Films with ‘Hidden nuggets of Jewishness’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

There are a whole host of Hollywood products that have hidden nuggets of “Jewishness” sprinkled in their scripts and characters, reflecting the pervasive presence of Jewish screenwriters, directors and actors as well as Jewish life in pop culture. A while back, the terrific satirical magazine Heeb published a sampling of various films that at first glance would appear to have no Jewish content, but which have some subtle suggestions of a Jewish presence.  

Some of these examples include:

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

• “The Wizard of Oz” (1939): Neither Dorothy nor Glenda were Jewish, but one of the film’s main characters, the Cowardly Lion, was portrayed by Bert Lahr (born Irving Lahrheim).  Heeb notes that Lahr “betrays his Jewish roots when he laments, ‘If I Only Had the Noive.’”

• “Goodfellas” (1990): Worse than a bad hair day is when Karen (Loraine Bracco), a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, discovers her boyfriend Henry’s (Ray Liotta) gun. Her Jewish parents aren’t too happy with her choice of Gentile boyfriend, either. But then cut to a scene that shows them breaking a glass under a chuppah with shouts of “mazel tov!” 

• “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001): Playing moneyman Reuben Tishkoff, Elliot Gould chomps on cigars and barks out Yiddish with every sentence. As Heeb notes, “his 60s-era lamé shirt is left unbuttoned so a gaudy Star of David can be seen nestling in his chest hair. A fascinating coda to a career spent imploding Jewish stereotypes.”

By the same token, some Hollywood creations have been considered “too Jewish” by their (mostly Jewish) producers and backers, and were altered as a result. By the time “For Your Consideration,” a mockumentary about the making of a very Jewish drama called “Home for Purim,” hit the screen, the whole Purim shtick was ditched and the holiday had morphed into Thanksgiving.

The “too Jewish” phobia has afflicted show biz types in dealing with Jewish actors and themes on Broadway, in films and on TV.  When the Jewish playwright Neil Simon first penned “The Odd Couple,” Oscar Madison was originally named Oscar Magidson.  But the name was deemed “too Jewish,” and so it  was changed. 

All of the various “Superman” films have strong Jewish content, going back to the fact that the creators of the original superhero were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish boys from Cleveland back in 1938.  In “Superman 2,” when the caped crusader emerges from his Clark Kent disguise to rescue a little boy who has fallen into Niagara Falls, a little old lady, gushes, “What a nice man…Of course, he’s Jewish!”

— Robert A. Cohn