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When it comes to Judd Apatow’s characters, what’s in a name?

Ben Greenman
August 06, 2008

A friend called one evening while we were both watching Knocked Up on HBO. It was during the scene in which Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) are on their way to a doctor’s appointment, talking about the relationship between Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). The fight escalates into a more general discussion about sacrifice and responsibility. Alison orders Ben to get out of the car, right there in the middle of the street. Ben, his defiance turning to resolve, gets out of the car. He walks the rest of the way to the doctor’s office. They continue their argument, loudly.

“This is my favorite scene,” my friend said, “because it’s so Jewish.”

My friend is also Jewish, but her comment struck me as odd: not anti-Semitic or pro-Semitic, but definitely Semitic. “What’s so Jewish about it?” I asked.

“The whole thing. It’s at a doctor’s office. He gets to complain about the weather before he rips into her. It’s aggressive whininess, or whiny aggression. And it has a moral component too.”

After a little while, I asked, “Are you sure that Ben’s Jewish?” This was not a rhetorical question, but it may have been a stupid one. Ben Stone is played by a Jewish man. He has conversations with his doting, sensitive father, who is played by a Jewish man (Harold Ramis). And, of course, he has a Jewish name: Ben Stone. So he seems identifiably Jewish. But is he remarkably Jewish? In other words, is his Jewishness worth remarking upon? Ben himself remarks upon it a number of times early in the movie. He tells his friends, “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.” When he meets Alison and she asks him if he uses any hair product, he says “I use Jew.” But this dimension of the character falls away as Ben’s relationship with Alison comes to the fore, and by the time the movie gets to the fight in the doctor’s office that my friend identified as highly Jewish, Ben’s Jewishness has been suppressed, if not forgotten. As he moves forward in his life, he learns to cope with the consequences of sex, learns to leave the safety of his community (read: roommates), and learns to have a relationship with a non-Jewish woman.

The confusion persists in the newest movie from the Apatow stable, Pineapple Express, which opens today. It’s a companion piece to last summer’s Superbad, in the sense that it’s a buddy movie cowritten by Rogen and Evan Goldberg. (Full disclosure: I have published a book titled Superbad, which is unrelated to the movie, and I once wrote a letter comically attacking Rogen and Apatow for the nontheft of my title. We are not actually feuding, though I did threaten to cut off Rogen’s fingers.)

Here, Rogen costars with James Franco, who is best known as Harry Osborn/Green Goblin Jr. in the Spider-Man movies, but got his start playing the sensitive stoner Daniel Desario in Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks. Daniel Desario was probably Italian, as are other prominent roles Franco has played—Joey LaMarca in City by the Sea, Dan Carnelli in In the Valley of Elah. Franco, though his last name sounds Italian, is in fact a mix of Swedish and Portuguese (on his father’s side) and Jewish (on his mother’s). In Pineapple Express, his character is a sweet, somewhat hapless drug dealer named Saul Silver.

Saul Silver is a Jewish name, and, like Ben Stone, Saul Silver is Jewish in more than name. In fact, he is Jewish exactly like Ben Stone. In the early going, he makes a point of discussing his Bubbie, who is in a nursing home, and then there are a few stray jokes that use his Jewishness as a springboard. But at several other moments where it might surface (confrontations with cops, softer moments of reminiscence) it doesn’t; his Jewishness isn’t as pronounced as, say, Alvy Singer’s. There’s no scene where he imagines that non-Jews see him as a stereotypical Hasid, complete with sidelocks and a black coat.

Apatow’s population of slightly Jewish Jews raises a number of questions about ethnicity and genre. In certain American film genres, ethnic names are part of the equation: look at the long and complex relationship between Italian characters and crime movies. To some degree, this is the result of stereotyping. To some degree, it’s the result of history. And to some degree, it’s the result of a profitable interdependence between crime stories and the sensibilities of directors like Scorsese and Coppola and actors like De Niro and Pacino. Is it fair to look for an analogue in the work of Apatow and his associates?

Some of the work seems to suggest so. The protagonist of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell), has a Jewish name, though not a Jewish actor portraying him; the protagonist of Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill [born Feldstein]), has both. In You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Jewishness is central to Adam Sandler’s character, though it’s a case of an American Jew playing (and lampooning) an Israeli Jew. In Pineapple Express, as I’ve said, Jewishness doesn’t figure so prominently in the film’s plot, and Franco isn’t read as a Jewish actor (no one I asked knew he was half-Jewish, and only some of them believed me when they were told). All that’s left is the name, and it sticks out like a sore Jewish thumb, all the more so as the film lifts away from its buddy-movie premise and heads into bloodier action-movie territory.

