The August, 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which consolidated all manner of torch-wielding neofascists, immediately became Trumpism’s tipping point, as unreconstructed bigotries finally bled though our thin facades of civility. American rightists, badly disguised by fashionable euphemisms, assembled in Charlottesville on the pretext of protecting Confederate statuary. Apparently neo-Confederates desperately need their graven idols, the only signs of their cause still permitted in the public square.
Journalists have mobilized the word “tribalism” to describe our hyperpartisan divide, but “infantilism” seems more appropriate, insofar as the childish faith in nostalgia and the statuary blind zealots’ present realities. Trump’s subsequent ”
both sides-ism“, meant to falsely equate the violence of bigots with the outrage of progressives prompted the most pitiful and craven Congressional declaration in memory. On December 12, 2017, the American Congress issued a statement that “officially” condemned white supremacy. Apparently, it was no longer obvious that delusional crypto-Nazis should be shunned. We now needed a reminder, bereft of irony, from the very submissive Congress that had empowered Trump in the first place.
For the conspiracist immersed in Anglo fantasies of blood and soil, the casual pleasures of racism are superseded only by the pious indignation afforded by anti-Semitism. A popular placard during the Charlottesville rally warned the world that “Jews will not replace us”. For those who are not anti-Semitic, “replace” seems a cryptic verb choice. One can imagine anti-Semites hollering, “Jews will not control us” or “Jews will not manipulate us”, but “replace” is unduly ambitious in both its ignorance and its paranoia.
According to the Jewish People Policy Institute, as of 2015 Jewry comprised approximately 0.22 percent of the total global population, or about 16.5 million self-identifying Jews out of the planet’s seven-billion-plus humans (“Jewish global population approaches pre-Holocaust levels,” The Guardian, 28 June 201 ). Furthermore, secular Jews in the West typically have fewer children than Catholics and Protestants.
Perhaps the conspiracists believe Jews harbor clandestine breeding hives, or fund cloning labs at Brandeis University, or plan some sinisterly Hebraic variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Less facetiously, I suppose conspiracists imagine some scheme of “economic” replacement; that is, coastal bands of monied Jews will never replace the true, pastoral American, who shuns tailored suits, proudly uses his hands, and knows how to reproduce as God intended.
Paradoxically—if also unsurprisingly—conspiracists who dream of relentless Jewish dominion believe in Jewishness more dearly than most Jews. From this ideological belief springs single-minded political motivation. White supremacists, casting aside their scarlet letters, now proudly take to the streets (albeit in pitiful numbers) and emerge (also pitifully) as “viable” Republican candidates in mainstream elections. (Consider Confederate nostalgist Corey Stewart in Virginia or Illinoisan Nazi Arthur Jones, winner of a recent congressional primary in Chicago.) To call such people “Trumpists” is a misstatement, however, for they are true believers, not charlatans or opportunists. I recall a 2017 segment on CNN about white supremacists “rehabilitated” by Trumpism in which an interviewee, though emboldened by Trump, lamented that his hero wasn’t nearly anti-Semitic enough. The fact that Trump gave away his blonde, pearly-white daughter to a Jew, the well-tailored financier Jared Kushner, really broke the interviewee’s heart.
The unreconstructed bigot still dreams of the Wandering Jew, the rootless desert exile who infiltrates, infects, and ultimately impregnates purebred Gentiles. It’s likely that the Trumpist repulsed by Trump’s apparent philosemitism never saw Veit Harlan’sJud Süss (1940), but in that film festers the modern topos of the Wandering Jew. Perhaps the most flamboyantly produced example of Nazi anti-Semitism, Jüd Suss, a pet project of Joseph Goebells, was vile enough for the Allies to have had director Harlan stand trial for war crimes. Acquitted, he later helmed the homophobic “hygiene” film Different from You and Me (1957), about a mother who employs a temptress to cure the suspected homosexuality of her “artistic” son.
Jud Süss takes its inspiration from the history of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, an 18th century court Jew in the employ of Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. Oppenheimer was accused of treason and executed when he refused to renounce his Judaism and convert to Christianity. (Though Oppenheimer exploited the power structure as much as any Gentile courtier, there was no evidence of treason.) Travestying this history for obvious anti-Semitic appeal, Jud Süss unfortunately boasts impressive production values and compelling performances, excepting Malte Jaeger’s witless turn as Faber, the noble Aryan youth who combats Jewish perfidy.
