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Here’s Looking at Jew, Kid

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“I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.”- Humphrey Bogart, attributed last words.

“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”- Woody Allen

As an emotionally challenged New York Jew, I identify with Woody Allen. As an American, steeped in its popular culture, I also revere Humphrey Bogart.

Like Allen, Bogart was a short New York native who, after multiple marriages, finally settled down with a partner many years his junior. In Allen’s case, it was Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen’s long-time love, Mia Farrow. In Bogart’s, it was the breathtakingly beautiful, glamorous, (and Jewish) actress Lauren Bacall. Nevertheless, the Bogie persona was as quintessentially goyish (that’s Gentile to all you gentiles) as Allen’s is over-the-top Jewish.

Allen’s films are steeped in the cultural anxieties of the Jew struggling to fit into a gentile world. Of course, in Jew York City, that’s easier to do than it might be in Lynchburg, Virginia. But make no mistake – we wandering Jews are everywhere. It’s just that New York City is the American capital of the Chosen People, hands down. Here, we can be much more comfy about getting in touch with our inner Jew without feeling like alien beings.

Allen addresses the Jew/goy divide in many of his films. In Annie Hall, (1977) when he first meets up with ultra-shiksa (non-Jewish woman) Annie, she quickly declares that he is what her Granny Hall would call “a real Jew.” While visiting Annie’s family, Allen demonstrates, via split screen, the stereotypical cultural chasm between Jew and Wasp. Annie’s family is polite and reserved, not a hair out of place, choosing their words with care and constraint; Allen’s family is noisy, messy, and generally chaotic. Annie’s family talks of hunts and swap meets; Allen’s family might talk, perhaps, of the relative who developed a large goiter, as the children throw food and chase each other around the dining room. Flung into this alien goyish world, with Granny Hall periodically looking up from her plate to glare at him with unadulterated anti-Semitic contempt, Allen is clearly both out of his element and in it – because his role as the striving but insecure outsider is part of what makes Woody, well, Woody. The struggle for identity is part of Allen’s identity.

Zelig (1983) goes even further -documenting a Jewish-born man with no sense of self whatsoever. A human chameleon, he takes on the appearance of anyone he comes into contact with. He literally transforms himself, by turns, into an Asian, an African-American, an Orthodox rabbi, an obese man, a Native American, a psychiatrist -even a Nazi, sitting behind Hitler at the podium during one of his rallies. With the help of his shrink (played by Mia Farrow) he struggles to discover who he really is beneath all the briefly acquired facades.

Play it Again Sam (1972) is director Herbert Ross’ adaptation of Allen’s own Broadway play. and the first film that pairs Allen and future long-time lover Diane Keaton, who went on to star in many of his films. Originally slated to be filmed in New York, the production was moved to San Francisco due to a New York filmmakers’ strike in the summer of 1971.

Allen plays Allan Felix, a movie buff whose job is writing film-crit for magazines. Having just endured a painful divorce, he turns for solace to married friends Linda and Dick – played by Keaton and Tony Roberts – who repeatedly try to fix him up. But Allan’s nervousness and lack of self-esteem sabotage any and all efforts they make to get him laid (or even to master a successful first date.) Plagued with anxiety and insecurity, Allan laments, “How will I be able to get a woman into bed? I won’t even be able to get her into a chair.”

In times of stress, he conjures up the apparition of his idol Bogey, circa Casablanca (1942). Bogey attempts to advise Allan in the fine art of bagging “dames.” When Allan reveretially asks if Bogie was crushed at the end of Casablanca when his love Elsa got back on the plane with her Nazi-fighting husband Victor Laslow, he laconically replies: “Nothing a little bourbon and soda wouldn’t fix.”

Being the antithesis of Bogie, Allan of course fails miserably at drinking and any other Bogie-ism. In one scene, for example, Bogie advises him not to let his date know about the non-drinking thing or “she’ll think you’re a boy scout.” Allan, the quintessentially nerdy and tentative Jew, is just not built to be the Goyishe shikker (drinker) and heroic risk-taker his film idol embodies.

Allan’s inadequacies are further exposed in a scene in which his ex-wife, tired of her cloistered existence with a man who is a “watcher” rather than a “doer,” proclaims her newfound freedom by getting on the back on a chopper with a “tall, handsome…blue-haired, blond eyed man.” Perturbed by her quick transformation, Allan laments: “We’ve been divorced two weeks and she’s dating a Nazi.”

