Woody on Rye: Jew­ish­ness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen

Vin­cent Brook & Marat Grin­berg, eds.
  • Review
By – January 1, 2014

The edi­tors of this col­lec­tion of essays have giv­en their con­trib­u­tors con­sid­er­able lee­way to inves­ti­gate sub­jects that inter­est them, and the results are pre­dictably mixed. While many of the essays offer impor­tant in-divid­ual insights, they don’t cohere to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive view of how Allen deals with Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in his works. 

After an intro­duc­to­ry overview by Vin­cent Brook that is prob­a­bly the most valu­able piece in the vol­ume, the essays are grouped into broad­ly-con­ceived sec­tions: com­par­a­tive anal-ysis of the treat­ment of Jew­ish moral­i­ty and ethics in films such as Crimes and Mis­de­meanors, Cas­san­dra’s Dream, and Match Point; the fig­ure of the schlemiel in Allen’s works; Allen’s treat­ment of women in his films; and cul­tur­al stud­ies” — an essay on Allen’s use of food as a cul­tur­al sig­ni­fi­er in his works, and anoth­er on his often-over­looked works for the theater. 

The essays on moral­i­ty and on wom­en’s issues are par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Advo­cat­ing for the impor­tance of specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish ethics in films that are relent­less­ly exis­ten­tial­ist in out­look is a far stretch, even if the vol­ume’s post-struc­tural­ist under­pin­nings invite the argu­ment that absence is mere­ly anoth­er form of pres­ence. And while the writ­ers on wom­en’s issues argue that Allen is con­temp­tu-ous of the stereo­typ­i­cal­ly vapid and self­ish Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Princess, and thus of Jew­ish women in gen­er­al, while obsessed with the equal­ly stereo­typ­i­cal Shik­sa God­dess, they also point out that many strong and admirable Jew­ish women fig­ure in Allen’s films — too many to dis­miss as mere excep­tions that prove the rule.” (And no men­tion at all is made of his sis­ter, Let­ty Aron­son, who has pro­duced vir­tu­al­ly all of his films over the last twen­ty years.) Fur­ther­more, though the vol­ume as a whole attach­es con­sid­er­able sig­nif­i­cance to the scan­dal that arose when Allen left Mia Far­row to mar­ry Far­row’s adopt­ed daugh­ter Soon-Yi Previn, it bare­ly reg­is­ters that in doing so Allen reject­ed a par­a­dig­mat­ic Shik­sa God­dess in favor of some­one who par­takes far more of oth­er­ness.”

This book will like­ly be of inter­est to ardent Allen fans, but even many of them will find it rough sled­ding. The con­trib­u­tors are all aca­d­e­mics who study film, so it is not sur­pris­ing that the prose is shot through with post-struc­tural­ism crit­i­cal jar­gon that can be off-putting, to say the least. It is often hard to dis­cern the authors’ own atti­tudes toward Jew­ish iden­ti­ty: Is the phrase Jew York City” in fact kosher these days? Does Jew­ish domes­tic-ity real­ly entail, as one con­trib­u­tor states, a sti­fling mar­riage, a sex­u­al­ly dis­in­ter­est­ed wife, the bur­den of chil­dren and reli­gion, and a placid home life that inex­orably leads to the loss of male iden­ti­ty and lack of pleasure?” 

There is no doubt that how Allen regards and depicts Jew­ish­ness is a mas­sive and com­plex sub­ject. But many read­ers will leave this book feel­ing that it is both more nuanced and less dif­fi­cult to grasp than the con­trib­u­tors to this vol­ume would have one believe.

Relat­ed content:

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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