Last year, David Evanier wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg and the best over­looked Amer­i­can Jew­ish nov­el­ist. He is writ­ing the biog­ra­phy of Woody Allen for St. Mar­t­in’s Press and has been blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Like Woody Allen, I can remem­ber a child­hood when being Jew­ish caused me a cer­tain deep unease, part­ly because of the shad­ow caused by the Holo­caust and part­ly because of the anti-Semi­tism of some pub­lic school teach­ers. My par­ents whis­pered when they spoke Yid­dish and even when using the word Jew.” As I write Allen’s biog­ra­phy, I con­tin­ue to be aston­ished at how bold­ly Jew­ish he has been in his films from the start, even con­stant­ly invok­ing his feel­ings about the Holo­caust. And per­haps that is why a younger Jew­ish gen­er­a­tion, more removed from those anx­i­eties and mem­o­ries, takes this aspect of him so casu­al­ly and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neu­rot­ic com­ic persona.

The real­i­ty is that this can­dor was — and con­tin­ues to be — rev­o­lu­tion­ary, just as ground-break­ing as Allen’s oth­er writ­ing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astound­ing­ly fresh and rev­e­la­to­ry today as they were then. (Allen had good com­pa­ny in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shel­ley Berman.) Allen’s work has deep­ened with the years, just as its Jew­ish con­tent has con­tin­ued to grow and unearth win­dows into his soul — but nowhere more so than in his most avowed­ly Jew­ish film, Crimes and Mis­de­meanors (1989), in which his Ortho­dox Jew­ish past was treat­ed (despite Allen’s reli­gious skep­ti­cism) with a cer­tain rev­er­ence and love. Some­times that rev­er­ence is expressed with com­e­dy, as with the com­pas­sion­ate but luck­less sub­ject of Broad­way Dan­ny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affec­tion­ate Jew­ish show-busi­ness ambiance of this heart­felt film but also the haunt­ing words of sim­ple wis­dom that Dan­ny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to con­duct a moral life: Accep­tance, for­give­ness, love.” (Words which are repeat­ed twice, first by Danny/​Woody and lat­er by Tina/​Mia.) A love for Israel has recent­ly been expressed by Allen in his state­ment of sup­port last Octo­ber in the Jerusalem Post. Speak­ing of the dou­ble stan­dard applied in the bar­rage of crit­i­cism of Israel, he said:

I do feel there are many peo­ple that dis­guise their neg­a­tive feel­ings toward Jews, dis­guise it as anti-Israel crit­i­cism, when in fact what they real­ly mean is that they don’t like Jews.”

I’ve always been a big root­er for Israel,” Allen wrote in Tikkun in 2002.

Allen was quot­ed this year as say­ing he want­ed to vis­it Israel for the first time with his two daugh­ters and his wife.

Woody Allen became a com­e­dy star at a time when every pre­con­cep­tion about Amer­i­can life came into ques­tion. He entered a social milieu that some­how was wait­ing for and antic­i­pat­ing him. He was the antithe­sis of the tra­di­tion­al male hero: the arche­typ­al schlemiel with a whin­ing, high voice. His humor was very per­son­al and unique; it was not inter­change­able with oth­er come­di­ans. There was a pre­sump­tion, whether it was true or not, that he was telling you some­thing more per­son­al and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal about him­self and his experiences.

It almost strains creduli­ty that a Jew­ish come­di­an and film actor who placed his Jew­ish­ness front and cen­ter and con­scious­ly pro­claimed it, uti­liz­ing con­stant ref­er­ences to his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, anti-Semi­tism, and the Holo­caust, and with ambiva­lent ways of defin­ing gen­tiles (white bread and may­on­naise were the most pop­u­lar ref­er­ence) could cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of and even beguile a huge audi­ence as Woody Allen has done. Jack Ben­ny, George Burns, Eddie Can­tor, and Grou­cho Marx pre­ced­ed him, but these were not comics adver­tis­ing their Jew­ish­ness; it was implic­it and polite. Borscht-belt comics were open about their eth­nic­i­ties by the 1950s, but they were enter­tain­ing large­ly Jew­ish audi­ences. Allen was a nation­al com­ic from the start.

Allen’s boy­hood was lived dur­ing the Holo­caust from afar and he is obsessed with it. He wrote in Tikkun of his rage when read­ing Elie Wiesels Night: Wiesel made the point sev­er­al times that the inmates of the camps did­n’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy dur­ing World War Two and who lived in Amer­i­ca, unmind­ful of any of the hor­rors Nazi vic­tims were under­go­ing, and who nev­er missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose mem­o­ries of those years are only bliss­ful and full of good times and good music — that I think of noth­ing but revenge.”

Born Allan Stew­art Konigs­berg on Decem­ber 1, 1935 to a mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the Bronx, Allen has always been caught in the real­i­ty of his own Jew­ish­ness. His per­sona was the clas­sic Jew­ish los­er filled with lust. He came along at exact­ly the right moment, in the six­ties, when every­thing was being ques­tioned about mas­culin­i­ty,” crit­ic John Simon told me. And he was extreme­ly het­ero­sex­u­al, des­per­ate­ly so. And he wor­shipped women.” Forty-two films lat­er, he is the only inde­pen­dent film­mak­er who has con­sis­tent­ly worked for decades, mak­ing some won­der­ful films, some good films, and some bad films. But he kept going and he is inter­na­tion­al­ly beloved. There is no one else in his league. He has bedaz­zled the world with many indeli­ble moments of romance, com­e­dy, mag­ic and even some moral­i­ty tales.