As Oppenheimer, the Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian is an elegantly wicked villain, oozing with devious understatement and drained of sentimentality. Arresting by the cornball standards of 1940s Hollywood, Marian’s performance represents the acidic antithesis of the Nazi mentality. His superficial charm and tailored sophistication are unknown to the good Aryan, who is artless and transparent. The fascist mind, always limited by parochial sentimentality, fears art because it fears any hint of ambiguity. Only those uncertain about the world believe in the cause of art.
In Jud Süss, Marian’s Machiavellian Oppenheimer emerges from the ghetto of Württemberg, where yarmulked usurers bleed goyim dry and loose Jewesses leave their blouses unbuttoned. Oppenheimer finds a pliant dupe in the person of newly crowned Karl Alexander, a drunkard ignorant in the ways of finance. As a condition of his exorbitant loans, Oppenheimer asks the duke for passage into Stuttgart, where Jews are forbidden to travel. But first, Oppenheimer must “fix” his appearance by shaving off his sidelocks—an empowerment, not a castration. He then confides to his assistant, “I shall open the door for all of you.” En route to Stuttgart, he shares a carriage with an inquisitive Christian woman. “Don’t you have a homeland?” she cluelessly asks. With a sinister smirk, he replies, “I do… the world.” The line is delivered with diabolical relish: beneath the wanderer’s cosmopolitan charm lurks the hoary trope of world domination.
Soon the Duke, hopeless, indebted and enthralled to the Jew, must abide by the latter’s wishes. In accordance with Oppenheimer’s scheme, the Duke opens the city to ghettoized Jews. A dissonantly scored scene—obviously meant to terrify—pictures a procession of ragged Jewry marching through the gates of Stuttgart, their Hebrew chants barely rising above the soundtrack’s wailing violins. In a move resonant with Trump-era venality, the Jew advises the Duke to dissolve the constitutional ministry and establish a personal cabinet of sycophants. The Duke’s outraged ministers warn him that he not only oversteps constitutional canons but risks treason by trusting in the Jew. The council reminds the Duke that he could violate the dogmas of Luther, who urged Gentiles to murder Jews and set ablaze their temples (advice found in Luther’s 1543 On the Jews and their Lies, a favorite tract of the Nazis).
But the weak-kneed Duke has been corrupted beyond repair. He even succumbs to the bogus prophesy of a Kabbalistic rabbi (a wheezing Werner Krauss, in the film’s most grotesque caricature) under Oppenheimer’s control. With the rabbi’s complicity, Oppenheimer eventually convinces the Duke to declare himself an autocrat, supported by a Jewish-funded army; meanwhile, Oppenheimer rapes the daughter of the councilman who most opposes the Duke’s bid for absolute sovereignty. Needless to say, the Jew’s plans are thwarted, but not before the violated councilman’s daughter drowns herself, as a good Christian should. After the hoi polloi storm the Duke’s palace, the Jew is hanged in the city square, pleading his innocence to the very end.
Within Ferdinand Marian’s fiendish performance is the ghost of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written in 1590, about 300 years after Edward I had officially expelled Jews from England. Like Shakespeare, Marlowe mainly knew about Jews from what he read in books. His vengeful protagonist Barabbas, who kills scores of soldiers, nuns, and scoundrels in addition to his own daughter, was an exotic villain tailor-made for Elizabethan prejudice. Marlowe’s drama features a famous prologue in which Machiavelli himself appears to pronounce himself the Jew’s muse and genie. Yet Barabbas is more sympathetic antihero than cackling villain; unlike Shakespeare’s Richard III, who is only the humpbacked victim of nature, Barabbas is wronged by anti-Semitic officials who confiscate his wealth in the play’s very first scene. Marian’s irreligious Oppenheimer, however, gleefully exploits his own kind. He steps into a temple only to manipulate devoted Jews and bleed them for money to raise an army. For him, Jewishness as an evil ethos, not a religion.
