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Woody Allen, Poking the Jews

Debbie Burke
July 4, 2017

by Debbie Burke

AMID THE MANY films, stories, and scandals for which Woody Allen is famous and infamous, one question persists: When he writes and portrays Jewish characters, there is always the undercurrent of biting sarcasm, pointing inward, which leads one to ask if his shtik is a function of self-loathing, or is he just putting stock into an insanely successful formula that’s made him legendary, a motif that he’d be crazy not to repeat movie after movie?

This is nowhere more apparent than in the self-deprecating, absolutely hysterical, on-point clip of Woody Allen’s uncomfortable dinnertime experience with the fearsome Grammy Hall and the rest of the clan (word chosen intentionally) in Annie Hall -- the ultimate comic film scene about anti-Semitism. As the highly self-conscious Alvy Singer, Woody puts a guffaw-worthy spin on how he thinks gentiles regard Jews. Phumpfering for appropriate conversation, he is terrified at the dinner table with Annie’s family, and when talk goes to their daily goyishe concerns (swap meets, the size of a ham, church choirs), Grammy, who has probably never set eyes on a Jew in her many years, glares at him as if he were from another planet and sees him -- as do we all, including Alvy himself -- as a bespectacled, thick-bearded Jew with a ridiculous hat, an oversized suit jacket, and a gratuitously apologetic manner. Are we laughing at the Halls, at Alvy, or because we recognize something that makes us uncomfortable? (The same rabbinical character appears briefly in Take the Money and Run when Allen, playing the felon Virgil, is given a vaccine as part of a medical test group and is hit with its “one temporary side effect” in his own jail cell.)

What about in Bananas, as the hapless Fielding Mellish, who at a newsstand buys an issue of Commentary to go along with a pornographic magazine that he furtively stashes behind it. Allen may be saying that underneath his heritage of intellectual curiosity and political activism, there’s still a red-blooded American male who has the need to prop up a disappointing love life with nudes on paper. The audience relates because we expected him to be a “perv” — and to be well-read.

As the Jewish talent manager in Broadway Danny Rose, he’s struggling to get gigs for his clients. He’s hugely unsuccessful, and defends himself by perpetually raising his hands. “Don’t blame me!” he seems to say. How can we, if he’s just a sweet show biz shlemil?

In Celebrity, there’s a scene in the talk show’s green room in which a rabbi accuses the skinheads of eating the bagels. Is this paranoia? Entitlement? Injustice? Or just narishkayt (foolishness)?

In Deconstructing Harry, Woody’s character argues with his sister Doris, who has embraced every iota of her faith, offering no apology for her fervent Judaic pride. He accuses her of feeling superior. Religion, he states, creates groups that are “exclusionary, they force the concept of ‘the other’ so you know who you should hate.”

“You’re a self-hating Jew,” his sister snaps at him.

“I may hate myself, but not because I’m Jewish,” he responds.

The robotic Jewish tailor who’s swiveling around at Ginsberg & Cohen Computerized Fittings in Sleeper presents yet another stereotype. “Vat do you vant, jackets? Ve got jackets. Vat do you vant, trousers? Ve got trousers,” says the diminutive glass-headed, futuristic robot-tailor in a thick accent. The amiable robot sports a huge hook nose (of course), and quips, “Incidentally, I’m stuck vith three pieces of corduroy.” Woody plays Miles Monroe, who finds himself in the middle of a bickering session between the tailor and his partner who has rolled into the room.

In Oedipus Wrecks (part of Allen’s New York Stories), Sheldon Millstein finishes a purchase at a grocery store only to walk outside and find the impossible: his mother (played by the endearing Mae Questel, who once voiced Betty Boop) up in the sky, scolding him before a street full of nosy New Yorkers, and begging him not to get married to the shiksa to whom he’s engaged. A meddlesome Jewish mother? To say the least. The mortifying scene has flabbergasted Sheldon beyond comprehension. “Not here!” he implores his mom (then begs for cyanide). But there’s more. Sheldon has changed his last name to “Mills” to better assimilate into his fiancée’s family. Jewish mothers don’t corner the market on being inappropriately involved and cloyingly emotional with their children, but according to Woody, it sure seems like it.

More than as a faith with outward demonstrations of adherence (i.e., going to shul, praying, keeping kosher), Allen defines Jewishness for us as a worldview, a cultural and political leaning, an ever-present neurotic insecurity that makes his characters annoying and funny. Jewish identity, in his book, must be approached with a certain ironic detachment -- must, in fact, be defined by a certain ironic detachment -- or it is obnoxious and embarrassing.

ALTHOUGH WE SEE IT now in movies and TV, Allen shed some of the first light upon what psychologists term “disparagement humor.” His ribbing has a kinder and gentler quality than the blunt, insulting Don Rickles or the raw Alan King, but it’s Jewishly targeted nonetheless. Stuffed with cerebral references, his humor offers up a confusing and tangled mess of superiority, the fear of exclusion, tribal ties, smirking about real Jews, and an “at least I’m not as bad as” mentality. It may be impossible to discern whether, when we mock our own group, we are really expressing self-loathing or trying to reveal a collective human experience, as in, “You think society hates you? Well, you’re not alone in this, look at how stupid/klutzy/neurotic we are!” “Meta-disparagement” humor, deriding the group we are a part of, may only be slightly less offensive than putting down other groups. But according to psychologist Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., the danger is that by laughing at these jokes, we perpetuate the stereotypes that others have of us.

In his biography titled Woody Allen, A Life in Film, Richard Schickel surprisingly makes very little mention of Woody’s jokes about Jews (in fact, the book’s index does not include “faith,” “Jews,” “Judaism” or “religion”). Schickel only mentions that his subject does not identify as a Jew. “I have no way of knowing what age Woody was when he rejected God or his faith,” he writes (but he could have asked, because the second half of the book is a pretty in-depth interview). “He would occasionally play more ‘Jewish’ than at other times . . . but he never mentioned this choice in his scripts,” adds the author.

The disconnect is that Allen’s movies are, to many people, decidedly Jewish in nature. They tackle a lot of other issues (dating, sex and marriage; family; money and politics, to name a few) but they poke fun (both gently and uproariously) at the faith.

Of course, humor is personal, subjective and highly mysterious; there are reasons we find things funny deep in our gut. We may never know exactly how our sense of humor really works. We seem to be able to hold two opposing thoughts in our heads: that “anti-Jewish” jokes are offensive, but also that they sometimes echo certain truths (perhaps in exaggerated fashion) that we can concede are hilarious.

If you look forward to Woody Allen’s new film each year with keen anticipation, you are in the latter camp. You can conjure the image of, say, Mae Questel in the sky and burst out loud laughing at the preposterousness. And how she reminds you of your own mother.

Debbie Burke is the author of The Poconos in B Flat and the upcoming Glissando: A Story of Love, Lust, and Jazz (July 2018, Waldorf Publishing). She blogs about jazz at She also contributes to the music education website and is a guest columnist at