People who see This Is Where I Leave You, the ensemble dramedy directed by Shawn Levy and starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Jane Fonda, this weekend are in for a surprise. The movie tells the story of four Jewish siblings who come together after the death of their father to sit shiva, a weeklong mourning period for immediate family members. The word "shiva," however is not mentioned in the trailer, nor in any interviews done by the cast and crew, nor in press notes. Neither, for that matter, is the word "Jewish." Instead, the forced reunion of these often antagonistic family members is depicted in all promotional materials as a "last request" of their deceased father, a quirky, sitcom-type punishment instead of the hallowed religious tradition that it is.
It could have been worse. The filmmakers could have stripped all portrayals of Judaism from Jonathan Topper's best-selling novel to appeal to a mainstream audience. It would have been very easy to go the route of Home for Purim (the fake film from Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration that became Home for Thanksgiving during post-production), so we should celebrate — in the name of diversity — this film's detailed explanation of shiva and its origins, its scene set in a synagogue and even the young, dorky rabbi character played by Ben Schwartz (House of Lies, Parks and Recreation) because these are rarities in studio movies.
Even so, the degree to which the religious aspect is hidden in all promotional materials raises good questions about how accepting mainstream America is of Jewish stories, or rather how accepting Hollywood thinks mainstream America will be.
Here is the surprising, alarming truth: Although there are many prominent Jewish directors and producers, lead characters that both identify as Jewish and are played by Jewish actors rarely make it to the screen. If you look at the top grossing movies of 2013, you have to go all the way down to No. 17 to find a Jewish protagonist. That would be Irving Rosenfeld of American Hustle, played by Christian Bale, a gentile.
Jewish actors certainly have their place on screen, but — Andrew Garfield's recent comments about Spider-Man's religion notwithstanding — rarely do they get to play characters whose Jewish faith plays a meaningful role in their lives. In this area, This Is Where I Leave You is a prime offender — of the four actors cast as siblings in the film, only one (Corey Stoll) is Jewish.
Talking about this issue gets tricky fast because it differs from the underrepresentation in pop culture of other minority groups in one significant way. It is presumed that the lack of black characters in pop culture is a result of a lack of black people behind the camera, and if we increase opportunities for black filmmakers and actors, better and more nuanced portrayals of the black American experience will follow. It is no coincidence that 12 Years a Slave, the most uncompromising depiction of American slavery ever put on film, was written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, both of whom are black.
But Jews are and always have been present behind the camera. Jewish immigrants were integral in founding Hollywood in the early 20th century when nativism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were rampant. Out of both a deeply ingrained fear and a love of their new country, the first Hollywood moguls – Louis B. Mayer, George Cukor and the Warner brothers, among others — were desperate to assimilate into the American aristocracy and eager to hide any hint of their heritage in their films.
In Neal Gabler's terrific book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, he describes the world depicted onscreen as completely inverted from the one in which these moguls were raised: "It would be an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful and decent." The actors who played these characters — Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino — were the first class of American celebrities. In this way, these Eastern European Jews, so afraid of being seen as un-American, helped create our modern American culture driven by depictions of wealth and fame. As Gabler writes: "By creating their idealized America on the screen the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction."
Today, some Jewish directors seem to be following the same script. It is perhaps too convenient, though, to draw a straight line between the wealthy gentiles in Hollywood's first blockbusters to the upper-middle-class characters in films by modern-day Jewish directors like Shawn Levy and Judd Apatow, but there are certainly similarities.
This Is Where I Leave You takes place in a rich suburban community (scenes were shot in Rye, N.Y.) and has been criticized for its narrow depiction of one-percenter problems. Writing about Levy in the Village Voice, Calum Marsh felt that "you have to wonder about the social myopia of a millionaire who feels compelled to bemoan his hardships at feature length."
I tackled this subject for the Atlantic after the release of Apatow's This Is 40 in 2013, noting that the director's "blindness to the distancing effect of affluence helps explains why his films have failed to connect with audiences lately." It's worth noting that few of the characters in these films are actually devout. For the characters in This Is Where I Leave You, religion is either a punchline or an annoyance, while the characters in Apatow's films are more culturally Jewish than religious (see the conversation between the young men in Knocked Up about how Steven Spielberg's Munich might help them get laid).
If the failure of modern-day Jewish directors to tell stories that represent their people's humble origins detracts from good storytelling, so does the hiring of gentiles to play Jewish characters. Last December in the Jewish Journal, Rob Eshman discussed why it matters that Jordan Belfort, the real-life protagonist of Wolf of Wall Street, was actually Jewish. Director Martin Scorsese seemed to purposefully avoid delving into Belfort's motivations for his financial crimes, but Eshman felt that Belfort's Jewishness might have explained it:
"It's not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn't join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others."
In other words, Belfort was an outsider, but it sure does not seem that way when you have one of the world's biggest movie stars, who has been a celebrity since he was 12, playing him. In a film that frustrated many moviegoers by refusing to explain its protagonist's motivations, the introduction of the character's Judaism could have played a small but meaningful role.
So where do we go from here? It would be foolish to call for a "Jewish renaissance" in film similar to what black cinema experienced in 2013. It's also worth pointing out that, when compared to some other minorities, Jewish characters may actually be overrepresented onscreen. Only about 2-3% of Americans are Jewish, while Hispanics, for example, make up 17% and make up an even larger percentage of the movie-going public (26%). And while there are enough Jewish movie stars and filmmakers to fill an Adam Sandler song, Latinos continue to search for representation both on camera and behind the scenes.
There is not a lack of Jews behind or in front of the camera, but we do need them to tell their stories in a way that does not banish their faith to the margins. Jon Stewart's real last name, after all, is Leibowitz, and Jonah Hill used to be known as Jonah Feldstein.
Perhaps because the bar is so low for depictions of Judaism in pop culture, and because Jewish fear of being rejected by mainstream America is so ingrained, This Is Where I Leave You should be considered a big step in the right direction, despite the omissions in its marketing. It shows that commercial filmmakers are willing to trust mainstream American audience to be open-minded about a Jewish story, and if the film is a success, that trust will be reinforced.
While it may not seem like much in the way of progress, it's a long way from where the movie industry started.