Hollywood doesn’t get Jews

We don’t do a lot of entertainment media criticism here at GetReligion. Our bread and butter is the world of journalism, generally that done by daily newspapers. But this article, titled “Why can’t Hollywood get Jews right?,” is worth the sojourn.

That headline might strike you as a bit odd. Not to play into anti-Semitic stereotypes but, I mean, c’mon: If anyone gets Jews, it’s Hollywood. Right?

Wrong, as Amy Klein explains in this article for Salon. And Klein knows a thing or two about Jews; she was the religion editor of The Jewish Journal when I arrived there in 2007.

Klein’s real (kosher) beef is with the ridiculous depiction of ultra-Orthodox Jews — those would be your Haredi Jews — who often appear as caricatures of themselves. She begins with:

Why can’t any movie get payes — the long, curly sidelocks on Hasidic men — right?

It’s not like there aren’t any Jews working in the film industry. Granted, they’re probably Reform/Reconstructionist/atheist/High Holy Days or Buddhist Jews, but from “A Price Above Rubies” to “A Stranger Among Us,” films that purportedly give a glimpse into the closed world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism come off as phony to those in the know.

From here, Klein turns her attention to a new film starring Jesse Eisenberg about the young Hasidic Jews who were lured into helping Israeli drug lords smuggle ecstasy into the United states. (Much more on that crazy story here.) Klein writes of “Holy Rollers”:

The payes on actor Jesse Eisenberg are like costume pasties emanating awkwardly from his curly, too-long-for-a-Hasid hair. That didn’t stop the stark, sentimental and somewhat contrived indie from being nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Of course it was! What do non-Jews know? Or to paraphrase the “Holy Rollers” bad boy Yosef, played by Justin Bartha: One goy! Forget about him. God does.

Perhaps my demand for authenticity is silly or naive. After all, this is an era of reality television (the ultimate oxymoron). But “Holy Rollers,” filmed a block away from my father’s house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, has the arrogance to say it’s offering insight into a secret universe when it’s overstuffed with mistakes like a hot pastrami from Katz’s (non-kosher) deli.

The Gold family (can you get any more generic?) hectically toss around random Yiddish words — bubbeleh (darling), gelt (money), and baruch (blessed is God) when they mean “kineh hore” (ward off the evil eye). Interestingly, Adam Goldberg’s Jewsploitation satire, “The Hebrew Hammer,” used the same words correctly, and it’s part of what made the film a cult classic. It doesn’t help “Holy Rollers” that many of the actors, like Eisenberg, speak English perfectly rather than using the mishmash of English and Yiddish that most yeshiva boys speak, having grown up in Yiddish-only homes so that their sentences come out mangled: “You vant I should make something for you for dinner to eat?” It’s a cadence captured perfectly by Philip Roth in “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Other inconsistencies in “Holy Rollers” appear to be many — certainly enough to let me give the Los Angeles Times the day off.

My only regret with this article is that its focus on “Holy Rollers” limited its potential to discuss other movies that also have stumbled in their presentation of Jews. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” which was awful, comes to mind. (Klein has been down that road before.) The article also didn’t mention recent movies like “A Serious Man,” which, despite my disappointment, painted a compelling portrait of the Coen brothers’ Jewish youth, or “Inglourious Basterds,” which lacked any sense of religion but, in my mind, served as a great catharsis for Jews who didn’t have to live through the Holocaust but are pained by its reality.

To be sure, though, Klein is correct: Eisenberg’s payes, as seen in the trailer, look absurd and “The Hebrew Hammer” belongs on every boychick’s shelf.

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  • BC

    This blog often says that reporters should follow the AP stylebook, and only use the label, “fundamentalist,” if a group uses the term for itself.

    Shouldn’t the same go for the term, “ultra-Orthodox”? Does any Jewish group use the name for themselves?

  • Matt

    What about the film’s title? Is there any precedent for using the term “holy roller” to refer to Jews? It generally is a derisive (though sometimes embraced by the referants) term for Pentecostalist Christians.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Hollywood seldom gets anything right, even when getting things right would be straightforward and cost no more than what they end up doing. Take science, for example… oy.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I debated whether to use the term “ultra Orthodox” because, as BC noted, it’s not commonly used. However, in this case, I wanted to give a little attention because the NYT used it in an otherwise well-done story last month and one of our readers found the expression a bit odd. While it can have a pejorative connotation, it doesn’t implicitly and it is a descriptor broadly used in the Jewish community.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Shouldn’t the same go for the term, “ultra-Orthodox”? Does any Jewish group use the name for themselves?

    While it can have a pejorative connotation, it doesn’t implicitly and it is a descriptor broadly used in the Jewish community.

    Although, it should be noted, the Haredim do not generally use the term to apply to themselves. No Haredim will ever tell you “We are ultra-Orthodox,”; this is because they see themselves as practicing normative Judaism, with all non-Orthodox groups as having deviated, in some fashion, from the traditional faith. This, coupled with the fact that “ultra-Orthodox” is often used as a pejorative (especially in Israel, where the Haredim are hugely unpopular)means that few if any Haredim will ever use it to apply to themselves.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Brad– Ultra-Orthodox may be a descriptor used in the Jewish Community-but which part of –or– all of the Jewish Community.
    Do those being so labeled use it? Or other members of the Jewish Community (which seems to be very liberal overall) to denigrate their not-so-liberal brethren. It is liberal Protestants who are most likely to throw around the word “holy rollers” to denigrate their not-so-liberal brethren–and they don’t mean it kindly as a mere “descriptor” but usually as an insult. Frankly, the times I have heard a Jewish person use the word “Ultra-Orthodox” it has usually been with a sneer and used as a pejorative. Just because the mighty but sinking Times calls a religious group a certain word shouldn’t be an entre into making a pejorative acceptable.