This gloating ethos, of course, is the paper-thin fantasy of the anti-Semite, who believes that Jews are not only inherently satanic but also devoid of skepticism, never questioning or swerving from their satanism. Evil intentions aside, skepticism has long been the default position of most Jews, who inherited cynicism along with diasporic exile. This cynicism acquired a bitterer taste when eternal exile gave way to capitulating assimilation. Since the middle of the 18 th century (at least), some Jews have consciously—and often guiltily—striven to shed their Judaism. The first such model was probably Moses Mendelssohn, the handsome philosopher who modernized Talmudism; he exemplified Western Europe’s newly cosmopolitan “shaved Jew”, as he was then called in Germany. Personal grooming, it turned out, solved the millennia-old problem of exile, at least in a culture that connected the regulation of the body to class status. In such a culture, the beard is not merely an animal mask but an affront to human progress.
As Reform Judaism gradually became the normal way in which Jews negotiate modernity, they embodied what the sociologist Philip Rieff termed the ” psychological Jew“. Notably, Rieff avoided the more common term, “cultural Jew”, suggesting that secularity needn’t accede to “irresistible” Jewish cultural influences. But the culture still hangs around us, sterilely. Freud once declared, “Our festivals have outlived our dogma.” Some festivals, like the madly genocidal Passover, are better off dead, or at least exiled, much like the gelatinous gefilte fish logs that cower in every supermarket’s “Jewish ghetto”. In any case, without sincere belief, the festivals become little more than pagan charades.
Likewise, the Reformist mandate to do “good deeds” becomes indistinguishable from humdrum humanism when stripped of its supernatural framework. One begins to wonder why the framework was ever necessary. Religious zealots who insist that goodness is insufficient in itself invoke a self-serving problem of meaning: a given act, they believe, becomes more meaningful when it asserts a religious foundation, for mere humanity is forever flawed and insufficient. As zealots tiptoe to the border of theocracy, the psychological Jew’s nomadic condition—antithetical to Zionism as well—starts to transcend history and become an active choice.
Nevertheless, cultural Jews—that is, cynical ones—have always tried (direly) to salvage religion’s good parts and jettison the anachronisms. Growing up as a Reform Jew, I was always told to take pride (not a sin in Judaism) in the resilient values of Jewish tradition: a steadfast dedication to scholarship (even if a capitalist education always wins out); a highfalutin commitment to ethics (despite growing up in suburban New Jersey, where there are no ethics); and a feeling of intellectual superiority to Christians, who still believe in sin, hell, and other antihumanistic dogmas. Even as a child, I realized most of this was lip service—I knew no Jews who immersed themselves in esoteric research for its own sake, or who professed ethically remarkable belief systems. Scholarship was demoted to suburbia’s municipal schoolhouses, where knowledge was circumscribed in accordance with our irresistible capitalist futures.
Reflecting on one’s genealogical connection to history, one cannot help but becomes less glib. After the Holocaust, Jews know they exist only by some arbitrary fortune. Knowing what we know, we should be purely ethical creatures today. That we are not—or never were—compounds the absurdity to an unbearable degree. The absurdity gives rise to a certain embarrassment: we are thankful to be alive but are also obliged to claim a history we don’t really want, at least not anymore. This is the root of so-called Jewish self-hatred, though “hatred” is a dysphemism—and I suppose a euphemism as well—for “humiliation”. In different moments, we might believe either hatred or humiliation is the worse feeling, though the latter seems more accurate, as we can only confront history helplessly.
No matter how we might apologize for history, prefacing it with politically correct exclamations of pluralism, it stubbornly is what it is. The Pentateuch remains an egregious example of history’s ill will. Its alleged wisdoms are parochial and tribal; its prescriptions backwards and rotten with misogyny; its prescientific obsessions with bodily fluids and fleshly orifices unapologetically perverse; its moralities proudly monothematic and unimaginative; its cruelties unparalleled even by the bloodthirsty standards of ancient Rome, Jacobean England, or Qing-era China.
