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No Place Like Home

The new Disney Oz flick stars Jewish actors. Somewhere, over the rainbow, that will no longer matter.

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(Wikimedia Commons (left) and The Hollywood Reporter)
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Assimilated

On a lifetime of being thought Jewish

So, I was passing through the Los Angeles airport last week.

Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into a humble-bragging Thomas Friedman column where I somehow manage to work in a lot of details about my fabulous jet-setting lifestyle of discussing current events with world leaders and preternaturally wise cab drivers while bemoaning our comparatively faulty infrastructure and pleading with Mike Bloomberg to buy us out of this mess before every building, sidewalk, and taco stand in America crumbles to dust.

You’ll be happy to know that LAX was as ever—which is to say, benignly unpleasant and filled with overpriced fish fingers. But it did afford me the opportunity to notice how Los Angeles newsstands put the showbiz trade magazine right out in front, like we do with actual newspapers here on the East Coast, which is how I saw the latest issue of the Hollywood Reporter with the stars of Oz the Great and Powerful on the front.

The first thing I thought was, “Sweet Jesus, I want that green dress Rachel Weisz is wearing.” The second was: “Oh wow, three out of four of those actors are Jewish.”

Now, here’s the thing: I’ve been pretty preoccupied with classic Hollywood a lot lately, having just published a novel set during it (we’ll have more on that soon, just you wait), but it’s impossible for even a flicker of awareness about Oz the Great and Powerful not to send you into a strong, sense-memory reverie about the magisterial original Wizard of Oz, and the vastness of its incredible emotional reach.

So why, despite the rich rabbit hole of ideas and history that this magazine cover could have driven me into, did I wind up Jew-counting? What could possibly be the point? Pride in one’s heritage and those who share it is a good thing, but this is something else; this is the reflexive defensiveness of someone—and I don’t think I’m alone here—who still (still!) has something to prove … but what? That Jewish women can be sexy and beautiful, without any sort of couched caveats or jokes about plastic surgery? That we are an important, good, indispensable part of American society and culture and you’ll be very, very sorry should you decide to get rid of us one day? That Jewish leading men have evolved from nebbishy Woody Allen types to … well, to whatever the hell James Franco is?

I think it’s the second one. And looked at objectively, it’s completely crazy. Yet it persists.

The Wizard of Oz was made in 1939, when the Hollywood Dream Factory was at the height of its prolific powers. It was also a year when a huge subset of the Earth’s population desperately wished that they were somewhere, anywhere else.

This attitude is clearly, heartbreakingly, reflected in its most famous legacy, the song “Over the Rainbow,” which never fails to reduce me to tears in virtually any incarnation. On its face, it is a classic version of what musical-theater writers call the “I want” song, which is exactly what it sounds like—that is, the number where the hero or heroine lays bare the dreams and hopes and longings that will turn into the narrative engine of the plot. But “Over the Rainbow” is far from typical in this respect. Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, both sons of observant Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe (Arlen’s father, famously, was a synagogue cantor), and first recorded by a teenaged Judy Garland—the very embodiment of yearning—in October of 1938, a scant month before Kristallnacht, its haunting melody and searching lyrics don’t long for adventure or glamor or romance; in fact, quite the opposite. The primary wish expressed in “Over the Rainbow” is one for safety. For a way out of the black-and-white world of the newsreels and into secure, placid Technicolor, where nobody will bother you and you can be yourself without threat or fear. It’s both an incredibly reasonable wish and an incredibly difficult one. But what more can one ask from Paradise?

The question is, of course, how do you know when you get there? When do you know you’re truly safe? Is it when everyone has the right to marry whom they love, or worship as they wish, or go anywhere in the world in safety and peace, regardless of the color of their skin or the name on the passport?

Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just being able to look at the cover of a magazine without having to play “count the Jews.” Maybe then we’ll know we’re really home, and there’s no place like it.

***

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Powerful article!

