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So How Many Jewish, Female Film Characters Are There?

By Sarah Seltzer

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The fact that nice Jewish actress Natalie Portman told Elle UK that she “she stays away from Jewish roles” (the full interview isn’t posted yet) prompted Double X’s Jessica Grose to ask how many major studio movies in recent years have actually had explicitly Jewish female protagonists outside the Holocaust genre. She came up with a mere two: “Kissing Jessica Stein” (one of my personal favorites) and “Two Lovers.”

At first I thought she was undershooting — we’re all over the movies! — but then I realized that finding more examples that fit her criteria was far harder than it seemed. I actually had to go back to the 1990s, and do some real digging and sifting through comment threads to fill out my list, which contains its share of mother-in-law type supporting characters who are not explicitly romantic protagonists.

Here it is:

•Meryl Streep as the therapist in “Prime.”

•Norah (Kat Dennings) in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

•All the female characters (Tovah Feldshuh, Anna Paquin, Diane Lane) in the wonderful “A Walk on the Moon.”

•Shoshanna Dreyfuss, played by Melanie Laurent, in “Inglorious Basterds.”

•Barbara Streisand in “Meet the Fockers.”

•Apparently, Angelina Jolie’s character, a deadly assassin in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” although it’s disclosed in a punchlline.

• Karen Hill, formerly Friedman, played by Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas” — a Jewish girl who marries into the mob.

•Charlotte in “Sex and the City.” She’s a convert, and it’s a movie franchise now.

Are there more that I’m missing? If so, free to add them to the comments section of this post.

What interested me as I trolled back through my memory and through the comment thread at Double X is how a huge majority of today’s mainstream movies and romantic comedies have ethnically and religiously ambiguous characters, sometimes with names like the protagonists of “It’s Complicated” have: “Adler.” Sounds Jewish. Some characters may have a New York hint-hint quality to them, but they’re often not explicitly introduced as coming from any background.

I’ve always believed that the best films, particularly romances or comedies, set their characters in a real context, whether they’re Jews, WASPs, African-Americans or characters from another distinct background or ethnic heritage. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” may have been a slapsticky caricature, but audiences loved it because they saw their own families in its boisterous, far-from-bland Greek one. I don’t understand why more movies don’t situate their protagonists in a culture — whether or not it’s my own.


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Comments
Leah Wed. Jan 13, 2010

I also found Natalie Portman's comments to be telling. I wrote about it on Jewesses with Attitude here: http://jwablog.jwa.org/natalie-portman-has-a-point

Still, I appreciate the work you put into coming up with that list! It is so much harder than one might think.

A while back I wrote about how there was a deficit of "kick-ass" Jewish women in film. I asked readers to come up with examples, and they managed to come up with a few more, including Maude played by Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude" (although that is not so recent).

Shoshana Dreyfus is by far the most prominent example, but technically, Inglourious Basterds is - as Natalie would remind us - a Holocaust movie.

Leah Wed. Jan 13, 2010

I also found Natalie Portman's comments to be telling. I wrote about it on Jewesses with Attitude here: http://jwablog.jwa.org/natalie-portman-has-a-point

Still, I appreciate the work you put into coming up with that list! It is so much harder than one might think.

A while back I wrote about how there was a deficit of "kick-ass" Jewish women in film. I asked readers to come up with examples, and they managed to come up with a few more, including Maude played by Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude" (although that is not so recent).

Shoshana Dreyfus is by far the most prominent example, but technically, Inglourious Basterds is - as Natalie would remind us - a Holocaust movie.

Phyllis Jackoway Wed. Jan 13, 2010

Barbara S. always plays a Jewess. And she lets you know it. Can't think of any of her characters who were not Jewish.

Jack Thu. Jan 14, 2010

I think in “Nuts,” “All Night Long,” and “Up the Sandbox” Streisand plays characters that aren’t Jewish.

Hollywood sucks Fri. Jan 15, 2010

Hollywood is run by nazi Jews who hate Jewish women and worship the Aryans.

blanquita Fri. Jan 15, 2010

Also: Minnie Driver's character in "The Governess." She places a Sephardi, nontheless. The female lead character/romantic interest, "Em," in "Adventureland." Also Lisa Kudrow played a Jewish character called Marci Feld in the fairly terrible film "Marci X."

I am constantly disappointed by the lack of obviously Jewish non-mother-in-law type characters in most Hollywood films. If Hollywood directors are worried about two Jewish lead characters not being appealing enough to a broad enough audience, why not have a non-Jewish person fall for a Jewish woman? It happens at least as often in real life as a blonde non-Jewish woman falling for a Jewish man as is constantly portrayed by Hollywood.

Jack Fri. Jan 15, 2010

Limiting myself to movies that I’ve seen, I’d add: The Flax family from “Mermaids” (1990); Cher Horowitz from “Clueless” (1995); Vivian and Rita Abromowitz from “The Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998); and various Jewish women, including Jewish mothers from “You Don't Mess with the Zohan” (2008).

Susan Wed. Jan 20, 2010

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Isabelle (Izzy) Grossman from "Crossing Delancy" (1988). That movie is such a treasure, in part because of the rarity of movies like it.




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