The Castafiore Emerald) and the Incas. Hergé attacks lynching in Tintin in America, as well as the policy of driving native Americans onto reservations.

In an excellent article, “Tintin, human rights and politics,” Sarah Joseph examines Tintin’s record. In addition to the above examples, she points out how

Rampant capitalism is satirised in Tintin in America and demonised via the war-mongering multinational oil companies in The Broken Ear and Land of Black Gold. The respective multi-millionaires in Flight 714, Tintin’s main adversary Rastopopoulos and Laszlo Carreidas, compete in a memorable scene over who is the most evil. Alcazar’s rebel Picaros in Tintin and the Picaros are sponsored by the International Banana Company, an ironic nod to the role of multinational fruit exporters in Latin American unrest.

Herge tackled racism in The Blue Lotus, particularly when Tintin and his young friend Chang laugh at the ridiculous racist stereotypes ascribed to Chinese people. The book is also scathing in its representation of arrogant Westerners in the Shanghai International Settlement. Decades later, Herge repeated the dose in his respectful portrayal of Tibetan monks in Tintin in Tibet.

As “Ginger Jews,” points out, there is even a link between Jews and red hair, going as far back as the Bible. So it’s not entirely improbable that, in one early adventure, Tintin is mistaken for a Jew.

This happens in the original version of Land of Black Gold (surely this title provided the inspiration for Asterix’s later adventure) that was called Tintin au Pays de Palestine. It was set in British-occupied Palestine complete with Jewish shop fronts whose signage was in Hebrew. Tintin lands at the port of Haifa where the British police arrest him. He is then captured by the Irgun, who believe him to be of their own agents named “Salomon Goldstein.” By 1971, these contemporary references to the British Mandate and the Irgun were no longer seen as relevant. They  were removed and changed at the request of Hergé’s British publisher, transferring it to the fictional state of Khemed. The various iterations that the story from Tintin in the Land of Palestine to Land of Black Gold went through can be found here

Louis Blin explains how Land of the Black Gold:

happens in Saudi Arabia, and it’s focused on the Jewish/Palestinian question. He [Hergé] was paying attention to this question long before anyone else was thinking about it, and he even linked it to oil, which wasn’t even a big thing at that time in this region. All the oil was [perceived to be] in Central Asia and Iran […] He didn’t take any sides in the book. There were Jews in it, and there were Arabs in it, but there were no good guys or bad guys. That wasn’t Herge’s way.

Harry Thomson, on the other hand, suggests that Land of the Black Gold “was extremely uncomplimentary about the post-war British regime in Palestine.”

According to Louis Blin,

When the book was sent for English publication, the British publisher insisted that Jews had to be “good guys,” and that Palestine should be substituted with a fictional country. Rather than compromise his political neutrality, Herge opted to undertake a complete rewrite and remove all the Jewish characters from the English translation. Subsequent French editions have also been based on the English version, and only a few copies of the original, French language, first edition remain. This is surely one of the least publicised cases of historical revisionism in the literary world.

Perhaps these palimpsestic Jewish traces remain in the character, leading Jewish director Steven Spielberg to make a 3D computer animated version in 2011, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Here, Spielberg cast the Jewish actor Gad Elmaleh in the role of Omar Ben Salaad, a character who bears curious resemblance to the director himself. But maybe the Jewishness of Spielberg’s Tintin lies in its wholesomeness. He has whitewashed him, scrubbed him clean of any trace of the antisemitism, racism, colonialism that blighted the comic books, particularly in their early incarnations.

Locked Down: Jailed Jews or Jews in Jail*

hallway with window
Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

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.

 

Victor Ziegler: A Postscript

In my book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, I detailed how the character of Victor Ziegler in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) can be read as Jewish. In fact, in my follow up book, I found the evidence that proved it. But one thing that escaped my attention in the twenty years I have been watching, teaching, and studying that film was the level of his anxiousness.

On one level, Eyes Wide Shut can be read as a film about status. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is obsessed with it. Note how he reacts when his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), points out that Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) is a pretty good piano player for a physician. He is extremely quick to point out that Nightingale is, indeed, not a doctor. Bill flashes around his state medical board card at every opportunity. Being a doctor matters to Bill.

But Ziegler is equally concerned for his status and two moments in the film code this. The first is when the prostitute Mandy (Julienne Davis) overdoses in his bathroom. Ziegler is concerned that what he perceives as an embarrassing problem is removed as quickly as possible. However, if he was so superrich as we might be led to believe then why is it an issue?

The second is during the long billiards table scene (pictured above) when Ziegler is afraid that Bill almost screwed it up for him by infiltrating the orgy. From this and what he tells Bill, we can deduce that Ziegler acts as some sort of middleman: “I recommended that cocksucker to those people and he’s made me look like a complete asshole [my emphasis].”

Note how he says “those people” as one might say “you people.” Those people are not his people. As he explains, “Who do you think those people were? Those were not just some ordinary people. If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.” Presumably, Ziegler does not sleep so well at night particularly since he’s fucked up and hence why he goes to such lengths to shut Bill up by having him followed.

Those people are the modern descendants of the sorts of people we see in the portraits behind Ziegler’s head. “All the Best People,” as Lord Wendover calls them in Barry Lyndon (1975). But those people are presumably not Ziegler’s ancestors.

So why are those portraits there then? As we point out in our book, Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film, in screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s first draft, Ziegler’s great-grandfather is described as “The Robber Baron.” Raphael writes in the script how “Old New York and new York are meeting in the mansion which great-grandfather ZIEGLER , the Robber Baron built.” In more detail, Raphael describes how “ZIEGLER is old money and beginning to be some-thing of an old man, but he still has the buccaneering confidence of a man who was once described as ‘the rich man’s Averell Harriman’.”

At this point, his first name is Frank or Francis, but it later changes to Paul. Only in the 1996 draft does he become Victor, an investment banker, and his wife is named Ilona.

These changes, and the fact that Kubrick first hired one Jewish actor/director in Harvey Keitel, and then replaced him with another in Sydney Pollack, render Zielger not as old money but as new money, a parvenu, nouveau riche social climber like Barry Lyndon.

As with much in Eyes Wide Shut, those portraits are a facade — did the Ziegler family really emigrate with them or did Ziegler buy them lock, stock, and barrel when he bought his New York townhouse? The seem far too classy for a man who likes to hang art objectifying women in his vulgar and oversized bathroom.

Or, perhaps they serve as surveillant eyes on Ziegler, the middle man, the hedge fund manager or investment banker, whose job, like Bill’s and so many other workers in the film, is to provide a service — making superrich people even richer. To remind him where he stands on the social spectrum, out of reach of the top.

But Ziegler is also concerned for his own position, which Bill threatens, much as the newer Jewish arrivals from Eastern and Central Europe (like Kubrick’s ancestors) threatened to undermine the already-established one of the German Jews who immigrated a generation earlier.

Ziegler is acutely aware that his own status, as the Jewish middleman — servicing profit and orgies., is not secure. He remains merely the court Jew whose real-life avatar was Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the subjet of the notorious antisemitc Nazi propaganda film, Jud Süß (1940) directed by Kubrick’s wife’s uncle Veit Harlan.