Knowles Bey says:

“That Jewish leading men have evolved from nebbishy Woody Allen types to … well,
to whatever the hell James Franco is?”

Rachel, no. You need to let go of this Woody Allen thing. Hollywood Jewish actors were not born with Woody Allen, or his “types” (echh). Just because some pompous, (racist, of course), east-coast film professor declared it to be so retroactively and de-factually, that doesn’t make it so. The first Jewish leading man was good old Broncho Billy Anderson, who also happened to be the first leading man, period. And I can go over the old list yet again, with everyone from Ricardo Cortez (not his real name) to Paul Muni (ditto) to Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, John Garfield, Tony Curtis, Laurence Harvey, and so on. If anything, Hollywood Jewish leading men ”devolved” into Woody Allen, for a time.

There are a lot of movies with heavily Jewish casts. Most of them these days feature young Jewish actors, because that’s where the Jews are – young actors. Movies like Beautiful Creatures, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Hairspray, Adventureland, 50/50, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Fright Night (remake – for that matter, most non-blockbuster movies Anton Yelchin is in have pretty Jewish casts), and so on. But I am glad you mentioned this one, it’s a great example.

Knowles Bey says:

P.S., Paul Muni kind of looked like James Franco, no?
http://www.celebritux.com/images/paul-muni-02.jpg

I don’t “read” Over The Rainbow as a song about the yearning for safety. It’s about reality vs. fantasy, grey skies vs. blue, and by extension the Oz that everyone needs to believe in vs. the little man behind the curtain. In the world of fantasy, everything is heightened — the sense of adventure but also fear and isolation. That’s why, in the end, there’s no place as satisfying as home — reality, where one is surrounded with the familiar and predictable — if only one knows how to find value in it.

How about Leslie Howard, the epitome of an English gentleman. aristocrat of the American South (and Orthopdox Jew)?

The Oz in Frank Baum’s wizardry came from oz., abbreviation for ounce(s), used in measuring gold and silver, commodities used in Baum’s extended metaphor, but it could just as easily, and more positively stand for the Hebrew word “oz” (long ‘o”), meaning strength. The film version at least as always stood for a kind of metaphorical strength to me, and for the strength of kindness. Shalom. It’s dumbfonding how so much of humanity still doesn’t realize the synergistic power of kindness and inclusion. But there’s always the future to look forward to.

surfer_dad says:

“When do you know you’re truly safe?”

I don’t know.
Maybe when the majority of Jewish characters fleshed out on TV and movies (not the actors, but the characters played) don’t run from their Jewishness in almost EVERY situation offered? When we can have the majority of Jewish characters (usually men) actually look for and marry Jewish partners as part of a normal narrative? When Jewish parents aren’t played as stereotypes of either over-protection, obnoxiousness or cold uber-intellectualism? Or some combination?

Until the roles written are more reflective of who we are and not who we think others perceive us – or need to perceive us – I don’t feel particularly “safe.”

(And I’m very aware that the majority of those characters are either written, produced or both by Jews.)

J Levin says:

Since we’re doing Jewish actors here, let’s not forget the one Jew in the original major cast of the original: Bert Lahr. Not exactly a leading man type–he was a vaudeville entertainer, but far from a Woody Allen nebbish. Wonder how many Jews there were among the dwarf minor players?

So, Um. Anyone else unsettled that while yes our hero is played by a Jewish man, (SPOILER ALERT) BOTH of the characters played by Jewish women he encounters end up evil, and the one that had romantic interest in him turns into a spiteful, evil villianess? And he is happily ever after ish with the character played by the main actress who ISN’T a Jew? I know it made me a little uncomfortable watching… But maybe I’m being too sensitive?

Knowles Bey says:

Interesting perspective. In Beautiful Creatures, the main Jewish actor left his ex-girlfriend, played by a Jewish actress, for the main character, a non-Jewish actress. So you can find such things quite often when a lot of the cast is Jewish. Although the ex-girlfriend actress was playing an Evangelical Christian!

