The Jew and the American Tough Guy
If you haven’t been watching HBO®’s Boardwalk Empire, you’re missing out on something rare. A Jew portrayed on camera as a tough guy.
The stereotypical Jewish character on television is not usually one we can be proud of. From Woody Allen’s nebbish and neurotic to Mrs. Seinfeld’s overbearing and oblivious, the Jews might have a reputation as scholarly, but never sexy. This must be what Italians feel like watching Jersey Shore.
The coolest Jew in television history was a young Henry Winkler – he could get any girl he wanted, start a jukebox by hitting it and even jump over a shark while not getting his leather jacket wet. Of course, the character he played was Italian. No one would believe all that could be done by Arthur Fonzewitz.
But Boardwalk Empire is a bit different. If you’re unfamiliar, the series chronicles the based-on-a-true-story of bootleggers and gangs during prohibition, with the three main factions being the Irish in Atlantic City, the Italians in Chicago and the Jews in New York. That’s right – the Jews.
According to the show (and history), while Al Capone was just getting his feet wet in Chicago, the most powerful boss in the country was Arnold Rothstein. Best known as the man charged with fixing the 1919 World Series, Rothstein is portrayed by the series as a handsome and rich tactician; while his rival gangs are quick to anger and too power hungry to see the big picture, Rothstein is even-tempered and the smartest one of the bunch.
My favorite scene was when Rothstein was hiring three small-time gangsters to transport his money, and as insurance, made them each sign life insurance policies with Rothstein as their beneficiary. Brilliant, cold-blooded and terrifying. But brilliant. Rothstein is the enemy of the show’s main character, but I still find myself rooting for him.
Also getting some camera time is Meir Lansky. The modern world was briefly introduced to Lansky in “Bugsy” and again in the made for TV movie “Lansky.” But despite helping start Las Vegas, Lansky is not a common household name. I always knew who Lansky was, because he’s the man who taught my father’s father to play pool. In a strange coincidence, my grandmother on my mother’s side met Bugsy Siegel a few times. If the Jewish mob still existed, I’d probably be pretty connected. Being involved in USY, having worked at Camp Ramah and being on the JDate.com billboard isn’t quite the same thing.
But I’m not rooting for Rothstein and Lansky because of my family’s passing acquaintance. I’m rooting for them because part of me is proud to watch Jews be gangsters, instead of just their accountants. Thank you, “Carlito’s Way.”
When “The Passion of the Christ” came out, a lot of Jewish groups protested the film, saying that its depiction of Jews as Christ killers was anti-Semitic. I had a slightly different view.
See, Jews have never been seen as an intimidating people. Maybe this is one we should start taking credit for. If someone is going to say we killed Christ, why not let them say it? Sure, we got him. And Kirk Cameron is next.
An aside, the best part of Mel Gibson’s legal troubles is that no self-respecting Jewish lawyer will represent him. Hey Mel, I bet you’d like to be friends with a few Jews right now, huh?
I know that the vast majority of Jews in the 1920s were not like Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel or Meir Lansky. Even Rothstein’s right-hand man in the show is Italian. But it is nice to see a few of us actually portrayed as tough guys. I’m not encouraging criminal behavior, but it’s nice to see we aren’t all Uncle Leo.
While I am enjoying Boardwalk Empire, I am glad that Jews eventually went legit. I can’t imagine how lame Goodfellas would have been if Joe Pesci was replaced by Jackie Mason. And reality TV wouldn’t have worked either. “Growing Up Goldberg” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
I do, however, try to break the shlubby stereotype whenever possible.
After joking that I was going to get my friend a lousy Christmas present, he joked that I shouldn’t even be celebrating Christmas since I killed his savior.
“Sure,” I said. “What do you think I’m celebrating?”
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