Linda’s hubby Dick is preoccupied with work, constantly discussing real estate deals on the phone. One of the funniest running gags in the film concerns Dick’s Type A, pre-cell phone wheeling and dealing. As soon as Dick arrives at any new location, he has to call in to let his colleagues know his number. (“I’ll be at 362-9296 for a while; then I’ll be at 648-0024 for about fifteen minutes; then I’ll be at 752-0420; and then I’ll be home, at 621-4598. Yeah, right George, bye-bye.”)

Feeling neglected and insecure, Linda winds up spending a lot of time with Allan. Both hypochondriacs (it’s a Jewish thing; Bogie would never take a trank, just a drink), they compare notes about their shrinks and the use of aspirin and tranquilizers.

Allan: You want a Fresca with a Darvon?
Linda: Unless you have apple juice.
Allan: Apple juice and Darvon is fantastic together!
Linda: Have you ever had Librium and tomato juice?
Allan: No, I haven’t personally, but another neurotic tells me they’re unbelievable.

Eventually, Allen realizes he has fallen in love with Linda, and is advised by Bogie in how to properly seduce her. In preparation for a romantic dinner at his apartment, complete with champagne, Bogie has to reprimand him as he shops for supplies: “Don’t get those candles. Those are for a Jewish holiday.” As the time for Linda to arrive approaches, Allen is plagued with anxiety:

Allan: I can’t do it. How does it look? I invite her over and then come on like a sex degenerate. What am I, a rapist?
Bogart: You’re getting carried away. You think too much. Just do it.
Allan: We’re platonic friends. I can’t spoil that by coming on. She’ll slap my face.
Bogart: Oh, I’ve had my face slapped plenty of times.
Allan: Yeah, but your glasses don’t go flying across the room.

With “Bogey” egging him on, Allan scores -by modifying Bogey’s pick up lines to match his own more sensitive persona. Ironically, it is Allan’s non-Bogieish sweetness and sincere romanticism that ultimately captivates Keaton.

Play it Again, Sam culminates with Allan reenacting the final scene from Casablanca -rushing to the airport after Linda, who is trying to catch up with Dick before he boards a plane for a business trip to Cleveland. In the dark, smoke-filled air, as the plane’s propellers whirl a la Casablanca, Allan and Linda acknowledge their love for each other, but agree that Linda, who also still loves her husband, belongs with Dick – that she’s essential for his life and work – the thing that keeps him going – just as Bergman’s Elsa was to Victor Laslo.

Allan: If that plane leaves the ground, and you’re not on it with him, you’ll regret it – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Linda: That’s beautiful!
Allan: It’s from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it.

You don’t have to be Jewish to relate to this dialectic of identity. Virtually all Americans have roots elsewhere in the world. Part of the American experience for all immigrants and ethnic groups involves balancing the desire to become assimilated, “real” Americans with the urge to retain some of their original heritage.

And thus it is that Woody Allen – a skinny, short, nerdy, bespectacled, Brooklyn born Jew – became, like Bogie, an icon of American cinema.

Plus, he’s bagged a bunch of swell dames.

Originally posted on Shithouse rat.

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About Elvira Black

  • I don’t know, Elvira.

    I went to the same high school as Allen Koenigsberg did and for many years there was a large back and white photo of him next to a photo of one of the longer serving deceased principals of the high school.

    Arguably, he is the most famous product of the school I went to – until one of us alumni can outdo him, anyway.

    Allen has made many films, some of which were even enjoyable – and he was a funny stand-up comic and great comedy writer. No one can take these accomplishments away from him, and what he has forgotten in these fields, many have yet to learn.

    But he was also an ass-hole in his personal life. He screwed and then screwed over a woman, stealing her adopted daughter to be his mistress, and finally ditching the wife for the adopted daughter.

    I, like you and Allen Koenigsberg, am a Jew born in Brooklyn. I walked in its streets and know well its dappled sunlight. And I, like Allen Koenigberg, graduated from one of the best public school systems in the United States in its day.

    But the neurotic putz you know as Woody Allen is no model of mine. May the L-rd bless him and keep him – far away from me.

  • Elvira, let me add one more point.

    Teh crux of Woody Allen’s work and of the humor in it was the attempt of the Jew to be a Goy – and never quote succeeding. Any Jew living in Brooklyn can understand the problem – and the effort made to solve it.

