Chapter

Boy-man schlemiels and super-nebishes: Adam sandler and ben stiller

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Abstract

"The neurotic nebbish is out, the swaggering ass-kicker is in," proclaimed a December 2003 cover story in Timeout New York entitled "The New Super Jew." "From music and film to comedy and fashion, Jewish artists and performers are exploring edgy new personas," the piece declared (Rakoff). The article's cause célèbre was the recently released blaxploitation-film parody The Hebrew Hammer (2003), starring Adam Goldberg as Shaft-like private eye Mordechai Jefferson Carver, given to wearing a black fedora, a long leather coat, payot (sidelocks), and an oversized gold Chai (Hebrew letters symbolizing "life"). "New Jew" citings in general were nothing new, of course. The term had been applied to the Zionist-era Muscle Jew, and to the more romantically appealing, conspicuously Jewish actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen, who burst on the scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. As to the New Super Jew, Daniel Itzkovitz also found this designation redundant in a 2006 essay: "Aren't 'neurotic nebbishes' and edgy Jews often one and the same, as The Hebrew Hammer itself demonstrates? And is the neurotic nebbish really 'out,' or for that matter is 'edgy-Jews-exploringnew- personas' really a new phenomenon?" (238). Itzkovitz cited the "politically subversive pleasures" of the Marx Brothers films of the 1930s as prime precursors of swaggering edginess. And while he might have referenced Gene Wilder's Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974) or his eponymous Polish rabbi cowboy in The Frisco Kid (1979) as more immediate, and more direct, antecedents, Itzkovitz was right to detect in all the parodic ethnic posing "a persistent dilemma that has long faced American Jews: That nei- Ther a complete and comfortable assimilation, nor a solid and stable sense of Jewish identity, is easily attained" (238). Nuance notwithstanding, however, I side with Timeout New York in discerning a distinctively new coloration in the latest variation of the New Super Jew. More confident about being Jewish, but less sure about what being Jewish means, is the qualitatively new dilemma facing the assimilated multicultural Jew. Where I differ from Timeout New York is in its periodization of the phenomenon, which I see emerging, at least in American film, a decade before Goldberg's Hebrew Hammer-most prominently in the two most significant post-Hoffman/Streisand/Allen-era Jewish actors: Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. Several other figures have made their mark in the recent period, of course-Billy Crystal, Jeff Goldblum, and Kevin Kline, among others, in the generation preceding Sandler and Stiller; Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Fran Drescher, and Debra Messing, among others, contemporaneously; Sarah Silverman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Judd Apatow's "Jew-Tang Clan" (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segal, et al.) among the up-and-comers.1 But over the past two decades, no film stars have contributed as much to a (changing) sense of Jewish identity (while consistently wearing Stars of David on their sleeves) or had as great an impact on American popular culture (via mainstream commercial success) as Stiller and Sandler.

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