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the two Jewish boys kiss (but one of them isn’t gay).

Here is my favorite, though: in Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg, a Jew playing a non-Jewish character, is at first tempted by Margarita Levieva (a Jewish actress playing a non-Jewish character with a cross). But he ends up with Kristen Stewart, a non-Jewish actress playing a Jew. Wrap your head around that!

Knowles Bey says:

Interesting perspective. In Beautiful Creatures, the main Jewish actor left his ex-girlfriend, played by a Jewish actress, for the main character, a non-Jewish actress. So you can find such things quite often when a lot of the cast is Jewish. Although the ex-girlfriend actress was playing an Evangelical Christian!

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the two Jewish boys kiss (but one of them isn’t gay).

Here is my favorite, though: in Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg, a Jew playing a non-Jewish character, is at first tempted by Margarita Levieva (a Jewish actress playing a non-Jewish character with a cross). But he ends up with Kristen Stewart, a non-Jewish actress playing a Jew. Wrap your head around that!

Knowles Bey says:

Leslie Howard wasn’t Orthodox. His father was Jewish and his mother had a Jewish grandparent (and three non-Jewish grandparents). But she wasn’t raised Jewish.

Still, it’s something.

Knowles Bey says:

Leslie Howard wasn’t Orthodox. His father was Jewish and his mother had a Jewish grandparent (and three non-Jewish grandparents). But she wasn’t raised Jewish.

Still, it’s something.

James Franco, Jew, didnt know that, think he’s awesome, and watched the movie which I really enjoyed.

Really a perfect article about what “freedom” means…right before Passover!

JMINYC51 says:

And what would you say to a non-Jewish person who wonders if an actor is Jewish or not? I was very surprised years ago when I found out that actors with like Kirk Douglas and others were Jewish. Had never thought about it. When I see names like James Franco, I first think that he might be of Italian descent, not necessarily Jewish. But yes, his mother is Jewish, so I guess that makes him Jewish whether he practices the religion or not. It really shouldn’t matter though. No one goes around saying, “Oh, this actor is Catholic and that actress is Presbyterian.” Did you know that Richard Gear is Buddhist? Does it matter? I don’t think so.

Yesterday, when working on overgrown plants in my front yard in San Diego, a 7 year-old neighbor came by to say hi. I asked where he had been up to today. He told me he had attended Hebrew School this morning. I told him that I too had gone to Hebrew school when young. He was stunned. He did not know that I am Jewish. I asked why he was surprised. He told me that it was because most people are Christians. He assumed that he and his parents were it for Jews on the block. Easily, naturally, he and I then looked at each house on the block and speculated on religious affiliations. While most ARE Christians, a handful are in fact Jewish. Having already settled into himself as a minority, the young counter and I had a good time together in a harmless and satisfying way. Woody Allen and James Franco had little to do with it. Maybe I could have interested him in Sandy Koufax and Ryan Braun.

All of the group of Danny Mcbride and James Franco for a comedy of epic adventure in a world of fantasy-Amiable. http://wp.me/p1CkXq-1KM

Chris Tom says:

The new film, released on Friday, is running successfully in the US, raking in a terrific opening amount of $54 million at box office in North America. check out it http://wp.me/p1CkXq-1mC

slipnslide says:

Yes, I appreciate that Tablet is a platform for all things Jewish, relevant, and of interest – but I baulk at features like this, which make a POINT about a film’s key cast being Jewish. Jewish people are surely so a much part of our society, that to write a piece like this somehow feels wrong. They are a cast of talented players. That’s IT. The need to point out and underline that a high proportion are Jewish somehow really grates…. and should be something that we really shouldn’t even think about in this day and age….

Forget what the Jewishness of the New Oz’s movie’s actors and what it says about assimilation; I’d like to know what all these Jews in so many movies even though there’s so few of them say about nepotism!!!

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No Place Like Home

The new Disney Oz flick stars Jewish actors. Somewhere, over the rainbow, that will no longer matter.

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