Air Stewardess: Would you like something to read?
Passenger: Do you have anything light?
Air Stewardess: How about this leaflet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends?’
With the Olympics underway, it seems suitably opportunistic to consider the relationship between Jews, sports and film. As the above joke from Airplane (dirs. Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1980) demonstrates, it has long been a tenet of Jewish humor that Jews do not do sports. This is because self-images of the Jew’s body have merged with anti-Semitic renderings of it. Rabbinic culture and Yiddishkeit (Yiddish: lit. Jewish culture) valued timidity, meekness, physical frailty, and gentleness, privileging the pale scholarly Jew who studied indoors excluded from the worlds of labor and warfare. He was defined by his softness, gentleness, weakness, and non-physical activity. The ‘sissy’ Diaspora Jew was intellectual, insufficiently, incompetently, and inadequately masculine. He was a ‘nonmale’, an ‘unmanly man’, feminized, effeminate, gentle, timid, studious, and delicate. He never used his hands for manual labour, exercised, or paid attention to maintaining his body. He devoted his life to the study of Torah.
At the same time, the Jew, especially his physiognomy and physiology, was tenaciously intertwined with notions of unmanly passivity, weakness, hysteria, and pathology, all bred by the lack of outdoor and healthy activity. The Jew’s legs and feet in particular were characterized as non-athletic, unsuited to nature, sport, war making, brutality, and violence. This sissy Jew was characterized as ‘hysteric’, the result of prominent nineteenth-century anti-Semitic prejudices.
In line with these representations, Jewish cinematic stereotypes, dating back almost as far as the birth of the medium itself, portrayed the Jew as a weak, frail, small, non-athletic, urban (ghetto) businessman, perpetuating the link between Jewishness and particular trades, predominantly depicting the Jew as a tailor, peddler, pawnbroker, or Shylockesque moneylender, and rarely as anything else. The Jew was marked by his intelligence, cunning, and quick-witted verbal, rather than physical, skills. He had more brains than brawn. For decades cinema reflected these dominant stereotypes, consequently downgrading Jewish involvement in sport no matter how extensive it was in reality.
Furthermore, the stereotype of the nonathletic Jew has long been considered grist for the humour mill. In The Hebrew Hammer (dir. Jonathan Kesselman, 2003), for example, members of ‘the Coalition of Jewish Athletes’ are, entirely predictably, nowhere to be seen. Although this stereotype is clearly inaccurate in reality, the representations of Jewish sportsmen and women in cinema have been surprisingly few and far between. US cinema frequently depicts Jews playing sports, but this is often for fun and not in any seriously competitive and/or professional sense. Consider the ‘Jewish Children’s Polo League’ in A Mighty Wind (dir. Christopher Guest, 2003) that rode on Shetland ponies instead of horses or the variety of Jews in various comedies who play recreational basketball in such films as Keeping the Faith (dir. Edward Norton, 2000), Eight Crazy Nights (dir. Seth Kearsley, 2002), Along Came Polly (dir. John Hamburg, 2004) and Prime (dir. Ben Younger, 2005). Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) is dedicated to ten-pin bowling but this is done as primarily a leisure activity albeit one which he takes very, very seriously.
Similarly, even though racket sports feature in Woody Allen’s films they are not taken seriously. Allen plays squash in his Manhattan (1977) inasmuch as he’s on a squash court, using a squash racquet and a squash ball. But he is just hitting the ball, not playing a game. He’s also shown playing tennis in Annie Hall (1979) – indeed references to tennis and tennis props recur throughout the film – and the sport provides the central conceit, trope, as well as the title, of Match Point (2005).
The most surprising omission, though, is boxing. The one sport in Britain and the US in which Jews had any real history of participation has barely been represented in film in line with the sheer number of Jewish boxers. The late eighteenth century was often described as a golden age of Jewish boxing and Daniel Mendoza, a maternal ancestor of Peter Sellers, was credited with the scientific invention of boxing. By the turn of the twentieth century it had undergone a resurgence in London and New York as renewed Eastern European immigration filled the cities with a new eager breed of Jewish working-class pugilists. There have been films about Jewish boxers and Jewish boxers in film respectively, including His People (dir. Edward Sloman, 1925), Body and Soul (dir. Robert Rossen, 1947), Métisse (dir. Mathieu Kassovitz, 1993), Jakob the Liar (dir. Peter Kassovitz, 1999) and Cinderella Man (dir. Ron Howard, 2005), all of which are obvious exceptions to the Jewish weakling syndrome. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) was one of Mendoza’s most fervent admirers and prints of the boxer can clearly be seen on the walls of his apartment in the Pink Panther series. Sellers, as Clare Quilty, even dons a pair of boxing gloves at the outset of Lolita (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1962) and says ‘I wanna die like a champion’, most likely in deference to his ancestor. But the number of these films is so few that they don’t reflect Jewish domination of the sport in the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also, the references to ethnicity often are so slight that blink and you’ll miss them.
Furthermore, the few times that we see Israeli athletes onscreen, it is when they are being killed. In the recent The Dictator (dir. Larry Charles, 2012), for example, the eponymous ruler, Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), plays a cartoon video game based on the murder of the eleven Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics Games, the fortieth anniversary of which will be commemorated this year in which the player is a first person shooter terrorist killing Israelis. Or, as in Munich (2005), StevenSpielberg’s reconstruction of the Israeli government’s response to the massacre.
There have been exceptions, however, and key and serious Jewish characters have been defined by their athleticism in such sports as sprinting (Chariots of Fire, dir. Hugh Hudson, 1981), fencing (Sunshine, dir. Istvan Szabo, 1999) and cricket (Wondrous Oblivion, dir. Paul Morrison, 2003). And if we extend the field to non-fiction films, then Jews have featured in documentaries about chess (Bobby Fischer Against the World, dir. Liz Garbus, 2011), baseball (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, dir. Aviva Kempner, 1998) and swimming (Watermarks, dir. Yaron Zilberman, 2004). In such films sport has been used as a means for Jews to assimilate, charting the clash between ethnic specificity and the mainstream culture and the struggle to pass.
It is hard to prove why mainstream fiction cinema has chosen to omit the Jewish contribution to sports history. I’ve speculated that maybe the reason lies in its clear contradiction of two long-held, engrained, and intertwined stereotypes: the weak Jew and the non-athletic Jew who are supposed to be passive and powerless and not to victimize and/or humiliate. But this still does not explain why Jewish executives, directors, screenwriters, actors and actresses continue to uphold this negative stereotype: a question that remains to be answered. ■
Nathan Abrams is the author of The New Jew in Film and Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University. You can follow him on Twitter @ndabrams.