One of the most memorable scenes in Judd Apatow’s morality tale of male maturation, Knocked Up, is a brief barroom discussion of the film Munich. The mostly Jewish characters celebrate the “turning on its head” of the stereotypical role of Jew as victim, with Eric Bana “capping motherf%*@ers and taking names.” It’s a small, throwaway moment of character development that seems just for laughs but contains deeper insight and resonance.
From the late 19th through early 20th century, Jewish writers, artists, philosophers and statesmen sought to vanquish the millennia-old image of Jew as powerless victim. One of the critical themes of Zionism went beyond the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland to encompass the re-visioning of the nature of Jewish virility, strength and potency.
The pale, emaciated and emasculated yeshiva bochur of 2,000 years of exile was transformed through a cultural renaissance into the tough Israeli sabra, able to outsmart and outgun the Arab armies that surpassed the Jews in number but not in moxie. The archetypal myth of the triumphant, imperial King David transcended the theology of Messianism, signaling a parallel return of the macho Jewish male.
It’s no coincidence that the creators of Superman were two Jewish boys, eager, like so many other Jewish contributors to American culture, to find acceptance and success not only through socio-economic achievement but also a redefinition of American heroism as part Jewish in pedigree. Superman’s story of displacement, immersion, sacrifice and purpose was Jewish aspiration writ large on the American imagination.
This dynamic is at work in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Inglourious Basterds. Assumedly based in small part on the history of post-war Jewish partisan Nazi hunting as chronicled in the book The Avengers and most recently Edward Zwick’s Defiance, Tarantino blends wish-fulfillment, revenge fantasy and revisionist history from an alternate universe to — believe it or not! — entertaining effect. I don’t know if Tarantino is too big for pitch meetings, but I can imagine it would have been something like, “Imagine Pulp Fiction, meets The Dirty Dozen meets Carrie — with Jews!” What Hollywood producer (even of marginally Jewish provenance) could resist?
There are the typical Tarantino touches: Quirky, tangential dialogue, the literary flourishes of chapter divisions, and a soundtrack that makes atonal music seem cohesive (spaghetti Western strings into ’70s Kung Fu-ploitation horns into ’80s Bowie techno!).
But ensconced within these now well-established Tarantino idioms is a pop-culture take on the Holocaust specifically, and more broadly a Jewish response to tragedy that would make the Maccabees whoop and spill their beers.
Some have questioned the “trivial” use of the Holocaust as backdrop rather than main focus. Tarantino isn’t going through a Schindler’s List rite of passage. He’s making his film his way, and illuminating the idiosyncracies, passions and foibles of the human condition in the process.
And in ways that far exceed the ham-fisted attempts of made-for-TV Entebbe raids and Spielberg’s sanctimonious peek into the existential crises of assassins, Tarantino provides a far more compelling and cathartic portrayal of the complexities of Jewish vengeance and the broader issue of retributive justice. I found myself uncontrollably smiling during the culminating scene of blood and fire, and I defy any Jew who loves action, appreciates quote-worthy dialogue, knows a bit of history and has an active fantasy life (and Y-dominant chromosomes) to be unmoved by the sight of the bullet-ridden body of Joseph Goebbels paired to a Shaft-inspired beat.
And Tarantino even manages a nod to the bizarre Jewish fixation with Native American culture, though the scalping of Nazis is far removed from a Rothian season at a Catskills summer camp.
The brilliant historian Ruth Wisse posited in her work Jews and Power:
No daily reader of the Psalms could underestimate the might of God…The glorification of powerlessness was as antithetical to Judaism as belief in the son of God. Jews did not think themselves powerless in the most meaningful sense: had they not reckoned on ultimate vindication, they could not have claimed to believe in justice — one of the cardinal tenets of Jewish civilization. The power of God, emphatically including his eventual action in history, was the guarantee that justice would ultimately triumph. Lacking such faith in God’s intervention, modern Jews could not claim to be moral unless they themselves intended to supply the missing dimension of power.
At the risk of diminishing Wisse’s erudition or elevating Tarantino’s significance, the philospher’s words seem ample caption to the filmmaker’s pictures.