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‘Woody on Rye’: Jewishness in the works of Woody Allen

by Jonathan Kirsch

August 20, 2014 | 1:41 pm

<em>Cover of "Woody on Rye"</em>

Cover of "Woody on Rye"

A few years ago, I discovered that there is actually something called The Big Lebowski Studies, a tongue-in-cheek academic discipline wholly devoted to a single Coen brothers movie (and, if I may say so, hardly their best movie). Yet, as far as I have been able to tell, no such honor has been bestowed on the single-most-talked-about director in American cinema, Woody Allen.

Nevertheless, Allen has attracted the attention of scholars and critics, and the latest example is embodied in “Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen,” edited by Vincent Brook and Marat Grinberg (Brandeis University Press). A significant measure of the high regard in which Allen is held among Jewish filmgoers can be found in the very first line of the book — a headline quoted from the 2013 Purim parody issue of this newspaper, which played on the fact that Pope Benedict XVI had recently abdicated the papal throne: “WOODY ALLEN RETIRES. TWO WORLD RELIGIONS NOW LEADERLESS!”

“Woody on Rye” consists of a dozen earnest, but also witty, essays by an assortment of academic specialists on popular and literary culture, each one a source of delight to those of us who often debate the meanings and merits of Woody Allen films while standing in line to see one, not unlike that memorable scene in “Annie Hall.” Here, however, it is Woody Allen rather than Marshall McLuhan who is the object of scrutiny, and the focus is on measuring how much and what kind of Jewishness can be detected in his movies and plays, sometimes in plain sight and sometimes buried deeply beneath the words and images.

This is not a hagiography.  Allen is referred to as “that pathetic creep” in one quoted remark that acknowledges his scandal-haunted private life, and Allen’s supposed “Jewish self-hatred” is not merely invoked but closely studied.  Still, a high regard for Allen is evident in these pages, where he is allowed to answer “not guilty” to the charge against him: “While it is true that I am Jewish and I don’t like myself very much, it’s not because of my persuasion.” One of the contributors mounts an even more vigorous defense: Allen, according to Gerald Mast, is “the first great American film-clown for whom being Jewish was not simply a hereditary accident but a way of life.”

One measure of how much credit Allen is given in “Woody on Rye” is the frequency with which he is likened to Franz Kafka, who is one of Allen’s sources and role models in his treatment of “alienation, loneliness and restlessness,” as co-editors Brook and Grinberg put it. But Allen is also compared to Heinrich Heine, Arthur Schnitzler, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, among others. “Bellow and Allen similarly grapple with the Jewish scriptural and existential challenge of reconciling head and heart, and fear of death with the urge to joy.”

The arc of Allen’s self-image and creative concerns is traced in “The Gospel According to Woody: From ‘Annie Hall’ Through ‘To Rome With Love’ ” by co-editor Brook, who teaches media and cultural studies at UCLA and USC, among other institutions.  Leaving behind the early movies in which he played “the classic schlemiel,” Brook argues, Allen “made the connection with the neurotic New York Jew and Woody Allen explicit” in “Annie Hall.” Thereafter, each film can be seen, to one degree or another, as an “alternate autobiography” in which “Menschlekhayt and ethnic ambivalence” are at war with each other.

Brook cites “Annie Hall” for an example of how the highly philosophical Allen adopts the stance of a stand-up comic to sidestep the questions that have always vexed the philosophers: “When, for example, Mickey [the character played by Allen] asks his father to explain the existence of evil, more specifically how God could have countenanced the Nazis, his father snaps: ‘How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the cap opener works!’ ” Yet Allen returns again and again to the big questions in his subsequent films, including the explicitly Jewish moral concerns of “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” “It takes more than a throwaway one-liner to banish Mickey’s existential angst,” Brooks points out.

As much as these scholars admire Allen as a filmmaker worthy of deep and respectful analysis, they cannot avoid the vacuity of his more recent movies, many of which can be seen as travelogues with a thin Allenesque over-wash. Even so, co-editor Grinberg, professor of Russian and humanities at Reed College, discerns in “Cassandra’s Dream” not merely “a minor crime flick” but “a biblical allegory, or even a parable, with elements of Greek tragedy, imbued with Judaic content.” Perhaps inadvertently, the density and complexity of meaning that the essayists find in the greatest of Allen’s films necessarily throw his later and lighter flicks into shadow.

The whole point of “Woody on Rye,” however, is to give us the analytical tools to look for and find what scholars have discerned in the Allen oeuvre. In that sense, the lay reader can use the book as companion reading for the next Woody Allen movie or, perhaps more fittingly, for binge-watching the ones on Netflix. Significantly, as soon as I put down my copy of “Woody on Rye,” I racked up “Scoop” and put my new knowledge to work. 

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