    I solved that problem by coming home and being who I am – instead of trying to be someone else.

    Just my 10 agorot. Your kilometrage may vary.

  • Hi Ruvy:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Although as you can probably see that I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s films, I don’t necessarily agree with all of his real-life ethical choices.

    Moreover, in addition to his affair with, and subsequent marriage to, Soon-Yi Previn, the premise of his film Manhattan was admittedly shocking–even to me. In the film, Allen is dating a much younger woman (played by a squeaky-voiced Mariel Hemingway)–in fact, she is underage when he meets up with her. Given a choice between a more mature, yet neurotic shiksa (ex-love Diane Keaton) he chooses the still-innocent, emotionally and intellectually malleable (and thus non-threatening) shiksa. Talk about art imitating life!

    Although I am not an observant Jew, like many of my contemporaries I treasure the incomparable cultural and intellectual achievements of my “peeps.” To me, one of the cornerstones of my Jewish heritage is the knowlege that Jewish humor is in large part based on our suffering–including our struggles to deal with those who would despise or even try to eliminate us. I also feel that humor can be a great way to break down the barriers of prejudice, and even give our tormentors a zetz or two.

    One of my aunts is an Orthodox Jew, and I doubt she has seen any of Allen’s films, or that she would care to. However, though I understand your point of view, I feel fairly strongly that it is possible to love the work of art (music, film, literature, what-have-you) without necessarily loving the real-life foibles of its creator.

    In essence, though Allen will perhaps never win any father of the year awards, his contributions are still, to my mind, invaluable. In other words, when it comes to Allen’s body of work, I’d rather not throw out the baby-snatcher along with the bathwater.

    Many thanks, Ruvy!

  • Oy vey–I really messed up the font on my last comment by trying to italicize the film title Manhattan. What a shonda!

    [Actually, you messed up this one too, you closed the tag with an “a” not an “i”. Take a breath, Elvira! Comments Editor]

  • Shark

    Nice essay, E.

    It was fun to relive all of those great scenes. I recently did an ongoing Woody Film fest at the house; most of his work really holds up over the years. Woody is one of the few who can be funny and profound in the same film.

    Woody is one of America’s treasures; probably way underappreciated, imo.


    PS: Ruvy, stop with the National Enquirer stuff, cuz…

    1) You don’t know the “real story” behind any of it.

    2) No one asked you to judge great artists as role models; if that were the case, we wouldn’t have many great artists — and Red Skelton’s clown paintings would be in the Louvre.

  • Shark writes,

    “PS: Ruvy, stop with the National Enquirer stuff, cuz…

    1) You don’t know the ‘real story’ behind any of it.

    2) No one asked you to judge great artists as role models; if that were the case, we wouldn’t have many great artists — and Red Skelton’s clown paintings would be in the Louvre.”

    I never read the National Enquirer. If you know the “real” story defend the man. Some of us would like to look up to him. He has been a great artist. And he is a fellow alumnus of mine.

    Some of us though, do not compartmentalize in looking at people. We look at the whole package.

    A lesser known Brooklyn Jew – General Mickey Marcus of the IDF, and a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School – rates somewhat higher than Allen on my scale, though it is possible that he too committted adultery (somthing I do not know for sure – as I said, I do not read the National Enquirer).

  • Thanks, Shark!

    Well, I guess all the comments are gonna be in ital, for extra emphasis (lol)…

    A Woody Allen film fest at your house? That sounds awesome! Can I come to the next one?

    I have to say I love Woody A. on so many levels–as a comedian, screenwriter, auteur, New Yorker, Jew, existentialist, neurotic, philosopher…and I would even say musician if I’d ever seen him at the Carlyle. Living in NYC, I’m not sure what my excuse is for that.

    Yes, I have to agree with you on this one, Shark. Separation of art and artist, just like church and state.

    To take it even further, there are some famously anti-Semitic, even Fascist artists, whose work I admire–Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Celine being two I can think of offhand. Even when the work itself reflects their appalling personal philosophy, I can still see its value as a cultural and historical document reflecting the zietgiest within which the artist crafted his work.

    To cut to the chase, art for art’s sake. Disapprove of the messenger, but don’t kill the message. Great art is too precious a thing to censor.