His hard work has seen him through. His is a gigan­tic suc­cess sto­ry against the odds, but genius always has an inex­plic­a­ble ele­ment to it. We all suf­fer, many of us have crip­pling, dev­as­tat­ing child­hoods, but few find ways of trans­mut­ing that pain into art. Ear­ly on he achieved a unique com­ic per­spec­tive — a comedic tal­ent that is so instinc­tive per­haps he can­not ful­ly under­stand it himself.

His forty-two films declare his Jew­ish­ness again and again. How many times does he turn into a rab­bi or a Hasid? It’s hard to count, as are the ref­er­ences to the Holo­caust. In Star­dust Mem­o­ries he tells an envi­ous old class­mate: If I were in Poland I’d have been a lamp­shade.” He turns into a Hasid briefly in Take the Mon­ey and Run and Annie Hall. There are oth­er char­ac­ters who are rab­bis in Radio Days and Crimes and Mis­de­meanors. When he is try­ing to become a Chris­t­ian in Take the Mon­ey and Run, he winds up dav­en­ing in church and mak­ing a very feck­less sign of the cross. He expe­ri­ences feel­ings of Jew­ish para­noia through­out Annie Hall: Alvy Singer tells his best friend Rob as they walk on the street,“I dis­tinct­ly heard it. He mur­dered under his breath, Jew.’ Rob tells him he’s crazy, but he con­tin­ues: Well, I pick up on those kind o’ things. You know, I was hav­ing lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said…uh, Did you eat yet or what?’ and Tom Christie said No, did­choo?’ Not, did you, did­choo eat? No, not did you eat, but jew eat? Jew. You get it? Jew eat?’ Lat­er, Alvy meets Annie Hall to see one of his (and Woody’s) favorite films, Mar­cel Ophuls’ The Sor­row and the Pity. Clips are shown from the film and lat­er Alvy talks of the French Resis­tance and reflects how I’d stand up under tor­ture,” a ques­tion Allen has fre­quent­ly pondered.

It is dur­ing din­ner with Annie Hal­l’s fam­i­ly that Alvy is con­front­ed by her anti-Semit­ic grand­moth­er who stares at him with hos­til­i­ty and he turns into a Hasid with a long black coat, mous­tache, and beard. Late in the film, Alvy takes Annie to see The Sor­row and the Pity again: The screen shows a Nazi pro­pa­gan­da film, a street with flee­ing cars, belong­ings tied on top and piled in the back seats, and the sub­ti­tles read: The Jew­ish war­mon­gers and Parisian plu­to­crats tried to flee with their gold and jew­els.” The Ophuls film is referred to yet a third time at the end, when Alvy is pleased to see Annie going to see the film again at the Thalia and he has a brief reunion with her. And Broad­way Dan­ny Rose says, It’s impor­tant to feel guilty. Otherwise…you’re capa­ble of ter­ri­ble things…it’s very impor­tant to be guilty. I’m guilty all the time, and I nev­er did any­thing, you know. My…rabbi, Rab­bi Pearl­stein used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.” 

One must return to Crimes and Mis­de­meanors to ful­ly grasp Allen’s search for a Judaism that can have mean­ing. Judah Rosen­thal (Mar­tin Lan­dau) recalls that his father told him, The eyes of God are on us always.” Rosen­thal is strug­gling with what to do about a mis­tress who is threat­en­ing to destroy his mar­riage and his career (he is guilty of malfea­sance). He con­sults Ben, a Rab­bi, who says I could­n’t go on liv­ing if I did­n’t feel with all my heart that there was a moral struc­ture with a real love and for­give­ness. Some kind of high­er pow­er. Oth­er­wise there’s no basis to know how to live. I know the spark of that.…is some­where in you.”

Rosen­thal ulti­mate­ly arranges the mur­der of his mis­tress and gets away with it.

He returns in mem­o­ry to fam­i­ly seders with scenes at the bimah and at the fam­i­ly din­ner table. Lat­er a key role is played in the film by the bril­liant writer, psy­cho­an­a­lyst and teacher, Prof. Mar­tin Beg­mann, por­tray­ing Dr. Louis Levi, who is a com­pos­ite, Allen wrote me, of Prof. Bergmann and Pri­mo Levi. It is Prof. Bergmann who con­cludes the film by hold­ing out the hope that, despite Allen’s despair about the absence of a moral struc­ture, Most human beings seem to have the abil­i­ty to keep try­ing to find joy from sim­ple things like their fam­i­ly, their work, and from the hope that future gen­er­a­tions might under­stand more.” These beau­ti­ful words end the film. See­ing Allen’s rapt inten­si­ty as he watch­es Bergmann/​Levi speak, one is afford­ed a glimpse into Woody Allen’s Jew­ish soul.

David Evanier has pub­lished sev­en books and has received the Aga Khan Fic­tion Prize and the McGin­nis-Ritchie Short Fic­tion Award. He was the found­ing edi­tor of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, Event, and the for­mer fic­tion edi­tor of The Paris Review. His nov­el Red Love was recent­ly pub­lished as an e‑book. Read more about David Evanier here and keep up on news about him and his Woody Allen biog­ra­phy by fol­low­ing him on Twit­ter.