There is a woman whom I have long considered my adopted younger sister–I use younger instead of little because she is taller than me and a Freshman in college, which hardly seems little anymore. Her older sister and I grew up together, making mud pies, pretending to be Smurfs, mermaids, Star Wars characters. Recently on facebook she posted a link to a really interesting slam poem by a Jewish woman. I will not post the link because the youtube comments (which delve into such non-topics as “Anti-Semitism no-longer exists” or “ISRAEL,” which has nothing to with the poem.) make me utterly nauseous, but I will quote from it (yes, I agree it’s problematic for a blogger to get so squicked out by youtube comments feeds. But I am.):
You’re Jewish? Wow, you don’t look Jewish, you don’t act Jewish.” And they say it in this tone that sounds like they’re complimenting me! Well this is what I say back: “What does Jewish look like to you? Should I fiddle on a fuckin’ roof for you? Should I humor you with ‘oy vays’ and refuse to pay!?” (Vanessa Hidary, “The Jewish Mamita”)
The poem made me smile, partially because of its content and because it’s always nice to see someone younger than you whom you care about so much find art that helps them be comfortable in their own skin and unapologetic. But it also gave me the courage to write this post, which I had hesitated writing because I thought it was too angry or too in my own head. It reminded me that these issues of identity are important to discuss or else we’ll keep rehashing them and comments like “You don’t look Jewish” will never get examined.
I recently saw a film called Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix. If you ask my flatmate (with all due respect to my flatmate who understands my point of view on the movie but is better able to distance himself from the subtext in it), it is a film about bipolar depression as it relates to a young man’s life and how he places these urges on two lovers. If you ask the majority of critics who reviewed the film, it is a struggle of a broken young man trying to decide whether to rebuild himself in the image of a safe bourgeois man or a fucked-up rebellious artist. I saw it as neither.
I had a very emotional reaction to the flick, which made me hesitate to write about it because I agree with my flatmate; the film works as an exploration of bipolarism (I disagree with the critics, who seem to be using bourgeois as an unconvincing synonym for “Jewish tradition.”). The problem is that the film uses a narrative that I’ve heard too many times: Do I marry the “nice Jewish girl” my mom adores, or the alluring non-Jewish woman as a rejection of all the tradition my parents raised me with? In this narrative, both women get shafted, portrayal-wise (and keep in mind as I discuss this narrative, I do not intend to imply that any of these stereotypes are true about either type of woman because, really, neither type “exists” in a real, generalizable sort of way. Nevertheless, people do it anyhow, and so I must debunk it using their language.)
Because everyone seems to like this movie besides me, writing this has been simultaneously cathartic and isolating. I think it’s important to discuss how these subtle messages work, even if they’re something that most people watching the movie wouldn’t even understand. I felt as if the film was producing Morse code blips that only I could hear, reminding me exactly of “who I’m supposed to be.” And no one else heard. Also, before I really begin analysis, I’d like to note that for me liking or disliking stories is such a complicated thing: I can admire the way something is filmed, but hate its plot. I can love a plot but hate an ideology. And, in this case, I can appreciate what a film is trying to be and feel that it can’t be that (at least for me) because I absolutely abhor its methods. Too often, I think, when someone says that they’re uncomfortable with the racial/gender/etc. subtext of a story, the response from people who don’t really want to listen is, “So you want to ban it?!” or “What about this other story which is worse!?” or the ever-popular, “Freedom of speech!?” We forget that sometimes there’s quiet outrage, gray areas of emotion, and confusion as to how something that does some things so well can make you feel so rotten.
Two Lovers is about a man in his early 30’s named Leonard Kraditor, recently moved back in with his parents after a suicide attempt and a bipolar flair-up. He works at his father’s dry-cleaning business, which is about to be merged with the family dry-cleaning business of the wealthier Cohen family. Both sets of parents entertain the idea of their children marrying to seal the deal, a move that Sandra, the Cohen’s daughter, whole-heartedly embraces (and seems to before she even meets him), and Leonard seems too broken and aimless to resist. Or, at least, he would be, if he did not run into Michelle, the free-spirited but emotionally-damaged non-Jewish woman.
And this is where the film lost me because it started to mock me.
Most people have heard of the stereotype of the JAP, or Jewish American Princess. Not many people think of her counterpart, the “nice Jewish girl” as being a true and damaging stereotype. I don’t think I even fully realized she existed until fairly recently. She’s subtler and difficult to explain because, at first, it seems to be a complimentary stereotype. Nevertheless there is a sense that this girl somehow is not a real woman. As I said, difficult to explain, but let me try.
