Commentary Magazine

Anti-Semitism in Film

To the Editor:

William S. Pechter’s review of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz [November 1974] has just come to my attention here in Hamburg, Germany. I would like to respond to it because he refers to my article in the New York Times of September 8, 1974, “Some Questions about the Depiction of Jews in New Films.”

For reasons best known to himself, Mr. Pechter finds it necessary not only to distort and misrepresent my point of view, but to attribute quotations to me that exist nowhere in the article. Mr. Pechter says: “Is it [the movie] bad for the Jews? I can’t agree with Rabbi Dan Isaac who recently claimed in the pages of the New York Times that it is and it gives aid and comfort to the anti-Semite.”

Nowhere in my article do I state that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is “bad for the Jews.” And I’ll pass on Mr. Pechter’s cheap rhetoric about giving aid and comfort to the anti-Semite—except to say that my piece was primarily about the argument and ideology buried in two films that present themselves as “comedies”: Duddy Kravitz and The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.

In referring to Duddy’s character and pointing out his general lack of moral virtue, I did say: “Now that we have The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz we can forget about The Merchant of Venice. Indeed, the film itself links Duddy with Shylock.” In responding to that point, Mr. Pechter turns talmudic somersaults in trying to explain away the Shylock reference; and in the process tries to whitewash Duddy’s character by placing the blame on the Jewish community. . . .

But . . . in fact in the film Duddy looks pretty bad. He uses his Gentile girl friend as a front for his land deals; and lets his epileptic friend, Virgil, take the kinds of risks that leave him paralyzed for life. I find it curious that Mr. Pechter only refers to this key incident in the film as “of a quite irredeemable banality.” Because it is bad art, does this mean we should forget about it when making the moral judgments about Duddy that the film continually pushes for? . . .

Mr. Pechter finally reveals himself in the concluding sentences of his review, and I’d prefer to quote them directly:

Duddy is portrayed, warts and all, and flung into the teeth of those who would scorn him. And though this spectacle is quintessentially by, about, and for Jews, the sensibility which informs it is at once sufficiently strong in its ethnic ties and secure in its relations to the world at large to relieve one of the least anxiety about having it seen by (and, for that matter, flung into the teeth of) the white man.

So at last we discover that the anxiety of whether or not the film about Duddy Kravitz is good or bad for the Jews belongs to the COMMENTARY critic. Duddy Kravitz turns out to be a good film because it socks it to the goyim. Which means that Mr. Pechter has adopted the junk dealer’s point of view and sees the world as them against us.

And it is just this kind of paranoia in the name of self-survival that takes us down the road to gangsterism and fascism.

(Rabbi) Dan Isaac
University of Hamburg
Hamburg, Germany



William S. Pechter writes:

Before getting directly to Dan Isaac’s letter, I’d like to make one point more plainly than I perhaps have previously. I don’t consider The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz a film of any great artistic consequence, and I wasn’t motivated to defend it against the charge of anti-Semitism by any particular fondness for it. The “importance” I attach to Duddy Kravitz resides strictly in the unprecedentedness (for mass-audience movies) of its treatment of its subject matter: in the combination of the unvarnished seaminess and lack of defensiveness with which it depicts a Jewish milieu.

I want to say also that I didn’t consider my review an attack on Rabbi Isaac or his piece, which raised issues that needed discussing, but only an attempted refutation of his argument. And I hope he’ll believe me when I say that it honestly didn’t occur to me when I used the phrase “bad for the Jews” (my own inversion of the standard query, “Is it good for the Jews?”) that the quotation marks would imply its attribution to him. Having said this, I find it difficult to understand the umbrage he takes at the possibility of one’s thinking that the words are his. I, for one, don’t find the question of whether or not a film such as Duddy Kravitz is bad for the Jews a vulgar one, and, if Rabbi Isaac thinks he’s discovered some damaging truth in finding me concerned with it, I can only say that I never thought to disguise the fact that I was. Nor am I able to consider the question of whether or not a book or movie is anti-Semitic as an ideologically or aesthetically abstract one, as though anti-Semitism in such works were just another bankrupt idea or stylistic blemish, like tired imagery. Surely, one wants to be alert to anti-Semitism in the first place because it has consequences. And to say that it’s bad for the Jews in no way denies the fact that, in its general brutalization of feeling, it’s bad for everyone.

Rabbi Isaac suggests that I identify myself with Farber, the junk dealer, in his them-versus-us and law-of-the-jungle mentality when in fact I said both in my piece and again in a previous exchange of letters on the subject [Letters from Readers, March] that it’s the film itself which seems to endorse Father’s viewpoint to a degree I find disturbing. What I like about the film is its undefensiveness in depicting Farber and in publicly airing such other “dirty laundry,” which doesn’t imply that I feel comfortable with the film’s suggestion that dirty laundry may be no worse a thing than clean. But even short of arguing that the film is a justification of Farber and Duddy, I think one can defend it against the charge of its being anti-Semitic. In this regard, the “irredeemable banality” of the business with the girl friend and the crippled Virgil does make a difference: it’s not merely a case of such things being bad art, but of the weakness of their impact on an audience compared with that of the steam-rolling Duddy. I realize one can adduce such intangibles as an audience’s response to prove whatever one wants, so it may not be worth much for me to say that, in the audible responses of the large audience with which I saw the film and in the responses of the many people with whom I’ve discussed it since, I’ve been struck with the unanimity with which Duddy’s been found likable, however much one knows he’s to be disapproved of.

As I also said in that previous exchange of letters, I think that anyone believing he sees anti-Semitism in a work of art ought to condemn it, and it was from this perspective that I attempted to defend Duddy Kravitz against such charges as Rabbi Isaac’s. But if one’s perceiving anti-Semitism presents one with an obligation to speak out, there’s a concomitant to this. For surely one’s attempt to alert others to the anti-Semitic content of a work of art is directed in large part to sympathetic Gentiles in one’s audience. And one has, then, the further obligation not to deaden the response of such friends to the real and vicious anti-Semitism of, say, a Jesus Christ Superstar by invoking the specter of anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist. One is obliged, that is, to be scrupulously attentive to the often complex and indirect ways in which works of art communicate to and affect their audience. One’s beginning with a simplistic assumption that The Merchant of Venice is a universally accepted exemplar of anti-Semitism in the arts and then proceeding to go after a work as oblique in its attitudes as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with rhetoric of the move-over-Shylock variety contributes little, I think, to insuring that a vigilance to genuine anti-Semitism, in art and elsewhere, will continue to get the sympathetic hearing it needs and deserves.


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