APRIL 21, 2020
IN 2011, I went to a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch in New York City. The 1971 film was being shown as part of the Lincoln Center’s “Jew Wave” festival, a celebration of Jewish cinema from the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Touch features Elliott Gould as David, a Jewish archaeologist visiting Sweden who embarks on a relationship with a married woman. David lost much of his family in the Holocaust, which has left him a bitter, angry man, hating himself as much as he hates the world. He is charming, erudite, and magnetic, but also a violent and overbearing lover who has, to quote Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” (released two years earlier), “torn everyone who reached out” for him. David seems incapable of real intimacy and blames others for his shortcomings, yet he at least has enough self-awareness to recognize the damage he causes to himself and those around him. This is an important caveat, as we shall see.
After the screening there was a Q-and-A session with Elliott Gould and then up-and-coming filmmakers Ben and Josh Safdie. It was an awkward and illuminating exchange, one that retrospectively reveals much about the views of Jewish masculinity that underpin the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film, Uncut Gems. As recounted by Jonathan Poritsky,
They kept nudging Gould, trying to impress their own beliefs about his roles and his life upon him. They even thought David, the lecherous and violent archaeologist at the center of The Touch, represents some kind of a gruff, raw masculinity, a Jewish hero of sorts. “You’re wrong,” Gould insisted.
Many of the same qualities that make David such an unmensch are present in Howard, the Jewish protagonist (played by Adam Sandler) of Uncut Gems. However, there are several important differences between these two characters and films that speak to their contrasting embodiments and conceptions of Jewish masculinity. David has enough emotional acumen to understand that his self-loathing, nihilism, and selfishness have a negative effect. Bergman allows David to grapple with the moral consequences of his unrestrained drives, showing his struggle between his high-minded intellectual pursuits and the psychological morass into which his behavior propels him. This is symbolized in the film by a medieval wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that David discovers in a local church. It is being devoured from the inside by insects. This process of internal erosion within a mysterious religious artifact becomes a kind of totem for David, representing the battle between the profound and the profane in his own life. It is also noted that the statue was brought from somewhere else to the village, a possible reference to David’s displacement as a diaspora Jew, which may be contributing to his internal conflicts.
Conversely, Howard never displays an iota of self-reflection, unapologetically trampling all of his relationships in pursuit of the ineffable object of his desire, the eponymous uncut gem to which he sacrifices everything and everyone in his life. The gem, acquired by Howard from an Ethiopian Jewish mine through his work as a jeweler, bewitches everyone who crosses its path, its shimmering surface allowing its beholder to envision untold riches and pleasures. It becomes an object of obsession for Howard, an illusory panacea for all of his problems that prevent him from addressing his various addictions and broken relationships.
The Touch was made two years after Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint exploded onto the American cultural scene, redefining the representation of Jewish sexuality in mainstream literature. It tells the story of Alexander Portnoy, who, like David and Howard, is a highly libidinous Jewish male whose sexual desires cause undue complications in his life. His titular complaint is “a disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” While some see in Roth’s work little more than an “admixture of solipsism and lust […] mitigated by nothing more than a thin veneer of intellectualism,” one cannot deny that his characters struggle with the meaning and consequences of their often destructive drives, sexual and otherwise. Through these struggles, Roth explores the moral and ethical implications of what it means to be a fully emancipated Jewish male in a society that made such an existence possible for the first time in two millennia.
David, Howard, and Portnoy are similar in their need to define their masculinity among the gentiles through their sexual prowess with the shiksas in their midst. But of the three, Howard alone never takes the time to examine the toll of his actions on his relationships and responsibilities vis-à-vis his family, friends, and profession. He shares David and Portnoy’s self-destructive impulses and behavior, but with no inkling of altruism or concern for others. If Socrates’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is true, then Howard’s comeuppance at film’s end is appropriate. But even here, the Safdies refuse to grapple with the moral implications of Howard’s behavior. His end is just a way to bring the film’s manic proceedings to a halt, which might otherwise run on ad infinitum in a nightmarish Jewish pulp version of Nietzsche’s eternal return.