When Michelle first walks into Leonard’s family’s apartment, she acts as if she’s walking into an alien world. “Look at all these pictures!” she exclaims of the flat, which is the very model of a Jewish immigrant home: full of photos of relatives and ancestors, dusty books, and a prominently displayed menorah (I don’t get it either. The Reader did this too, and I didn’t get it then either. I think it’s the universal movie symbol for “a Jew lives here”). “Oh! Is that Yiddish?” she asks, pointing to Hebrew writing. She doesn’t even know what a dreidel is. A dreidel. Yes, this woman lives in Brooklyn. Yes, this film takes place in 2008, though it really doesn’t feel like it, most of the time. This moment of othering is vital to setting up Michelle’s character as everything that Sandra is not. It sets the foundation for Michelle’s allure: by showing Leonard as being somewhat exotic (but not in a sexy way, because film rarely portrays stereotypical Jewish masculinity as such [CF- Woody Allen]) it emphasizes how exotic she is to him.
Michelle is blond. She invites Leonard to go clubbing with her. She has expensive tastes. She, herself, is damaged, and according to the narrative, seems to require a man to take care of her, to save her from her occasional drug binges: a manly man (more on this later). From the very moment she walked on screen, a song I hate started echoing in my head, an obnoxious song from Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit, The Last Five Years. The song is called “Shiksa Goddess” (On a side note, I hate Brown’s work. My dislike for it grows whenever I try and convince myself that so many intelligent fans can’t be wrong. But I’ve yet to be convinced that his lyrics truly speak to the human experience in the way all his fans insist to me that they do.) The song goes like so:
If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.
If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.
If you came from Spain or Japan
Or the back of a van–
Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school–
I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!
I’m finally breaking through!”
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
Why yes, this is supposed to be a funny song. Why no, the lyrics don’t make sense. They raise many important questions such as: Why would coming from Japan and Spain be equated with the back of a van? What’s wrong with coming from Spain or Japan anyhow? Why do these lyrics scream “I wanted to rhyme something with ‘van’ so I chose ‘Japan’?” (This, aside from the other, more serious problems that I’ll get to in a second, is one of the primary reasons why I dislike Brown’s work.)? The shaved head, I admit, is not traditionally feminine, and considering that he’s listing a tattoo as being such a big deal, I suppose it makes sense that this would typically be a deal breaker for him.
But I digress. The bothersome gist of this song can be summed up in the phrase, “Now I’m getting somewhere.” The next verse goes on to list the boring girls he’s dated with nice Jewish last names who brought him to Shabbat dinner at their houses. These women are boring, attached to their families. Dating them is not “getting somewhere.” There is something so unsexy about it that at one point the singer portrays this string of “Nice Jewish Girls” to “wandering in the desert.” And in a line that I’m sure is supposed to feel at once kinky and oh-so-clever because it references Passover, he proclaims that he wants to be her, “Hebrew slave.” Nothing kinky about Shabbat dinner, I’m afraid.
I know the song seems to have nothing to do with the movie, but the two seem to have the exact same attitude; they believe in the same false dichotomy of their female dating options. The allure of the non-Jewish woman is so universal throughout Two Lovers that every single Jewish male in the film gives Michelle the once-over. Michelle is the mistress of a banker, revealed through subtle cues (his mother lives in the same neighborhood as Leonard’s parents, to the last name Blatt), to be Jewish, who uses her as a substitute for his (presumably) Jewish wife and family. When Leonard’s father first sees Michelle, his eyes bug out. Yes, the film also portrays Michelle as being troubled, slightly ditzy, and occasionally a drug addict, but she’s somehow the more authentic woman. She’s the embodiment of freedom.
Contrast this with Sandra. Sandra is an extension of her family. She first becomes interested in Leonard because she saw him dancing with his mother around the dry-cleaners and thought it was sweet. Almost every outing they plan together somehow involves her family. Although she invites him out for a drink once, she has to cancel because of her father’s birthday party. She instead invites him to the party and suggests that maybe afterward they can get a drink. While Michelle urges Leonard to be an artist, Sandra urges Leonard to be the “artsy” photographer for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
But the unattractiveness of Sandra goes beyond this: while Michelle needs a manly man to take care of her, Sandra’s kind of love promises to be maternal, stultifying, allowing him to continue to wallow in his childishness. When she buys him a gift for his birthday, she gets him gloves, because she noticed that he didn’t have any and didn’t want his hands to freeze. “I want to take care of you,” she tells him, “I feel like I understand you.” She feels like she understands him because Leonard, himself, is a stereotype of the emotionally stunted, childish, depressed Jewish man. She is willing to mother him and his children.
