May 23, 2013
The Great Gatsby’s Jew
F. Scott Fitzgerald did Jews no flattering favor with his cliched portrayal of the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in his Jazz Age opus “The Great Gatsby.” The integral but peripheral character is never described in detail, save for an upfront declaration that he is a Jew: “A small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” luxuriating in his deeply enchanting nostril (which apparently mystified Fitzgerald since he mentions it several times); indeed, for Fitzgerald, the Jew’s most salient and significant feature is his protean nose, at once “expressive” and “tragic” and which possesses the artful ability to “flash...indignantly” (how I wish mine could do that).
Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s novel has long been criticized for its portrayal of Wolfsheim as more of a Jewish caricature than character. In the book, “AntiSemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution” Richard Levy notes that Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim memorably and “pointedly connected Jewishness and crookedness” (this one, not of the nose variety). In 1947, Milton Hindus, assistant humanities professor at the University of Chicago published an article about “Gatsby” in Commentary Magazine that declared “the novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document.” In it, Hindus argued that although on the whole he considered “Gatsby” to be an “excellent” novel, he found the story and the characters “general and representative rather than particular and confined.” “The Jew who appears in The Great Gatsby,” he wrote, “is easily its most obnoxious character.”
Hindus attributed this to the prevailing anti-Semitism of the age. This was, after all, the American avant-garde of the 1920s in which a rapidly rising middle class was radically redefining notions of privilege and access. The power shift in social class was destabilizing, and as the uncultured masses began to mix with the wealthy elite (much like at Gatsby’s legendary parties) those who disapproved sought comfort in “an allegiance to tradition and hatred of the contemporary bourgeoisie.” All of which, Hindus argued, lent itself nicely to a general cultural weariness of the Jew.
And as if party crashing wasn’t distasteful enough, other prevailing traditions of the time -- namely, religious and literary -- also found ways to scapegoat the Jew as the cause of contemporary ills. Melding both, Hindus observed that, “The New Testament can be regarded as a drama in which the Jews play the role of villain,” a narrative trope that greatly influenced the avant-garde writers of the time -- Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Fitzgerald, among them. Equally incensed by the ascendance of the middle class whose social and economic gains effectively denied the literary class -- with their superior education and cultural erudition -- their rightful place in the American social strata, the Jew then became the stand-in for the despised bourgeoisie. And in circles whose standards for social decorum did not permit open anti-Semitism, the writers were thus given license to “flaunt” in their work the anti-Semitic seething that was otherwise “concealed by the rest of polite society.”
But this was not your grandmother’s European anti-Semitism. Hindus eventually concluded that Fitzgerald’s dislike of the Jews “was a superficial, merely ‘fashionable’ thing” -- by which he meant, that as an observer and chronicler of culture Fitzgerald’s understanding of Jews would have been of the “habitual, customary, ‘harmless,’ unpolitical variety” and not the insidious kind which resulted in the pogroms, expulsions and inquisitions of Jewish history.
This brand of temperate anti-Semitism has lately been tempered even further by the latest film incarnation of Fitzgerald's classic novel. Director Baz Luhrmann has said he quite purposively cast the non-Jewish Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role of Meyer Wolfsheim. In an interview with Yahoo’s Wide Screen blogger Will Perkins, Luhrmann admitted to a non-controversial casting strategy. “I was trying to solve the issue of Meyer Wolfsheim because there’s a big question there,” Luhrmann said. “Fitzgerald draws the character in what some might say is a very broad, anti-Semitic manner.”
Indeed, in his New York Times review of Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” film critic A.O. Scott noted, “The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is a bit less of a cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature than he was in 1925.” But the New Yorker’s David Denby found the choice misguided: “[T]he director, perhaps not wishing to be accused of anti-Semitism, cast the distinguished Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish gangster. This makes no sense, since the gangster’s name remains Wolfsheim and Tom [Buchanan] later refers to him as ‘that kike.’”
Which leads one to wonder: Was there no way to portray Fitzgerald’s Jew as a Jew without the seamy stereotypes? In casting an Indian actor, Luhrmann effectively usurped the Jewishness of the character and managed to avoid it entirely. Save for his name, Luhrmann’s Wolfsheim is not identifiable as a Jew in any meaningful way.
On some level, this constitutes a denial of historical truth on the part of the director, even as it ethnically (and perhaps creatively) reimagines the role. Is Luhrmann trying to tell us ethnicities are interchangeable? That because Fitzgerald’s character was portrayed in anti-Semitic strokes he should not be portrayed as a Jew? Perhaps some see in this betrayal of the character’s essence a triumph against stereotype. But it seems more accurate to suggest that it illustrates the director’s own confusion and lack of imagination (which is actually quite stunning considering how brilliantly fresh the rest of the film is).
Rather than truly explore what might make Wolfshiem a “less cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature” as Scott put it, Luhrmann cowered in the face of potential controversy, determined to avoid that, too. What would have happened, if say, he had cast the very talented and very conspicuously Jewish actor Adrien Brody to play Wolfsheim?
I'm willing to bet Brody would have played the role perfectly -- I mean, pointedly crooked -- without pandering.