A number of years ago I attended a bar-mitzvah—more or less the only time I dare set foot in a temple—and endured a Conservative rabbi who explained that Leviticus was his “favorite” part of the Old Testament. I noticed no congregant bat an eye, but surely some stifled groans. I cannot remember the rabbi’s reasoning—it was certainly bullshit—but I recall he made no mention of the many verses that describe how to air sanitary napkins, how men must wrap their balls in consecrated girdles, how thou shalt slay any woman who fucks wild beasts, and so on. Not only has the festival outlived the dogma, but the bathwater has drowned the baby, so to speak. Sitting through the three-hour service, I entertained myself by picking up a prayer-book and perusing the rabbi’s beloved Leviticus. I quickly discovered a revisionist text equipped with footnotes assuring congregants that the publisher, while reproducing the standard translation, did not endorse the practice of stoning fallen women or men who lie with their own kind. Too little, far too late.
When we, hopelessly modern, glance back at our inherited provincialisms, the only possible result is a comedy of humiliation. Here, we too easily become the Woody Allenesque Jew, whose obsessive existentialism cannot fully erase the embarrassing shadow of the shtetl. A two-part episode of Seinfeld, “Raincoats“, presented the embarrassment in rock-bottom terms: Jerry is shamed by his parents because he’s caught making out with his date during Schindler’s List. Doubtless Jerry’s ethnically stereotyped parents are the original source of his mortification—his father, a vulgarian, is even named Morty. At best, enduring the humiliation of history amounts to little more than heroic misery, the struggle of a doomed introvert.
The Holocaust intensified this position but certainly did not invent it. Freud recognized it early on. In many works—most notablyThe Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious—Freud mines the German Jewish experience to allegorize a universal experience of the underdog. Much as the Jew must sacrifice his beard in order to access the general graces of society, so must the virtuous ego subordinate a filthy id for the sake of elevated social orders. In The Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy suggests that Freud’s layered trinity of id-ego-superego is part of a reaction against sterilizing assimilation. Cuddihy, a sociologist, attempting the sort of pun Freud hated, proposes in Freud an “id-Yid” corollary, in which a “latent” or “darkly” Jewish id struggles for legitimacy within “the consciousness of civil society.” (Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, NY: Beacon Press, 1987, 20) Of course, the struggle is doomed from the outset, for any id, Jewish or otherwise, must sacrifice itself for the good of the reality principle. For the modern Jew, suppressing the superstitious id does not remove the stain of embarrassment, for the act is always effortful—oppressed minorities, swathed in difference, do not have the luxury of automatic repression.
For years, Freud worried that psychoanalysis would be labeled a Jewish phenomenon—thus the early importance of bringing Carl Jung, a Gentile, into his fold. In the contemporary—that is, Freudian—schema, the authentic Jew is the secularized one, who understands that the Oedipal conflict is not merely a myth of powerholding but a rational mandate to negate one’s ill-begotten past. Freud was tortured by his own Jewish identity, conceding the “mystical” (or mystagogical) character of psychoanalysis and haunted by a childhood episode in which he witnessed his father victimized by anti-Semitic hoodlums, who crushed his hat in the street (a public castration). But Freud wreaked an epic, unprecedented revenge, inflicting psychoanalysis on all of Christendom. No longer was psychoanalysis a Jewish therapy meant to exorcise an imposed self-hatred; it would become a system that would legitimize and eternalize every bourgeois neurosis, every irreconcilable filial conflict. It was a system even disbelievers could not escape, as the overweening psychosis of religion turned into the manageable neurosis of everyday rebellion.
