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Nebbishy? Not these Jewish guys

Early on in 2007’s comedy hit “Knocked Up,” Seth Rogen and a bunch of buddies, nearly all of them Jewish, are hanging at a nightclub when Rogen announces that he’s just seen “Munich,” the Steven Spielberg film about an Israeli assassination squad.

“That movie with Eric Bana kicking . . . ,” Rogen says. “For every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed, ‘Munich’ flips it on its ear. . . . If any of us get [lucky] tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana.”

It’s a funny scene, with some interesting subtext -- in a riff that lasts just a few seconds, the film touches on three familiar Jewish stereotypes: macho Israelis, Holocaust victims and the whiny, often immature urban male neurotic, a la Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, the Ross Geller character in “Friends” and most of the protagonists in Judd Apatow films like “Knocked Up.”

“Anybody who’s having that conversation is obviously neurotic Jewish,” Rich Cohen says of the “Knocked Up” scene. Cohen wrote “Tough Jews,” a book about Jewish gangsters, and “The Avengers,” about World War II Jewish partisans.

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“To be obsessed with Jewish image is a classic Jewish thing,” Cohen adds. “It used to be when you had tough-looking Jewish actors they played Italians, like James Caan and Henry Winkler. Now you have tough-looking goyim [like Eric Bana] playing Jews, and that’s progress.”

In fact, the release of “Defiance” last week -- a film starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as real-life World War II Jewish partisans so tough they make the “Munich” crew look like Cub Scouts -- caps a recent sea change in the way Jews are depicted in the mass media. In “American Gangster,” for instance, Russell Crowe plays a Jewish detective who wears a Star of David but is also one of the guys. Last fall’s teen comedy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” features actress Kat Dennings as a self-identified Jew who is not only the beautiful love interest but also easily the coolest kid in the room. On TV, “Numb3rs” star Rob Morrow is a gun-toting Jewish FBI agent who in recent episodes has been talking with a rabbi about some personal issues.

“There are more Jewish images now in popular culture than there have been since the ‘70s,” says Lisa Rivo of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, who nevertheless feels that images of Jewish women are still few and far between. “The idea of presenting the diversity of Jewish experience is an advancement,” she concedes. “But there is still a limiting way in which Jews are presented and seen and digested. There is more out there.”

True enough, but there are some who feel that characters like “American Gangster’s” Richie Roberts are particularly empowering because their religion is essentially irrelevant. “Is it better that becoming a Jew becomes completely unexceptional? Yeah,” Cohen says. “He’s Jewish, but he also wears torn jeans and a leather coat. Others think, ‘If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish.’ Is it better to be completely assimilated and disappear into American culture? Then that might mean [Jewishness] is something about you that might not be worth commenting on. It doesn’t define that character.”

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Jews as non-Jews

Fact is, Jews have always been highly visible in the film industry, whether as studio heads, actors or directors, but for years they were practically invisible as characters in films. Neal Gabler’s history of the Jews in early Hollywood, “An Empire of Their Own,” suggests a key reason for this was assimilationist aspirations, the desire to fit into American society and not make waves. Because of this, Jewish actors such as Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield were slotted into non-Jewish roles, and when Jews were the focus of a film, it was often in “problem” pictures like “Crossfire” (about an anti-Semitic murderer) and “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (anti-Semitic bigotry in society at large), which used Jewry as an issue, little more.

That began to change in the 1960s and ‘70s. Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman (who was half Jewish) took on Jewish roles in films like “Exodus” and “Cast a Giant Shadow,” and Rod Steiger gave a sensitive performance as a Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker.” Richard Benjamin starred in those classic tales of Jewish neurosis, “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and Elliott Gould became an offbeat sex symbol. But it was Allen who really changed the whole Jewish image thing almost overnight. Suddenly, comics were defining Jewish identity.

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The neurotic Jewish male has a lot to do with “the prominence of Jewish men in comedy,” says Michael Renov, associate dean of USC’s film school. “This is being played for laughs, and Jews for a long time have been central to the world of comedy in pop culture. It’s somewhat self-critical; it’s in on the joke.”

So Allen and Mel Brooks begat the Seinfelds, Adam Sandlers and Apatows of the world. But even though these artists seem to be playing the same game of Top This Neurosis, there are actually significant differences between the generations. Unlike Allen, for example, who obsessed about murderous Cossacks and anti-Semitic Midwesterners in “Annie Hall,” the new generation of Jewish jokesters is more self-confident and fully assimilated into American life.

“This generation is more comfortable with being Jews,” Rivo says. “They are more self-critical, and that has to do with the comfort level Jews feel in America; they are more comfortable in general.”

Renov agrees. “Woody Allen is a generation closer to the experience of immigration and the insecurity of the new arrival, and someone like Apatow might be two generations removed, so there’s less insecurity about his status as an American.”

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Resistance effort

That sense of security spills over into a film like “Defiance,” the true story of the Bielski brothers (played by Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell), who saved 1,200 Belarusian Jews while also heading a partisan army that fought the Nazis. Directed by Ed Zwick, the film deals with Jews who fought back, a subject that has been dealt with infrequently in films and on TV.

In an earlier interview with The Times, Zwick described the popular image of Jewish resistance as mostly limited to the ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He was surprised, he said, to learn of so many other efforts. “It was ubiquitous. [The resistance] was usually thwarted and futile. But in fact, there were thousands, many of whom joined the Russian partisans.”

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Cohen understands why it took so long to tell that story. “Most European Jews died in the Holocaust, and that was the story,” he says, “and people felt the other side could be read as a criticism of those who died. The story of the Holocaust for Jews became holy over time, and for that reason, anything that muddied that story, there was no interest in it for a long time. And now there is. The image of Jews has changed.”

But “Defiance” aside, there is still one area in which this more secure Jewish image seems in need of updating: the characters’ love lives. Seinfeld, Sandler, David and the guys in “Knocked Up” seem to lust almost exclusively for non-Jewish women. “In the Apatow movies, there are no Jewish women at all,” Rivo says. “Part of the deal is that the nerdy Jewish guy gets the gorgeous shiksa. It’s pervasive in the Apatow films, and it’s shockingly backward.”

And it’s not just as lovers; Jewish female characters are barely visible in mainstream media. Although Debra Messing, who is Jewish in real life, played one in TV’s “Will & Grace” and in the current “Nothing Like the Holidays” on the big screen, others, like the Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox characters in “Friends,” are practically stealth Jews; we know they’re members of the Tribe, but they exist outside of any Jewish cultural context.

“Maybe it’s just the same old same-old,” says Renov of this situation. “Fewer possibilities for female self-expression generally, fewer female writers and directors. Yet on the comedy front, Jewish women have maintained a solid presence. Then again, there’s something very complex and nuanced about the self-critique and parody that comedy makes available.”

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Hmm. Judd Apatow, meet Sarah Silverman. She’s funny, smart and totally hot. Could be she’s the girl your characters are really looking for.

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calendar@latimes.com


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