Woody Allen’s Jewish Soul

Like Woody Allen, I can remember a childhood when being Jewish caused me a certain deep unease, partly because of the shadow caused by the Holocaust and partly because of the anti-Semitism of some public school teachers. My parents whispered when they spoke Yiddish and even when using the word “Jew.” As I write Allen’s biography, I continue to be astonished at how boldly Jewish he has been in his films from the start, even constantly invoking his feelings about the Holocaust. And perhaps that is why a younger Jewish generation, more removed from those anxieties and memories, takes this aspect of him so casually and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neurotic comic persona.

The reality is that this candor was—and continues to be—revolutionary, just as ground-breaking as Allen’s other writing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astoundingly fresh and revelatory today as they were then. (Allen had good company in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman.) Allen’s work has deepened with the years, just as its Jewish content has continued to grow and unearth windows into his soul—but nowhere more so than in his most avowedly Jewish film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)in which his Orthodox Jewish past was treated (despite Allen’s religious skepticism) with a certain reverence and love. Sometimes that reverence is expressed with comedy, as with the compassionate but luckless subject of Broadway Danny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affectionate Jewish show-business ambiance of this heartfelt film but also the haunting words of simple wisdom that Danny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to conduct a moral life: “Acceptance, forgiveness, love.” (Words which are repeated twice, first by Danny/Woody and later by Tina/Mia.) A love for Israel has recently been expressed by Allen in his statement of support last October in the Jerusalem Post. Speaking of the double standard applied in the barrage of criticism of Israel, he said:

“I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don’t like Jews.”

“I’ve always been a big rooter for Israel,” Allen wrote in Tikkun in 2002.

Allen was quoted this year as saying he wanted to visit Israel for the first time with his two daughters and his wife.

Woody Allen became a comedy star at a time when every preconception about American life came into question. He entered a social milieu that somehow was waiting for and anticipating him. He was the antithesis of the traditional male hero: the archetypal schlemiel with a whining, high voice. His humor was very personal and unique; it was not interchangeable with other comedians. There was a presumption, whether it was true or not, that he was telling you something more personal and autobiographical about himself and his experiences.

It almost strains credulity that a Jewish comedian and film actor who placed his Jewishness front and center and consciously proclaimed it, utilizing constant references to his Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, and with ambivalent ways of defining gentiles (white bread and mayonnaise were the most popular reference) could capture the imagination of and even beguile a huge audience as Woody Allen has done. Jack Benny, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, and Groucho Marx preceded him, but these were not comics advertising their Jewishness; it was implicit and polite. Borscht-belt comics were open about their ethnicities by the 1950s, but they were entertaining largely Jewish audiences. Allen was a national comic from the start.

Allen’s boyhood was lived during the Holocaust from afar and he is obsessed with it. He wrote in Tikkun of his rage when reading Elie Wiesel‘s Night: “Wiesel made the point several times that the inmates of the camps didn’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War Two and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horrors Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.”

Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg on December 1, 1935 to a middle-class Jewish family in the Bronx, Allen has always been caught in the reality of his own Jewishness. His persona was the classic Jewish loser filled with lust. “He came along at exactly the right moment, in the sixties, when everything was being questioned about masculinity,” critic John Simon told me. “And he was extremely heterosexual, desperately so. And he worshipped women.” Forty-two films later, he is the only independent filmmaker who has consistently worked for decades, making some wonderful films, some good films, and some bad films. But he kept going and he is internationally beloved. There is no one else in his league. He has bedazzled the world with many indelible moments of romance, comedy, magic and even some morality tales.

His hard work has seen him through. His is a gigantic success story against the odds, but genius always has an inexplicable element to it. We all suffer, many of us have crippling, devastating childhoods, but few find ways of transmuting that pain into art. Early on he achieved a unique comic perspective—a comedic talent that is so instinctive perhaps he cannot fully understand it himself.

His forty-two films declare his Jewishness again and again. How many times does he turn into a rabbi or a Hasid? It’s hard to count, as are the references to the Holocaust. In Stardust Memories he tells an envious old classmate: “If I were in Poland I’d have been a lampshade.” He turns into a Hasid briefly in Take the Money and Run and Annie HallThere are other characters who are rabbis in Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors. When he is trying to become a Christian in Take the Money and Run, he winds up davening in church and making a very feckless sign of the cross. He experiences feelings of Jewish paranoia throughout Annie Hall: Alvy Singer tells his best friend Rob as they walk on the street,“I distinctly heard it. He murdered under his breath, ‘Jew.’ Rob tells him he’s crazy, but he continues: “Well, I pick up on those kind o’ things. You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said…uh, `Did you eat yet or what?’ and Tom Christie said `No, didchoo?’ Not, did you, didchoo eat? No, not did you eat, but jew eat? Jew. You get it? Jew eat?’ Later, Alvy meets Annie Hall to see one of his (and Woody’s) favorite films, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity. Clips are shown from the film and later Alvy talks of the French Resistance and reflects “how I’d stand up under torture,” a question Allen has frequently pondered.

It is during dinner with Annie Hall’s family that Alvy is confronted by her anti-Semitic grandmother who stares at him with hostility and he turns into a Hasid with a long black coat, moustache, and beard. Late in the film, Alvy takes Annie to see The Sorrow and the Pity again: The screen shows a Nazi propaganda film, a street with fleeing cars, belongings tied on top and piled in the back seats, and the subtitles read: “The Jewish warmongers and Parisian plutocrats tried to flee with their gold and jewels.” The Ophuls film is referred to yet a third time at the end, when Alvy is pleased to see Annie going to see the film again at the Thalia and he has a brief reunion with her. And Broadway Danny Rose says, “It’s important to feel guilty. Otherwise…you’re capable of terrible things…it’s very important to be guilty. I’m guilty all the time, and I never did anything, you know. My…rabbi, Rabbi Pearlstein used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.”

One must return to Crimes and Misdemeanors to fully grasp Allen’s search for a Judaism that can have meaning. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) recalls that his father told him, “The eyes of God are on us always.” Rosenthal is struggling with what to do about a mistress who is threatening to destroy his marriage and his career (he is guilty of malfeasance). He consults Ben, a Rabbi, who says “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart that there was a moral structure with a real love and forgiveness. Some kind of higher power. Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live. I know the spark of that….is somewhere in you.”

Rosenthal ultimately arranges the murder of his mistress and gets away with it.

He returns in memory to family seders with scenes at the bimah and at the family dinner table. Later a key role is played in the film by the brilliant writer, psychoanalyst and teacher, Prof. Martin Begmann, portraying Dr. Louis Levi, who is a composite, Allen wrote me, of Prof. Bergmann and Primo Levi. It is Prof. Bergmann who concludes the film by holding out the hope that, despite Allen’s despair about the absence of a moral structure, “Most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.” These beautiful words end the film. Seeing Allen’s rapt intensity as he watches Bergmann/Levi speak, one is afforded a glimpse into Woody Allen’s Jewish soul.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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