In different frames of mind, the conflict between revenge and assimilation can be analogous to that between id and ego and that between ego and superego, depending on the legitimacy one ascribes to the reality principle. As the 19th century drew to a close, the possibilities of Jewish assimilation in Western Europe seemed a fait accompli, the Dreyfus Affair notwithstanding. The rise of socialism, the end of the American Civil War, and the freeing of Russia’s serfs seemed to bode well for the future of equality. The spirit of brotherhood gradually trickled into central Europe, where, as Cynthia Walk remarks, the “legal emancipation of Jews in the German-speaking countries” afforded them “full civil status between 1862 and 1874, when a civil law permitted mixed marriages.” (“Anti-Semitism and Assimilation Das Alte Gesetz“, Flicker Alley, 2018, 3) Legal proclamations and incremental tolerance obviously could not expunge 19 centuries of prejudice, and after the 1871 consolidation of Germany, the old fears of encroaching Jewish contamination took on a nationalistic slant. As Walk says,
“Despite their relatively modest presence, the immigration of Eastern Jews provoked the disproportionate and exaggerated perception that they were a serious civic problem…They were described as a drain on municipal resources and an invasion of foreigners whose different physiognomy, religion, and culture resisted acculturation. The reaction against Ostjuden quickly escalated from demagoguery to political agitation and government-sponsored legislation, such as a 1919 Berlin edict authorizing the expulsion of Eastern Jews who had committed a crime.” (Walk, ibid, 3)
At this risk of gross generalization, The Weimar Republic remained ambiguous about the (seemingly) eternal Jewish Question, though one finds pockets of optimism amongst the clamor. An unusually philosemitic view is found in E. A. Dupont’s The Ancient Law (Das alte Desetz, 1923), which sensitively addresses both the Jewish question and the implicit Oedipal conflict between bearded, unassimilated fathers and their clean-shaven, egoistic sons. Technically, The Ancient Law, recently restored on Blu-ray, is a significant discovery precisely because it foregoes the era’s dazed expressionism in favor of semi-stylized naturalism and directly emotional narrative. Dupont, who was Jewish, rose to international fame with Variety (1925), a film whose fluid camerawork temporarily placed him on par with the work of F.W. Murnau. Though its framing is mostly static, Dupont’s technique is otherwise state-of-the-art for 1923, absorbing Lang’s narrative momentum and Stroheim’s advances in cross-cutting. Sadly, Dupont’s career would slip into obscurity. Though his proto-noir Piccadilly (1929) has been reclaimed as a minor masterpiece of late silent stylization, his career floundered overseas—before 1933—and eventually he found himself on Hollywood’s bottom rung, cranking out C-level programmers like Problem Girls (1953) and The Neanderthal Man (1953).
The Ancient Law begins as Purim is celebrated in the Galician shtetl, where the schulklopfer knocks on doors and rouses citizens for the festivities. But Baruch, son of the local rabbi, dreams of leaving the shtetl to become a gentrified actor. Expectedly, the rabbi forbids such sacrilege, though the film thankfully avoids the mawkishness of The Jazz Singer (schmaltz is relegated to a few moments in which the rabbi exclaims with arms outstretched). Venturing a small performance that he believes will not rouse his father’s anger, Baruch plays an ancient bearded king in the Purim pageant. His father, unamused, tears off Baruch’s stage beard, incensed at his religious fakery. But a family friend, Ruben—a Wandering Jew who straddles the ghetto and cosmopolis—chides the rabbi for his provincialism. “Don’t be so strict, rabbi,” Ruben says, telling him that actors are highly esteemed in Vienna. Realizing that his son envies the Wandering Jew’s rootlessness, the rabbi becomes increasingly irate. In a memorable shot, Dupont shows Ruben, centered within the frame, walking across the fields that bound the shtetl and into the distance; to the rabbi, Ruben recedes into the nothingness of the wild, but to Baruch, the wanderer approaches the everything-ness of the outside world.
When Baruch insists that he takes his thespianism seriously, the rabbi looks directly into the camera at 180 degrees (like an Ozu “tatami” shot) and admonishes his son. “The Jew’s strength is rooted in the ghetto,” he tells Baruch. “Whoever leaves it becomes as wavering as a reed in the wind.” Baruch chooses the way of the reed, abandoning both tradition and theschuklpfoer‘s pretty daughter, whose buxom fruits are forbidden by rabbinic code. Joining a traveling theater troupe, Baruch manages to impress when performing for picnicking Viennese aristocrats, who are led by an art-loving archduchess. As members of high society squeeze into a rustic barn for the troupe’s low-rent production of Romeo and Juliet, the actress playing Juliet likewise mounts a rickety cardboard balcony that barely accommodates her frame. Here, Dupont humorously contrasts the Jews’ unpretentious pastoralism with the arch, affected manners of the upper crust, who come across as Lubitsch characters without the humanity. Most of the aristocrats start to doze, but the archduchess remains rapt throughout Baruch’s performance. When Baruch removes his hat at the play’s end, the aristocrats laugh, “Look at that! A Romeo with Jewish sidelocks!” But the archduchess remains entranced.