None of this would be very significant if Uncut Gems was just another piece of disposable pop cinema. There is no denying the filmmakers’ technical skill in crafting a viscerally engaging and disturbingly suspenseful slice of contemporary Jewish life. Nor can one deny the magnetism and believability of Sandler’s performance as Howard. Having made a career of playing overgrown man-children, this seems to be the role Sandler has been building toward the whole time. As with Punch Drunk Love, this film places Sandler’s usual emotionally stunted persona in a serious adult drama. Ultimately, however, what we get from Sandler’s character is the same asinine, juvenile behavior, a sophomoric putz disguised as a tragic figure. Critics have largely bought this deception, as the film has received “universal acclaim” on Metacritic, appeared on many prestigious Top 10 lists, and garnered numerous other accolades such as Best Director at the New York Film Critics Circle and Best Actor and Original Screenplay at the National Board of Review. This “universal acclaim” gives a certain cultural validation to the film’s depiction of Jewish masculinity, rendering it acceptable and even commendable. It has, in other words, been deemed kosher in the eyes of high culture, and the real-life Jewishness of the film’s writer-directors and leading man gives it further credence. These critical vindications and Jewish exonerations make it necessary to analyze precisely what the film reveals about contemporary Jewish masculinity.
Andrei Tarkovsky wrote that film is the “sculpting of time.” By looking at Uncut Gems and other contemporary Jewish films, we get a rendering of Jewish life at the dawn of the 2020s. Half a century ago, Jewish artists like Elliott Gould, Leonard Cohen, and Philip Roth embodied a new breed of sexually liberated Jewish male as part of the general diversification of sexual expression in mainstream culture. Their work grappled rigorously and honestly with the moral and philosophical implications of their newfound freedom. But perhaps we need to look further back to unpack the full ramifications of the Safdie brothers’ portrait of the modern Jewish-American male. A century ago, the Soviet Jewish author Isaac Babel was also exploring the question of Jewish masculinity in his short story collections Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories. Red Cavalry follows a Jewish writer’s initiation into the new Soviet world being built by the Bolsheviks during the Polish-Soviet War. These stories show Babel trying to make sense of the loss of traditional humanism and Jewish values, depicting the beginning of the end of Judaism as a religion in Soviet lands and the dawn of the new Soviet man, who was supposed to replace the supposedly antiquated Jewish one. Of course, there is and never has been one single type of Jewish man, as Babel reminds us in Odessa Stories, which depicts the rise and fall of the Jewish gangster Benya Krik. He is another type of antiquated Jew that Babel shows being rendered obsolete by the new Soviet order, which no longer has any room for either his wilful individualism or Judeocentrism; the former quality separates him from the shtetl Jews massacred in Red Cavalry, while the latter unites him with them. In retrospect, it is now clear that Babel’s stories were apocalyptic tales portraying the end of certain Jewish ways of life that had existed in Eastern Europe for centuries. While there is definitely a sense, in these stories, of the sun setting on that old form of existence, it’s unclear if Babel knew just how prophetic they were.
Which brings us back to Uncut Gems, a work that seems to ask, albeit unintentionally, if this is the end of the fully liberated, sexualized Jewish male celebrated and analyzed by Roth and his peers. If Howard is truly the direct descendant of David and Portnoy, then he seems to be the end of this particular cultural genetic line. Howard may share their inflated libidos, but their sense of moral responsibility and philosophical self-awareness has completely atrophied. The liberated Jewish males of the ’60s and ’70s were reincarnations of the gangsters, machers, and mensches of the disappearing shtetls and insulated Jewish urban enclaves Babel depicted in his fiction. A century after Babel chronicled this transformation of Jewish masculinity in Eastern Europe, Uncut Gems seems to point to a similar process happening today in the West. Decades hence, the film might be viewed as the cinematic death knell of the Jewish male libertine, introspective or otherwise. It’s not purely a coincidence, after all, that the #MeToo movement has, at the same time, taken aim at Howard-like figures in real life. What then is the future of Jewish masculinity on screen?
