Why Harry Met Sally

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Joshua Louis Moss
  • Austin, TX: 
    University of Texas Press
    , July
     2017.
     360 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781477312827.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Representations of Jews in popular media always have been the cause of community concern: Does the representation reflect positively or negatively on Jews? Is it a critique, a prediction, an aspiration, or a condemnation? Is it accurate or a caricature? And most importantly: what will the goyim think? Over the last century, as American Jews have acculturated into the larger dominant culture, there have been more opportunities for these questions to arise—from Goodbye, Columbusto Fiddler on the Roof to The Amazing Mrs. Maisel, American literature, film, and television have given the public much to consider. One the more resistant tropes has been the “Yidn mitn shiksah” back story—Abie met his Irish Rose, Bernie met Bridget, and (as Joshua Moss reminds us) a very Jewish Harry met a very not Jewish Sally. 

Refreshingly (in this reviewer’s opinion), Professor Moss is less interested in what these couplings might mean in terms of the health and future of Judaism and more interested in what these couplings represent. His central argument is that the presentation not just of Jews but of Jews in personal relationships with non-Jews reflects for a Western Christian audience one of the central dilemmas of modernity: Christonormativity. On the one hand, modernity encourages the emancipation of the individual from the bonds of community, so Jews (and others) must be free to participate in the larger culture. On the other hand, this means letting Jews (and others) participate in the larger (predominantly Christian) culture. It is the reason that “modern” Jewish history is often considered to have begun in 1807, when Napoleon attempted to negotiate the same dilemma by freeing Jews from the ghetto but only if (in the words of the very modern Jew Jon Stewart) they weren’t so “Jewy.”

Moss breaks the history of the interpreted materials into three transitional periods. After first establishing as a “baseline” the experiences of two important late-19th century couples (British diplomat Benjamin Disraeli and his non-Jewish wife Mary Anne Lewis, and French Captain Alfred Dreyfus and his Jewish wife Lucie Hadamard), Moss argues that in the first phase (late 19th to mid-20th century), the Jew is portrayed as a transitional figure, a cultural anachronismin desperate need of modernity’s salvation. Those who follow the model established by Disraeli (by marrying a non-Jew, à la Abie’s Irish Rose, or immersing oneself in the non-Jewish world, à la The Jazz Singer) will be saved; those who don’t, won’t. 

In the second phase (1950s into the 1970s), cultural products reflect the new confidence of post-War Jews transitioning into larger American society. Moss uses Jewish sex symbols as diverse as Dustin Hoffman (who got the lead in The Graduate over the very not-Jewish Robert Redford) and Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy (a porn star) to illustrate the assertiveness (and threat) of Jewish sexual acculturation. There is no doubt that, in the end, both Hoffman and Jeremy—like Abie and Jakie—get their (non-Jewish) girls, but in this period, they (and others, including Woody Allen, James Caan, Elliot Gould, and Barbra Streisand) are presented as sexual beings. Rather than the “Jew who becomes less Jewish” through marriage or profession, they are now the challenge (or, for some, the horror) of the “Jews out there, having sex with our children.” 

In the final phase (1980s to the present), Moss argues, the Jew/non-Jew coupling has evolved beyond depicting the Jew as becoming a model American immigrant or sexual predator to representing the universalism of Western values—modernity as victorious, and globally accessible. Aided in large part by Jewish characters who are “ethnically” Jewish more than they are ritually observant (think Ross of Friends, Grace of Will & Grace, Fran of The Nanny), these characters enable international media outlets to circulate American cultural media products, their values, and their sponsors’ consumer goods to new and emerging markets around the globe. The Nanny (to pick but one example) can be funny anywhere a traditionally marginalized (and moderately negatively portrayed) subculture seeks acceptance into the mainstream; all one has to do is redo the voice track.

Moss’s argument is a refreshing break from the jeremiads that often accompany analyses of the representation of Jews in popular culture. Situated in the Media Arts, Design, and Technology Department of California State University, Chico, Moss is likely less motivated as a scholar by questions of religious authenticity or survival, and more by the questions he addresses here—and rightly so. A religion scholar—particularly one trained in Jewish studies—would no doubt have produced a different work, motivated by different questions. But the ones addressed by Moss in this work are both interesting and of value to Jews, non-Jews, and students of American Judaism and American religion more broadly conceived.

Also refreshing is the way in which Moss seems to embody the attitude implied (in part) by the argument he develops. In many years of reading and writing in the field of religion and popular culture, this reviewer has not seen a work of scholarship that so freely employs Yiddish in the unashamed way that scholars of old used Latin. Readers unfamiliar with yiddishisms related to sex and gender are forewarned; readers who enjoy the spirit in which those terms are used may find it empowering.

In either case, there are likely to be many—in the Jewish community and beyond—who will not find Moss’s argument persuasive, and some who might even find it troubling. It is based on his reading of the materials, and while he presents his argument in an authoritative voice it is still his interpretation. But the material he covers is vast, and his reading of the films (and books, and plays) is persuasive. This is not to say that the traditional fear of intermarriage that usually accompanies discussions of these cultural products is neither correct nor worthwhile; it is simply to admit that the materials—like all good symbols—mean more than one thing at the same time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Michael Mazur is Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Moss is an assistant professor of screenwriting and media studies at California State University, Chico. He has also worked as a show creator, writer, producer, and executive producer in the entertainment industry for such companies as ABC, MTV, Rhythm & Hues Studios, and New Line Cinema, and is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, West.

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