The new Hollywood Jew: Audiences, academics debate portrayals in two best picture nominees

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Is anti-Semitism in America alive, well and dangerous — or merely a figment of a paranoid people’s imaginations?

The old debate is undergoing a revival through the portrayal of Jews in two movies nominated for best picture Oscars.

Peter Sarsgaard stars as a smarmy Jewish bon vivant in “An Education.”

Depending on the viewpoint, “An Education” and “A Serious Man” represent either vile throwbacks to Jewish stereotypes in Nazi propaganda movies or creative works of art that show Jews, like other ethnicities, as multidimensional human beings.

The first attitude is expressed more often by “ordinary” moviegoers, while film critics and academics have rallied to the movies’ defense. So, surprisingly, has the Anti-Defamation League, usually the first to protest perceived slights against Jews.

The British import “An Education” centers on the not-unwilling seduction of Jenny, a bright 16-year-old English schoolgirl, by suave and unscrupulous David, a Jewish fine art speculator in his 30s.

Jenny, played by fetching Carey Mulligan, hailed as a latter-day Audrey Hepburn, is the pride of her middle-class family with her eyes set on Oxford.

Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Jewish physics professor in “A Serious Man.” photo/focus features

David (Peter Sarsgaard) readily proclaims his Jewishness, knows all the angles and fashionable places and fits naturally into the hustle and bustle of 1960s London, emerging from the austerity of the war and postwar years. Over the course of the movie, he is revealed to be an urbane scoundrel, who devalues middle-class neighborhoods and cons widows out of cultural artifacts, among other vices.

In other words, not a nice guy, and certainly not a nice Jewish boy.

When Irina Bragin, who teaches world and English literature at Touro College in Los Angeles, went to see “An Education,” she walked out in the middle. Later, in an article in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and in a subsequent interview, Bragin explained her reaction.

“This is an artful film which wraps old anti-Semitic messages into a pretty new package,” she wrote. “David resembles the parasitical Jew of Nazi propaganda films.”

Bragin was born in postwar Romania and left with her family when she was 12, but she remembers well the blatant anti-Semitism of her countrymen and the shrewdness of communist propaganda to vilify the regime’s enemies. These sensitivities, she thinks, may well account for her take on the film, as contrasted with the opinions of her husband, most film critics and other American-born Jews, who have little firsthand experience with anti-Semitic stereotypes and propaganda.

Bragin said she has received numerous supportive messages from people delighted that someone finally toak on the anti-Semitic nature of “An Education.”

Veteran print and Internet movie critic Joe Baltake, who is not Jewish, wrote Bragin that “this film should be offensive to any thinking, feeling person angered by injustice … What’s truly frustrating are the Jewish movie critics who remain firm in their convictions that the film isn’t anti-Semitic.”

In interviews with Jewish writers and academics who study American cinema and culture for a living, it is obvious that the current debate goes well beyond the merits of one or two films, but speaks both to the boundaries of artistic expression in a democracy and the standing and sensitivity of Jews in American society.

Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” detected no anti-Semitism in the film. On the contrary, by endowing Jews with traits, good or bad, long allowed to non-Jewish characters, “Jews have finally been given license to operate inside the same conventions as Christians,” he said. “For instance, Clint Eastwood has been blowing villains’ heads off for decades. Now the Jews of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ can do the same.”

Professor Howard Suber of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television has little patience for fellow Jews who object to the portrayal of an unlikable Jew or fear that such presentations will lead to anti-Semitism.

“That’s a simplified view of how people form attitudes,” Suber said. “In reality, films in general reflect feelings and beliefs that already exist in a society. Movies are not very effective in changing people’s minds.”

A different approach is taken by London-born filmmaker and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, who saw “An Education” as part of a familiar genre in English literature. “Read G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot or Agatha Christie, and the Jew is always the alien and the outsider,” Chetwynd said. “To the average Englishman, a Jew can never be truly English. If the character of David hadn’t been a Jew, there would have been no story.”

Lone Scherfig, the Danish director of “An Education,” has a simpler explanation for making the character of David Jewish. The film and the screenplay by Nick Hornby are based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, so there is a real David, who now lives in Israel and calls Lynn on her birthday, Scherfig said.

“If the original character had not been Jewish, we would not have included it,” she added.

Surprisingly, even the ADL and its watchdog national director, Abraham Foxman, have come to the defense of “An Education.”

In a statement, the ADL noted that “there is nothing in the film to suggest that the main character represents Jews as a whole, or even some Jews. To call it anti-Semitic would suggest that any depiction of bad behavior by a Jew is beyond the pale. That is not the view of ADL, and ADL does not find the film offensive.”

If “An Education” was created by non-Jewish “outsiders,” “A Serious Man” is the work of very Jewish insiders, Joel and Ethan Coen, which might make their “offense” either more or less forgivable. It is also “the most Jewish movie anyone has made in this country,” Gabler said.

Revisiting their 1960s childhood in suburban Minneapolis, the Coen brothers recreate their lives and mishpoche through their dark and slightly off-kilter glasses.

The title character is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a local university, a careful man who tries to do everything right. For his pains, he is rewarded with a wife who wants a divorce, two insufferable teenage children, a freeloading brother, assorted unctuous rabbis, greedy lawyers and more.

Much like the biblical Job, Gopnik persistently asks God why all this should be happening to him, a good, upright man, but he, and the audience, are not granted any answers.

Despite its completely Jewish focus, “A Serious Man” has not aroused as much public emotion and controversy as “An Education,” but has nevertheless uncovered some of the same fault lines in the Jewish psyche.

“ ‘A Serious Man,’ in my view, is even more anti-Semitic than ‘An Education,’ ” an e-mailer wrote to Bragin after her article appeared in the Jewish Journal.

To filmmaker Chetwynd, movies like “A Serious Man” and other self-critical films by Jews do more serious damage, because they are largely taken in the non-Western world as accurate reflections of how Jews behave and look at themselves.

“A Serious Man” didn’t strike professor Lester Friedman, who chairs the media and society program at Hobart and William Smith colleges, as anti-Semitic.

Yet he judged the film mainly as an updated, but not very funny, version of Woody Allen’s standard portrayal of the neurotic urban Jew.

“In the movies, the real change in the Jewish stereotype has been from the Jew as victim to the Jew as Israeli warrior or as merciless avenger,” Friedman said.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent