Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
August 13th, 2009

Kill Adolf

Inglorious Basterds and the new wave of "tough Jews" in movies



Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you hadn’t taken that job, or gone to that school, or moved to that neighborhood?

In other words: what if you were living in an alternative reality?

Alternative history is a genre with a long pedigree, especially in the realm of science fiction. After all, who can resist wondering, “What if…?”

The epic saga of the Second World War, with its action, tragedy and larger than life heroes, has inspired many “alternative histories,” from the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, to the 1992 novel-turned-miniseries Fatherland, which depicts a world in which the Nazis defeat the Allies. The promise and allure of the subject matter is so great that two British teenagers who’d lived through the Blitz filmed their own alternative history movie, over the course of eight long years, on that same theme: It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler’s England (1966).

Now, acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) has joined the long list of filmmakers who can’t resist making their own WWII fantasy-action flick.

Tarantino’s latest release is Inglorious Basterds (and yes, the misspelling is intentional.) Inspired by a schlocky 1970s Italian “macaroni combat” action picture of the same name, the movie is Tarantino’s homage to the “misfits on a mission” movies of old, like The Dirty Dozen.

Jewish revenge fantasy

This time around, the heroes are a Jewish-American revenge squad wreaking havoc throughout German-occupied France, not only killing but also scalping their Nazi targets.

In a parallel storyline, a beautiful young Jewish woman whose family was slaughtered by the SS somehow takes over the Paris cinema where Goebbel’s latest propaganda film will debut with Hitler himself in attendance. She plans to trap the audience of high-ranking Nazis inside and burn the building to the ground. “My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus,” she announces at one point in the film. “And this is the face of Jewish vengeance.”

“[The notion of Jews getting even with Hitler is] kosher porn. It’s something I dreamed since I was a kid.” — Eli Roth, director of the Hostel horror movies and actor in Inglorious Basterds

At the press conference following the film’s debut, one journalist asked if Inglourious Basterds was a “Jewish revenge fantasy.” Eli Roth, who directed the Hostel horror movies and is acting in this movie as one of Tarantino’s “basterds,” said the notion of Jews getting even with Hitler was “kosher porn. It’s something I dreamed since I was a kid.” In the movie, Roth gets to live out his childhood fantasy: he plays the baseball bat-swinging “Bear Jew,” who some of the film’s Nazis believe is a vengeful golem.

Obviously, I’m not advocating vigilante justice, or suggesting that anybody scalp their enemies in real life. The point is: the whole concept of the film challenges stereotypes. After all, moviegoers are more accustomed to seeing wimpy Jewish males on the big screen — and I for one am tired of it. In a world in which Jews are under constant threat, is “wimpy” really the image we want to convey? Indelibly personified by Woody Allen back in the 1960s, this stock character still appears in movies and TV shows, such as Ben Stiller comedies and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jews with attitude

The 21st century iteration of this familiar character retains traces of nebbishness, but also displays an edgy attitude reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss’ scruffy, hyper, cocky Jewish characters of the 1970s. Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill, three stars in Jewish director Judd Apatow’s constellation, seem to channel Dreyfuss’s satirical outlook and boundless energy in his flicks like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad.

The Hebrew Hammer (2003), starring Adam Goldberg, paved the way for a new kind of swaggering Jewish hero on film. He’s sexy because he’s Jewish, not in spite of it. The movie plays with African-American and Jewish cultural touchstones: the Hammer drives a pimped-out white Cadillac with Star of David headlights; his license plate reads “L’Chaim” and his fuzzy dice are really dreidels. After saving some Jewish children from older Christian bullies, he tells them solemnly, “Stay Jewish.” The result is the first “Jewsploitation” film.

Swaggering Hebrew heroes turn up in other comedies: Hot Rod (2007) stars Andy Samberg as an Evel Knievel-inspired stuntman — not exactly a profession commonly chosen by Jews. In You Don’t Mess With Zohan (2008), Adam Sandler is a former Mossad agent who dreams of becoming a hairdresser.

With Edward Zwick’s recently released Defiance, as an English Jew, I have to admit I got considerable nachas seeing Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond himself) kicking Nazi tuchas alongside Liev Schreiber!

“Jews with attitude” aren’t restricted to comedies, but their appearances in dramas are rare. The Raid on Entebbe was made back in 1977. Recently, however, the character of the armed, defiant Jew has made a reappearance. Edward Zwick’s recently released Defiance is about four Jewish brothers from Poland who escape the Nazis and go on to rescue fellow Jews. (As an English Jew, I have to admit I got considerable nachas seeing Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond himself) kicking Nazi tuchas alongside Liev Schreiber!)

And now Inglorious Basterds, set to hit the big screens this summer with unabashedly Jewish characters as a major selling and plot point. The movie is sure to inspire a tingle of “What if?” wish fulfilment in audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Today’s generation likes its Jewish heroes tough, an attitude captured in the comedy Knocked Up, in which Seth Rogan’s Jewish character praises the controversial Stephen Spielberg drama, Munich. “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed,” he enthuses to his friends. “Munich flips that on its ear!”

