Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Woody Allen (R) with actors Jesse Eisenberg (L) and Kristen Stewart at the screening of the film ‘Cafe Society’ during the opening ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, May 11, 2016. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
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Jesse Eisenberg Talks About His Jewish-American Identity

The star of Woody Allen’s upcoming ‘Café Society’ spoke with Vox about assimilation and his family’s dry goods store in southeast Poland at the turn of the century

by
Jesse Bernstein
June 22, 2016
Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Woody Allen (R) with actors Jesse Eisenberg (L) and Kristen Stewart at the screening of the film 'Cafe Society' during the opening ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, May 11, 2016. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

In Woody Allen’s best work (Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall), the Judaism of the Allen surrogate (often Allen himself, of course) is the disease/gift that endows him with those maladies/benefits. And in his worst films, well—don’t see Magic in the Moonlight. Presently, the baton of the nerdy, nervous, frustrated, and (most crucially), Jewish man is firmly in the hands of Jesse Eisenberg, who has a long history of playing versions of playing Woody Allen surrogate. In fact, Eisenberg, who took the mantle for the eminently forgettable To Rome With Love, will try again in Allen’s upcoming Café Society.

Speaking with Vox’s Ezra Klein on this week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show, Eisenberg spoke extensively about how his Jewish identity informs his comedy, writing, and how he thinks about the world. Similar to his interview with Tablet contributor Tal Kra-Oz in February (which got a shout-out in the episode), Eisenberg, the star of the recently released Now You See Me 2, shared his views on the machinations of assimilation, particularly Jewish assimilation in America.

If it benefits the culture to be seamlessly integrated into the hegemony in America, then they do that. Not in a Machiavellian, selfish way but in a survival way. And then, conversely, if it benefits them to be an exotic outsider, then they do that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of code-switching. Everybody in every culture does some version of that, but Jews—based on their history and appearance—have been able to do it very successfully in many different places.

Eisenberg, whose current play The Spoils (which he wrote and also stars in) tells the story of a third-generation Jewish-American who, in Eisenberg’s estimation, “does nothing because he feels like the world owes him” while his roommate, a Nepalese immigrant with nothing to lose and everything to gain, throws himself into his work with a vigor that Eisenberg said he’s worried is being lost in Jewish Americans.

What I’m trying to discuss—and it’s something on my mind all the time—is that the guy from Nepal works harder than I do and deserves more than I do, even though I come from a place of greater privilege than him. Just because I was born on third base doesn’t mean I get to stay there…That’s what’s on my mind all the time. As a Jewish person, it feels like I could have assimilated into white hegemonic culture and be totally comfortable and go out to the Hamptons or go golfing or whatever people do. I don’t want to do that because I feel like I will, to quote Woody Allen, “ripen and then rot.”

Finally, summing himself up, Eisenberg said, “If we’re suddenly let into the golf course, are we going to swing as hard?”

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.

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