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Portnoy is “unmanned” by an Israeli woman whose military service is incommensurate with his self-conception of his assertive masculinity. The novel shows that, however contentious it may have been, a relationship certainly existed between American and Israeli Jews. Though generally assimilated into broader American culture, Portnoy still experiences unresolved tensions between his Jewish and American identities, as exemplified by his disappointing encounter with the Sabra. Howard, conversely, goes through the motions of being Jewish by celebrating Passover with his family and exploits his Jewish roots to acquire merchandise from his Ethiopian coreligionists — but all of this is superficial. Being Jewish doesn’t hinder him in any way and serves no meaningful role in any of his decisions. Howard’s drives are the only factors motivating his actions; his Judaism is purely symbolic for the Safdie brothers, not something to investigate. All that matters to Howard is the gem, the McGuffin.
Contrast the ease with which Howard renders his perfunctory Judaism meaningless with the struggle of Yoav, the protagonist of the 2019 Israeli film Synonyms, to abandon his Jewish-Israeli identity after moving to France following his mandatory military service. Like David in The Touch, he is an angry young man in the diaspora, scarred by his experiences. Surrounded by other young people facing various existential crises, his decision to attempt to deny his Israeli identity, albeit ultimately untenable, is at least an ethical choice indicative of someone capable of self-reflection. Like the protagonist of Babel’s Red Cavalry, he is a Jewish soldier in a changing world that threatens Jewish existence itself; this time, it’s a Europe where antisemitism and attacks on Jews have reached levels unseen since World War II. The film eventually reveals the unsustainable nature of Yoav’s decision, highlighting that national, ethnic, and religious identities are difficult categories that demand vigilant examination if one is to lead a thoughtful and meaningful life. Notably, Yoav is a considerate, nonthreatening love interest, depicted almost asexually, especially compared to Yaron, his Israeli co-worker, who wears his Israeli identity on his sleeve like a badge of honor, daring others to display the inherent antisemitism that he believes lies beneath every French person’s cultured demeanor. Yaron’s bloody end seems to indicate that writer-director Nadav Lapid sees no future for such belligerent Jewish-Israeli masculinity, at least outside of Israel.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, by Romanian writer-director Radu Jude, is a recent film that most closely captures the irreverent humor, sexual freedom, and intellectual rigor of the Jew Wave. Tellingly, the film’s protagonist, a writer-director trying to mount a public reenactment in Bucharest of the 1941 Odessa massacre by Romania’s Fascist government, is a woman named Mariana. Like Portnoy, she is equally driven by her ethical and libidinous impulses. She argues over critical theory with her friends, fearlessly confronts the misogyny and antisemitism of both her (professional) male superiors and subordinates, and isn’t afraid to sleep with and dispose of her lovers based on the degree to which they please her. Like Yoav, and unlike Howard, Mariana has to contend with both the legacy of genocidal antisemitism and its contemporary resurgence in present-day Europe. She doesn’t have the luxury to simply ignore it, as Howard does, though given the massive uptick in antisemitic crimes in New York City in the past year, one gets the sense that Uncut Gems wouldn’t be able to skirt the issue so easily if it was filmed today.