  • Ruvy:

    On some level, I guess I have to agree to disagree. On another, I think we both ackowledge that Woody Allen is a gifted, talented artist.

    Thanks for (inadvertently?) stirring up a little controversy (lol)!

  • Elvira, I do not remember saying anything about censoring the work of Woody Allen.

    It is one thing to judge art, and quite another to judge the artist AND his art. If you want to admire Ezra Pound or Richard Wagner, that is fine, but do understand that admiring someone who dislikes you because of who you are and who inspires others to be likely willing to kill you thereby is rank foolishness.

    Let us take the works of Winston Churchill, for one. This man was a master of the English language and of rhetoric in the English language. His work was honed by his experience as a war reporter, and by the constant repartée in the House of Commons, of which he was a member for five decades or so.

    He has made some of the most inspirational speeches of the 20th Century. His speech describing the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940 stands yet to be matched.

    But he also undid the work of Haim Weitzman and Sherif Feisal in 1918 in getting a place for Jews to peacefully settle in Israel. As part of the Colonial Office, he created the “Emirates” of “Transjordan” and “Irak.” These countries have all the reality of beer commercials and your nation and mine are both paying the price for his deeds in blood.

    So the fellow needs to be taken in totality. Is a man who drinks a bottle of scotch a day, gets up at noon and keeps a budgie to be trusted? If you are a Brit, yes – if you are a Jew, no!

    So, the point is that when you admire people who are not necessarily your friend, the person you threaten is yourself. But not seeing this comes from trying to fit yourself to a foreign standard. “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”- Woody Allen Think about that line, Elvira.

    We see this too often here in Israel. Read my piece about Hanukkah if you want to understand more clearly what I’m talking about.

  • Hi again Ruvy:

    Somehow I knew my last comment might inspire you to reply again–lol!

    Yes, you did not say a thing about censoring the work of Woody Allen. I was referring to those who would practice censorship, which Jews generally don’t seem to believe in (am I right?) Much better after all, for example, to reveal all the horrors of the Holocaust than to bury them under the rug because they are brutal images–or worse still, to deny them altogether by claiming they are a “myth.” Conversely, I feel it is important to publicize these hate-monger’s rants so that their “myth” does not remain a reality for those they preach to.

    In addition, I did not say I necessarily admire artists or politicians who have maligned the State of Israel, etc. It is their work which I am talking about here. As far as Churchill, FDR, et al, I know that they did great things–as well as some shameful things. But again, looking pragmatically at that time in history, it does not surprise me to see this. It still does not erase the fact that overall, their actions felled the Nazis–who would never have rested til they exterminated all the Jews. So their actions, in other words, saved more Jews than not.

    I am bookmarking your site now, and will read and comment on your Hanukkah post. Thanks again, Ruvy!

  • I know this is the wrong place to insert this, but this entry goes wacky if I try to edit it, and I didn’t know how to place a caption or credit for the Bogey painting above. Anyway, here it is:

    Portrait of Bogey by “BG” (aka Elvira’s comrade-in-arms). All rights reserved.

  • Just a note from a Gentile who is a fan of both Mr. Bogart and Mr. Allen. I think what drew me to both is that they were New Yorkers. That was why I always could identify with something in what they were doing or saying. While Mr. Allen has used his heritage in his work, it is just part of his humor. When he’s a fish out of water whilst in LA, it’s more because he’s a New Yorker than anything else. I think the same can be said for Bogart’s role as Blaine (a New Yorker way out of water in Morocco in Casablanca .

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  • Great essay and interesting idea. Good work.

  • Victor:
    Thanks! I was reflecting just last night on the fact that once you’ve lived in New York, you’ll always be a New Yorker–at least in part– wherever else you go. Though I’ve known a few natives who have fled the city over the years (lol), I think even if you hate it you can never feel neutral about NYC.

    I clicked to your link and saw the description of your new book about 9/11. It’s amazing how many people from all over the country and the world felt they were connected to New York and New Yorkers when this tragedy occurred.

    That was a great point about Bogie being from New York in Casablanca–I didn’t realize that, but it definitely matches his character in the film.

    Allen’s uneasiness in LA is beautifully captured in Annie Hall. Just the scene where he’s attempting to drive and gets stopped by the cop is priceless. I also love the line about trying to avoid getting too mellow because then he tends to rot. New Yorkers just don’t do mellow very well, now do they?

    Many thanks. The photos are your site are beautiful.