Initiated in the archduchess’s circle, Baruch auditions (with his sidelocks hidden) for the director of the Viennese Court Theater. In this lengthy scene, Dupont renders Baruch’s audition performance a tabula rasa. The camera fixates only on the theater director watching Baruch’s performance, while the latter remains outside the frame. From the astonished expressions that play across the director’s face, we intuit talents that transcend what can be materially represented onscreen. To further Baruch’s career, the archduchess detains Vienna’s leading actor (named Wagner, no less), allowing Baruch, now the upstart, to take his place in a new production of Hamlet. Paralleling the rabbi’s dogmatic admonitions to Baruch, the theater director tells Wagner, “The theater, too, has laws that no one may break—even you, sir.”
While the archduchess woos Baruch, his pining, shtetl-bound girlfriend faces an arranged marriage. As the rabbi tells her, “Baruch is lost to us now,” Dupont intercuts a scene in which Baruch finally shears his sidelocks (a reverse-bris, if you will), the ultimate symbol of assimilation. However, Baruch retains an inherent Jewishness, and, as the premiere of his Hamlet falls on Yom Kippur, he finds time in his dressing room to recite the Kol Nidre. In a virtuoso sequence of parallel editing—a bit of anthropology worthy of Montaigne or Malinowski—Dupont contrasts the preparatory rites of the theater with those of the temple in Baruch’s hometown. While tallit-wearing congregants assemble to praise a heavenly father, the urban elite don their vestments and queue up to see Hamlet obey a ghostly patriarch.
Yet Dupont emphasizes the differences as much as the superficial similarities. The demonstrative temple worshippers bow and wail (rather excessively, bordering on stereotype), but the class-conscious audience of Baruch’s Hamlet stares rigidly in concentration. The philosophical content of each ritual also diverges. The theatrical audience, moved by the elevated neurosis of art, quietly weeps for the tragedy of a son unable to free himself from a father. The temple audience, bound to what Freud would call a mass psychosis, instead praises an Old Testament father who exacts his own revenge.
At the height of his success, Baruch is visited by Ruben, who entreats Baruch to return home for Passover. But the rabbi still abjures Baruch, not only shouting “My son is dead!” but also defying the Old Testament’s holiday mandate, “Whoever is tired, let him come and share…” Seeing that provincialism clouds (or corrupts) the rabbi’s judgement, Ruben implores the rabbi to read Shakespeare, lest he persist in criticizing his son out of ignorance. That night, the rabbi falls ill. “Maybe I’ve wronged him after all, and God now punishes me,” he reasons, realizing it is he who broke the law of Passover.
Rising from his sickbed and shunting aside his religious texts, he cracks open the Shakespeare Baruch had left behind. In a poignant touch, he opens the tome from its back cover, as if preparing to read a Hebrew text right-to-left, before setting it in the right direction. Soon enough, the rabbi is enraptured, prompting what is perhaps the most understated climax in the history of cinema—not a shootout, fisticuff, auto chase, sprint to the airport, or protestation of romantic love, but the moral elucidation of a cleric reading Hamlet by candlelight.
The final scenes see the rabbi reconciling with Baruch at the latter’s performance of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, whose narrative allows Dupont to (again) allegorize the father-son conflict. In effect, the ending reverses the theme of the Prodigal Son, while the Oedipal contest is reconciled through the literary symbolism of a German classic. In the final image, the family, including Baruch, attend the father, who remains ill. Surrounded by his clan, the father still controls all, albeit more humanely and sensitively. Undoing the Oedipal formula, the father is miraculously reformed rather than grimly overthrown. Orthodoxy finally has conceded to enlightenment. This was surely a sanguine moment in 1923, but such a wish-fulfillment fantasy can only come across as bittersweet today. Weimar enlightenment would soon die out, and after the war, we’d all return to pretending that we had learned something.
Early in The Ancient Law, before Baruch embarks on his quest, he asks the wandering Ruben, “Can a Jew become an actor?” But what beardless Jew, we might ask, isn’t one already?