  • John D

    I flinch when I see the term “ultra-Orthodox.” It’s a convenient shorthand that manages to obscure reality. It also feeds into the gut feeling so many people have that sharply differentiated religious practices are somehow more “authentic.” “They’re more orthodox than the Orthodox!” After all, “orthodox” itself carries the implication that other groups have it wrong.

    On a personal level, while I’m aware of the use in the phrases “Orthodox Jews” and “Orthodox Christians,” as a fairly heterodox individual, I wish there was a construction that didn’t imply that these groups had the lock on correct and normative practice.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Although, it should be noted, the Haredim do not generally use the term to apply to themselves. No Haredim will ever tell you “We are ultra-Orthodox,”; this is because they see themselves as practicing normative Judaism, with all non-Orthodox groups as having deviated, in some fashion, from the traditional faith. This, coupled with the fact that “ultra-Orthodox” is often used as a pejorative (especially in Israel, where the Haredim are hugely unpopular)means that few if any Haredim will ever use it to apply to themselves.

    Spot on.

  • Martha

    Getting religious details right? I still remember a film that had a cardinal wearing a rosary beads around his neck instead of a pectoral cross :-)

  • Julia

    Martha:

    Very funny.

    Recently a local reporter covered a Catholic ordination, remarking that there were 5 “acolytes” to be ordained. He specifically mentioned an older man who had been a deacon for a number of years before deciding to go for priesthood.
    Then he noted with surprise that a second (20ish) ordinand was also a deacon before he was ordained a priest. If he had checked further he would have discovered that all 5 of the “acolytes” had also been deacons first.

    The reporter normally did the courthouse beat.

  • MJBubba

    I smiled at the “holy rollers” toss-off. It brought to mind the hair rollers needed for those fabulous temple curls. It did not seem to me to invoke any real reference to Pentecostalism or high-level religiosity; I simply read it as a pun.

  • R.S.Newark

    Hey, wait a minute you missed completely that very foundation of TV Jewishness; “Bridget Loves Bernie”. So you got to get it right.

  • MeanchemP

    I have argued elsewhere that calling a Haredi ultra-orthodox is akin to using the N-word. Instead, we should adopt the literal English translation of the word haredim whch is “Quakers”.

    Over 350 years ago, Gorege Fox founded the Society of Friends in Engalnd. Given his belief that there was no need for a profeesional clergy nor dedicated houses of worshp, the British Church Esatblishmenr dis not look favorably at at his denomination. He was hauled into court where a British judge upen his conviction pejoratively called him Fox a “Quaker” becuase he preached that his flock should “TREMBLE at the word of the Lord”.(issiah Chaptr 66, verse 5).

    Since it was originally pejorative, I propose that Society of Friends drop the word Quakers in describing themselves.

    The Haredim on the other hand proudly proclaim that they tremble at the word of the Lord an should be named Quakers in recogntion of that fact.

  • HBanan

    Meancham, that could be confusing & will never happen, so why keep arguing for this? I think the Friends are rightly proud of being Quakers especially because in history books the Quakers were such heroes of abolition. Even if the term started off pejorative it has gained a history to be proud of and they have adopted it themselves. I’m thinking the Haredim probably like their name, too & don’t want to be confused with a Christian group. Also, why use “Quaker” instead of “Trembler,” which would be a direct use of the passage. I won’t call them ultra-orthodox, though I think the N-word also has such a longer and nastier history than the “U-word” and belongs to an entirely different category of insults that they aren’t much alike at all. There are many things I would not like being called that are inaccurate and derogatory, but only the racial or ethnic slurs are akin to the N-word.

  • MenachemP

    HBanan

    meancham in hebrew meams “tongue in cheek”

    As for the N-word comparison, I am not so far off.

    In Hebrew, the pejorative for Haredi is not the English “ultra-Orthodox”, but “Shachor” – English “Black”.

    A secular Israeli will be wont to say “The ‘Blacks’ are lazy, leeches, parasites, and non-patriotic. ‘Blacks’ smell. We should send all the ‘Blacks’ back to where they came from -Brooklyn”

    Sound familiar?

  • Jon in the Nati

    Since it was originally pejorative, I propose that Society of Friends drop the word Quakers in describing themselves.

    This is different than “ultra-Orthodox”, because even though Quaker was initially a pejorative, the Friends took it and made it their own and applied it to themselves. The same cannot be said for “the u-O word”.

    I have argued elsewhere that calling a Haredi ultra-orthodox is akin to using the N-word. Instead, we should adopt the literal English translation of the word haredim whch is “Quakers”. [...] The Haredim on the other hand proudly proclaim that they tremble at the word of the Lord an should be named Quakers in recogntion of that fact.

    I would suggest that you take your suggestion to the proper authorities, where I am certain it will be enthusiastically received.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I do believe this conversation is straying. Let’s get back to how the media covers religion — in this case Jews.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And what do you think of Trembling Before G_d?

    A cinematic portrait of various gay Orthodox Jews who struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation.

    The “ultra-Orthodox” tag never fails to remind me of Buckley’s remarks

    Q: How do I keep from being “superpatriotic”?
    A: Try being superunpatriotic

    So, how do I avoid being ultra-Orthodox? Try being ultraheterodox.

    “Ultra-” has itself become a pejorative, like “extremist”. Notice that there are “ultraconservatives”, but no “ultraliberals”. They are all “moderates”.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I guess this answers the question of AP style:

    JERUSALEM — Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, which has traditionally …

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    I hear “Black hat” as the main pejorative.


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