Closer to home, I know two young Jewish boxers who defy all the nebbish stereotypes and challenge mainstream perceptions of Jewish manhood. Dmitry Salita is an undefeated junior welterweight boxer who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew, as is Yuri Foreman, who will be competing for the light middleweight championship this fall.

Jews can’t all be boxers, but we do need to embrace and honor physical courage as a worthy aspect of Jewish masculinity. Too often Jews demean physical prowess in favor of the mental variety, but in our world today — with Iran flexing its nuclear muscles and enemies plotting to bomb synagogues in our very own neighborhoods — the Jewish people should learn to celebrate the “tough Jew.” Maybe movies like Tarantino’s will play a part in changing this attitude for the better.

The Author : Rabbi Simcha Weinstein
Simcha Weinstein is an award-winning author, whose latest book is Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century (Barricade Books: 2008) is out now. He also chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute in New York. Simcha serves as rabbi to Long Island College Hospital.
See more articles by (10).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Lmorus

    Great article, though I must say it lacks some historical perspective : the appearance of “tough jew” movie characters is more or less directly related to the rise of a militaristic culture in Israel after WWII. It actually was one of Ben Gourion’s interest in creating a military national force, that it would reshape the collective culture of Jewish israelis into one with less of a victim attitude, and more of a “tough” one. As a result of this, since almost everyone serves for several years (2 for women, 3 for men), the “jewish soldier” stereotype started to appear in general israeli culture, which then appeared in entertainment.

  • paul l

    just saw the movie

    amazing article – this rabbi rocks!

  • Talia

    I will say that the Hebrew Hammer was not my favorite and my mind went to the thought of “Jewsplotaion” films as being the next big thing… I hope not.

  • John Donaghy

    I recommend listening to Dan Bern’s song “God said NO” as an antidote to the movie.

  • Michael

    First off, I really enjoy the Rabbi’s take on pop culture and his analysis of male Jewish stereotypes in film is great…

    While Tarantino knows how to make clever, ultra-violent genre-bending movies with excellent soundtracks, in the end, we’re left with is revenge fantasy porn to appease our primal urge for justice that we can never have.

    Nicole and Brian have made a good point: it’s the glorification of violence. If Tarantino is going to claim “irony” this time, he’s going to have a tough time explaining it. In a time where we are looking at the ugly truth of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere, we look to history to fulfill our violent fantasies.

    Historical films like these can separate themselves from the present. While I enjoyed Munich (and will probably end up watching Defiance and Basterds eventually), Roth’s “Kosher Porn” does not mesh well with 2009. A similar film depicting Israeli settlers getting revenge on Palestinian terrorists would be shocking to us – and a film with those roles reversed would be unthinkable in Western society. But will we be able to make an Israeli-Palestinian revenge fantasy film in 30 years? 60?

    More importantly, how do we teach ourselves as a society to understand the dehumanizing effect of violence and understand why we crave it on film?

  • Brian

    Courageous Men of Action, don’t have to be Action Heroes. It worries me that this tired stereotype assumes Men have to be violent and physically strong to be real men. I think that the strength that can transform our world into a place that respects all people has nothing to do with violence, and requries a lot more courage than it takes to be an action hero.

  • Nicole

    Revenge fantasies only perpetuate the cycle of violence in our communities. As someone who works with abused women, I understand that it is natural to feel anger after being victimized. However, as people of faith–Jew, Catholic, Muslim, etc–we are called to transform that anger, not into violence but into healing and peace.

  • Max Lindenman

    Inglorious Bastards isn’t as far removed from reality as you might imagine. Toward the end of World War Two, Jews in the British Mandate persuaded the British army to incorporate them into an all-Jewish infantry brigade. (H.M.’s government proved a hard sell, not because it doubted that Jews would make good soldiers, but because it feared — with excellent reason — that the unit would serve as a nursery for future rebels, much as the Union army did for the old Fenian Brotherhood.) The unit saw relatively little action during the war itself, but shortly after V-E Day, a number of its members began hunting down and assassinating Nazi officials, much like the characters in the movie.

    There’s a book on the subject, but doggone me if I can remember the title.

    To your larger point: my friend, now that Israel’s won four major wars and survived two Intifadas, I doubt anyone who knows how to use a TV remote doubts Jews can fight as well as the Kentucky mountaineer whose ancestors came from the roughest lanes of Carrickfergus. The fact that we don’t set a whole lot of moral store by it is, I’ve always felt, a point in our favor. In the service of a good cause a little controlled belligerence is a good thing. Mindless belligerence for its own sake is high school stuff.

    And before you knock the Yiddishe kup, bear in mind that Iran doesn’t want to challenge Israel to an arm-wrestle. She’s threatening to attack her with nuclear weapons. You don’t learn to split the atom on the playing fields of Eton.

  • john p

    Love it rabbi! I will be seeing the movie this weekend and will be thinking about this when I watch.

  • Dave

    Great article – this rabbi get straight to the core of things and pulls no punches.

powered by the Paulists