So in the context of these differences to me, which were so blatant, so obvious, and so painful to hear (One gets tired of hearing that she is a mere extension of her family and unsexy for it, you know?), I was flabbergasted that the only review I could find that hinted at the Jewish cultural subtext in the film was the The New York Times. I bristled when The Boston Globe remarked of Sandra, “The casting of Shaw renders Sandra, a mother-figure with need issues of her own, simply too attractive, too confidently sexy, to represent the bourgeois compromise Leonard is afraid he might have to make with his future.” While it seemed to recognize the stereotype (too sexy, indeed!), it didn’t seem to understand the real implications behind it. Bourgeois has nothing (or very little) to do with it.
But the NYT review didn’t help my restless mind at all. Critic A.O. Scott simply mentions that Leonard’s story follows the American Jewish male predicament: “He struggles with the conflicting demands of filial duty and the longing to strike out on his own. He wants to be a good son, but he also wants to live a life of danger, freedom and impulse. Does he stick with his own kind and risk suffocation, or does he risk rootlessness in pursuit of liberation?” Ignoring the fact that Scott misses that Jewish women face this question too, there is just something utterly problematic and hurtful in embodying this choice in two rather unflattering depictions of women.
Though critics feel that the characters are solid, and perhaps in the case of Michelle and Leonard, they are, but Sandra has nothing beyond her family and mothering instinct. At one point in the film, she mentions, “I understand if you don’t like me in that way. A lot of men don’t.” (a statement which is later contradicted by her father, who mentions, rather anachronistically, that she had many suitors. I almost wanted to break out into “Matchmaker!” I wonder why this bizarre marriage-exchange aspect of the film went largely unnoticed by critics because I certainly didn’t get it.) My heart was further broken by the post-coital conversation they had, Sandra offering to leave before Leonard’s parents come home and realize what was happening, and Leonard’s quip that they would probably be overjoyed (I think it was something about picking out baby names or wedding invitations, but I can’t remember so I don’t want to quote). Marrying the “Nice Jewish Girl” is part of your duty to your family. She is someone you settle for.
In some ways, the depiction is almost more angering than that of the JAP. To me, the JAP is at least vaguely ridiculous, but then again, I say this as someone who grew up without knowing what a JAP was until I was about 14 and panicked when I heard my east coast cousins ranting about them because I thought they were racist and hated Japanese people. The Nice Jewish Girl damages me more because she is believable and can eat my self-esteem. As I sat there in the theater, I wanted to scream, “I get it!” at the top of my lungs. As Leonard blew off Sandra to meet up with Michelle and her adulterous lover (awkward!) at a very fancy restaurant and walked by the Christmas tree not very subtly plopped in the background, I wanted to shout, “Okay! Okay! I get it!” You’re trying to tell me that I am not sexy; I am motherly. I am not exciting; I am safe. I am not an individual; I am an extension of my family.
This is where people will accuse me of overreacting, and so I will say, “No, I understand that the film did not literally mean that all Jewish women are like Sandra.” But when a narrative about Jewish family life and tradition gets played again and again, it’s easy to get tired of it. When no one “like you” is ever portrayed as the pretty, sexy woman, it’s easy to get tired of it. I wouldn’t say Two Lovers was obnoxious, over-the-top, or excessively offensive in its use of an old narrative, but it did make me wonder when filmmakers who want to talk about Jewish identity as a facet of their film will find a new way to talk about the dilema that does not reduce their people to ideologies, stereotypes, and not-women/men.
Can we excuse reducing people to theme? The NYT ignores this tired portrayal of Jewish femininity because it’s “a classic dilemma.” And yes, it is a classic dilemma for any minority to figure out how to balance individuality, tradition, and being a product of two cultures. I understand, believe me, that the “marry/date a nice Jewish (blank)” is a refrain that so many Jewish youth hear, and so it is so easy to place all your identity issues into the question of marriage, as ridiculous as it may seem when you step back and realize what you’re doing. But there are causalities in the process. Perhaps if I could be convinced that Sandra Cohen was ever meant to be a real character, I would change my mind with Two Lovers‘s handling of these problems.
So when my best friend’s little sister posted the video link, quoted it proudly, I felt a sense of relief. It was, in a sense, our own personal (by which I mean, my friend’s and my) equivalent of “This is want a feminist” looks like campaign. My friend’s little sister is what a Jewish woman looks like. My best friend is what a Jewish woman looks like. I am what a Jewish woman looks like. We are part of a tradition, but we are not merely extensions of it. We are complicated too, thank you very much.