The fact is that Jewish names have certain connotations, and high-octane action isn’t among them. To get a sense of the oddness, it’s worth importing the same idea into other films. What if Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun had been named Melvin Goldstein? What if Indiana Jones was Indiana Mandelbaum? That tension between Jewishness and physical power is one of the successful surface jokes of Zohan, and it ripples through our pop culture. The great Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten raised a version of this issue a few years ago in a column about a man who wanted rock stardom and felt that to get it he needed to get rid of his Jewish name, à la Robert Zimmerman or Chaim Witz.

To recap: Franco, who is half-Jewish but has a name that doesn’t sound Jewish at all, is playing a lightly Jewish character with an explicitly Jewish name. So what, you ask? Well, so this: The practice of assigning actors who don’t seem Jewish to roles that do returns films to an earlier era. In the thirties, Sam Goldwyn discussed the complicated nature of onscreen ethnicity: “You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew,” he said. “It wouldn’t work on the screen.” Goldwyn’s remarks were made in connection with Counsellor at Law, a 1933 William Wyler film that is based on an Elmer Rice play about a Jewish New York attorney named George Simon. Goldwyn wanted his protagonist to be generic enough to appeal to the broad base of moviegoers. The non-Jewish actor hired to play the role, John Barrymore, tried to act extra-Jewish, despite explanations from the director and screenwriter than an assimilated Jew was indistinguishable from an assimilated Mexican or Baptist. In the 1931 melodrama Street Scene, also based on a Rice play, the main character, Sam Kaplan, was portrayed by the Irish actor William Collier, Jr. (To make things even stranger, his Irish girlfriend was played by a Jewish actress, Sylvia Sidney, a counterweight that is employed in Pineapple Express as well—Rogen’s character, more obviously Jewish in his looks and bearing, is given the highly un-Jewish name of Dale Denton.)

The practice may have been rooted in the thirties, but it wasn’t easily uprooted. Until fairly recently, the majority of explicitly Jewish roles went to non-Jewish actors, including Mickey Rooney (Lorenz Hart in Words and Music), Shirley McLaine (Gittel Moscowitz in Two for the Seesaw), Alan Bates (Yakov Bok in The Fixer), and Warren Beatty (Bugsy Siegel in Bugsy). John Turturro (not Jewish) played the Jewish Barton Fink (in Barton Fink) and Herb Stumpel (in Quiz Show), and

John Goodman (not Jewish) played the observant convert Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Meanwhile, Jewish actors, many of whom changed their real names to assimilate into American culture, were playing non-Jewish characters, which should come as no real surprise—that’s what actors do. Think of Elliott Gould in M*A*S*H, playing Trapper John McIntyre, or the flying synagogue that was the Starship Enterprise. It should be pointed out that many Jewish actors did play ethnic, just not Jewish ethnic—James Caan tended to play Italians, as did Peter Falk, while Sasha Baron-Cohen prefers Kazakhistanis. But was Benjamin Braddock Jewish? Was Mr. White? Was Chas Tenenbaum?

You can certainly find Jews playing Jewish. Just look at the work of Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Mel Brooks. And there are other famous roles: Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) in The Heartbreak Kid, Alexander Portnoy (Richard Benjamin) in Portnoy’s Complaint, Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) in The In-Laws. There are more, but the list doesn’t run on and on. In fact, even archetypal roles like Billy Crystal’s Harry in When Harry Met Sally aren’t as Jewish as they seem. Harry’s last name, believe it or not, is Burns, which is what, Scottish?

So what’s the rationale behind Apatow’s decision to give Franco’s laid-back, sleepily charismatic drug dealer a Jewish name? Was the character conceived as Jewish? Is it a comic move, because the combination is so unlikely? Or is it something more, a victory for the race or even a declaration that the race no longer needs to worry about victory? When people speak of Saul Silver, will any of them describe him by his religion? Is it one of his main characteristics, or merely incidental? Would its status be the same if he was a sidekick on a sitcom, or is there something about the big screen that simultaneously magnifies and levels ethnicity? Have we officially entered a period of post-Jewish identity, when Jewish names are as typical as Smith or McIntyre or Bush? Is “Saul Silver” as loaded a name as, say, “Barack Obama”? And what does Franco’s real Jewish grandmother think?

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of Superbad, Please Step Back, andWhat He’s Poised To Do. His newest book,The Slippage, a novel, is out next month.