May 23, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald proclaimed his distaste for Jews with his clichéd portrait of gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in his Jazz Age opus “The Great Gatsby.” The crucial but peripheral character is never described in detail, save for an upfront declaration that he is “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” luxuriating in his deeply enchanting nostrils (which apparently either intrigued or repelled Fitzgerald since he mentions them 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.” 

Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel has long been criticized for its portrayal of Wolfsheim as more 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, an assistant humanities professor at the University of Chicago, published an article about “Gatsby” in Commentary that declared, “The novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document.” Hindus argued that although on the whole he considers “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. Fitzgerald was, after all, part of the American avant-garde of the 1920s, an era in which a rapidly rising middle class was radically redefining notions of privilege and access. The power shift in social classes was destabilizing, and as the uncultured masses began to mix with the wealthy elite (consider Gatsby, as well as the legions attending his legendary parties), the old guard 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 wariness of the Jew.

And as if party crashing wasn’t distasteful enough, other prevailing traditions of the time — 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 Fitzgerald’s time — Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, among others. Equally incensed by the ascendance of the middle class, whose social and economic gains effectively denied the literary class — with its superior education and cultural erudition — its rightful place in the American social strata, the Jew became a 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 that resulted in the pogroms, expulsions and inquisitions of Jewish history.

This brand of temperate anti-Semitism has been tempered even further by the latest film incarnation of Fitzgerald’s classic. 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 noncontroversial 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 stereotyping? In casting an Indian, Luhrmann effectively usurps the Jewishness of the character and manages to avoid the question altogether. 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 by the director, even as he ethnically (and perhaps creatively) reimagines the role. Is Luhrmann trying to tell us ethnicities are interchangeable? That because Fitzgerald’s character was sketched in anti-Semitic strokes there’s no credible way to still portray him as a Jew? Some may see in this betrayal of the character’s essence a triumph against stereotype. But it more convincingly illustrates the director’s ample confusion and lack of imagination on the matter (which is stunning, considering how fresh the rest of the film feels).

Rather than truly explore what could make Wolfsheim a “less cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature” as Scott put it, Luhrmann cowered in the face of potential controversy, determined to avoid that, too. In 1989, when Sir Peter Hall cast Dustin Hoffman as Shakespeare’s surly Semitic Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” his West End performance inspired the compliment: terrible, but no monster. What would have happened if, say, Luhrmann had cast the very talented and very conspicuously Jewish actor Adrien Brody as Wolfsheim?

I’m willing to bet Brody would have played the role perfectly — I mean, pointedly crooked — without pandering.

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