Mariana is the exception that proves the rule, as none of the other protagonists of last year’s notable Jewish films share her unique combination of sexual and intellectual libertinage and moral responsibility. Elsa from Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a preposterously strident and implausibly assertive version of an Anne Frank–like figure hiding from the Nazis during the Holocaust, comes closest. She, along with Jojo’s philosemitic mother, transforms the eponymous Nazi youth into an antifascist through a combination of will and intellectual reasoning. Elsa is like a farfetched teenage version of Mariana, but without the sexual license. Shawn Snyder’s To Dust, a buddy-dramedy about a Hasidic Jew and the biology professor who helps him come to terms with his wife’s death, argues that the highest form of Jewish masculinity is menschkeit, which can be defined as ethically rigorous behavior where one treats others the same way as one would like to be treated. There is no question of sexual libertage here; after all, the film’s one major female character is already dead. Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty, about a young Soviet-Jewish American man that agrees to take his grandfather’s elderly friends to their comrade’s funeral while chauffeuring a young disabled black woman amid a citywide riot in contemporary Milwaukee, presents a perfect specimen of the dominant trajectory of Jewish masculinity in Western cinema today. Vic, the protagonist, practices a nonsectarian form of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair the world) with every fiber of his being, while also embodying a nonthreatening love interest who never insists on his sexual prerogatives. Practicing tikkun olam is also the extent of his Judaism, which is purely nominal and unspoken in the film; one has to read between the lines and understand the history of Soviet Jewish immigration to the North America in order to understand that Vic and his Russian-speaking elderly wards are Jewish. He is the ideal Jewish male for a certain kind of intersectional fantasy version of what a racially and religiously harmonious future might look like, the next step in the evolution of the morally responsible and sexually domesticated Jewish male represented by Charlie in Marriage Story. Again, Charlie is not explicitly Jewish, but he is clearly a stand-in for writer-director Noam Baumbach, who is. Charlie has an affair, which precipitated his divorce, and he spends the whole film attempting to atone for his transgression in order to maintain a reasonable amount of his earnings and visitation rights with his son. Charlie is a radically original artist, but the film shows that he must curtail his (mildly) excessive sexual desires and freewheeling self-expression to be accepted back into his domestic community. By film’s end, he bears a far closer resemblance to Vic than to his forebears in the original Jew Wave.
A handful of last year’s films dealt with the legacy of the Jew Wave as paeans to a bygone era. Rolling Thunder Revue and Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love showed Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, respectively, at their creative peaks during that time. But these are both elegies to a moment of unprecedented freedom and artistic expression for Jewish artists that the films make clear can never be replicated. Of course, part of this is due to Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. But it is Bob Dylan’s whimsical commentary in the film, which mixes fact and fiction in such a freewheeling fashion that it makes it seem like the eponymous tour is more legend than reality, that particularly creates the sense of a singular time and place that will never come again. The Humorist, which tells the story of a Soviet Jewish comedian struggling to balance his professional duties and private desires on the eve of glasnost and perestroika, would fit in comfortably with the films of the Jew Wave. Like a Soviet Lenny Bruce, his novel brand of “insult comedy” elicits the unwanted attention of the nation’s censors and, ultimately, its security apparatus. Writer-director Michael Idov makes it clear that the film’s protagonist, Boris, suffers from Portnoy’s complaint, using comedy as a weapon to fight the antisemitic bureacrats running the USSR while simultaneously trying to fulfill his domestic duties as a husband and father and attempting to contain his ample libido. Lest one think that this shows that the archetypal Jewish libertine is alive and well in Eastern European cinema, we must remember that The Humorist is a period film. Its ambiguous ending implies that, like Dylan and Cohen, Boris is an antiquated relic whose bittersweet portrait only serves to remind us that he too is a thing of the past, albeit one with a potentially longer shelf life in Russia.
These films point to a new breed of Jewish mensch onscreen, one that is essentially agender. The only libertines represented here are, appropriately, from dying generations: Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan from the Jew Wave, and Boris from the last generation of Soviet Jews to live in the USSR before its collapse. It would be a pity if Howard were truly the final gasp of the Jew Wave. For all of their libidinal improprieties and ethically dubious sexual politics, these figures brought a vitality, intellectual freedom, and comic gusto to the screen, stage, and page that opened up new possibilities of artistic expression hitherto confined to private conversations and other highly restricted channels. They deserve a better epitaph than a narcissistic schmuck like Howard, who represents all of their worst instincts without any of their originality or intellectual daring. The next iteration of Jewish masculinity onscreen might be more kosher morally and politically, but it will lack the savor of liberation that permeated the irreverent prophets of the Jew Wave.