How and Why the Jews Thrive in the Entertainment Industry

The cast of Monty Python’s “Spamalot” singing You Just Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews.
The cast of Monty Python’s “Spamalot” singing You Just Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews

INTRODUCTION

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish character Shylock proclaims, sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” It is no secret that the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of persecution and antisemitism throughout history. As so much Art comes from great Pain, it seems inevitable that the Jewish people would have a huge impact on the Entertainment Industry. It is arguable that Jewish success in this brutally competitive field comes less from a religious point of view and more from a specific cultural identity. Exploring the fields of film, television, theatre, comic books, and comedy, just to name a few, this Thesis explores the great success that Artists of Jewish heritage have had, as well as why and how they were driven to achieve said Olympic levels of success.

STATISTICS

To allow for greater perspective on the subject, the following are population statistics to help gage the true scope of how disproportionate Jewish success is throughout the world. As of this writing, the current World Population is around 7,842,378,643; the current Global Jewish Population is around 13,850,000 (0.2% of the World Population); and the current population of the United States of America is around 331,002,651 (4.2% of the World Population). Jews make up the lowest religious percentage of the World Population, with Christians making up 31%; Muslims making up 23%; Atheists making up 16%; Hindus making up 15%; Buddhists making up 7%; and religions listed under “Folk” or “Other” combining to make up 7%. While the current Jewish population in the United States of America is 7,153,065 (around 2.2% of the United States total population), it is important to note that about four-fifths of all Jews live in either Israel or the United States.

Now, with those numbers as a point of reference, the following are statistics from jinfo.org that show how well Jews have fared in the Arts:

As of this writing, Jews make up 14% of the World Total and 38% of the United States of America total winners for the Nobel Prize for Literature; 14% of the total winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; 18% of the total winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; 53% of the total winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction; 39% of the total winners of the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Play; 54% of the total winners of the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical (with 62% of all Composers and 66% of all Lyricists of Best Musical-winning productions being Jewish); 40% of the total winners of the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Screenplay; and 34% of the total winners of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Art is subjective, and therefore no one can factually say without a doubt what movies are truly the “greatest” any given year or of all time. However, according to the American Film Institute’s “Greatest American Movies of All Time” list, 10 of the Jewish-written winners of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and 8 of the Jewish-written winners of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay make up what are considered to be some of the top 100 movies of all time (claiming 3 of the top 10 spots, as well as the top two spots with Citizen Kane at number 1, and Casablanca at number 2).

For Jews to make up even 5% of any population would be substantial, so the fact that they make up the majority of certain major categories of the Arts cannot be written off as anything less than significant.

CULTURAL IDENTITY

It is not by random luck or chance that the above statistics exist. One could point to a number of factors being the cause of Jewish success, but one would be wise to begin with the Jewish culture. In the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches (written by Jewish playwright Tony Kushner), a Rabbi says “Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt.” One could argue that Guilt and Shame are integral parts of the Jewish identity. Of course, these feelings can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood tells the stories of how the major motion picture studios in Hollywood (Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Fox Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer {MGM}, Warner Brothers) were all founded by poor, Jewish immigrants. Gabbler often alludes to the shame and hatred of a poverty-stricken past being the fuel that drove these men to their success, such as when the New York Times newspaper wrote that Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel (founder of “The Roxy” movie theater) “could never get enough even if he got too much”.

He also says of Louis B. Mayer (co-founder of MGM):

It is as if these men were so traumatized by not having the life they believed they deserved that they could not just settle for good-they had to have the best. Their poverty-stricken pasts became their “Boogey Man”, so to speak, and while they rationally could have gotten away from their “monster” by simply earning a comfortable living, they felt they needed to get as far away from that monster as possible by getting as rich as possible. Since the world certainly was not going to give this desired life to them, they were going to take it (or rather- make it) for themselves. This point is made even stronger when Gabbler says that the first motion picture with audible words, The Jazz Singer (written by and about a Jew) helped one believe:

This presents a possible explanation as to why the Jews were specifically drawn to the Arts-they were unhappy with their place in the world, so they created a fantasy world that they could rule. Gabbler further says of The Jazz Singer:

As Tragedy and Comedy are two edges of the same sword, one can find a direct link to Jewish Shame by examining Jewish Comedy.

COMEDY

Jewish playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Neil Simon
Jewish playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Neil Simon
Jewish playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Neil Simon

The best comedy is often the most truthful, and most truth has pain in it, so it should come as no surprise that one of the main areas of the Arts and Entertainment that Jews have found great success has been in the business of making others laugh. Neil Simon, arguably the greatest and most successful American comedic playwright of all time, often implied that the greatest source for his funniest material had come from places of deep pain. Simon wrote in his first memoir, Rewrites:

Thus, Simon brilliantly mastered the Art of taking the pain of his reality and the reality of those around him and turning it into some of the funniest plays that Broadway has ever seen. He further developed these thoughts in his second memoir, The Play Goes On:

Here, Simon explained how he not only used his pain to influence his comedy but how he then used that comedy to open the gateway back to his and other peoples’ pain. He also discussed in The Play Goes On how, like so many Artists, his Art served him in its cathartic and therapeutic way of giving him a way to deal with his pain:

Simon’s themes of shame and pain can be seen throughout his 30+ plays, such as in his Brighton Beach Memoirs trilogy. This semi-autobiographical trilogy consists of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, and follows the story of Eugene Morris Jerome (a character based on Simon himself). A deeper character analysis of Eugene in Biloxi Blues reveals specific insights into Simon’s real-life guilt. For example, when the soldiers in Eugene’s platoon are playing a game describing their ideal final days on Earth, one of his fellow privates James Hennesey says he would spend it with his family. Everyone else teases him, but Eugene thinks about his own family and feels shame for not thinking about them in the first place. When Eugene’s platoon leader, Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey, informs the men that there was a thief among them, Toomey makes Eugene feel guilty for a crime he had not even committed. Later on in the play, Eugene feels intense shame for not sticking up for his fellow Jewish private, Arnold Epstein, and then later tries to atone for that shame in his following scene with Epstein. In Rewrites, Simon said, “One tends to learn infinitely more from the bad than the good, and one learns nothing from the brilliant.” While he is directly referring to writing, one could argue that this applies to the pain that Eugene goes through and how he learns the most from the toughest moments of the play and trilogy-just as so many Jews got the most out of their pain by turning it into great Art.

For a more contemporary example, Amazon Prime’s hit streaming show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, ends its first episode with the main character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel (a stereotypical New York Jewish woman), being told by her husband that he has been having an affair and is leaving her for the other woman. She immediately goes to the local comedy club, steals the microphone, and starts ranting about her life, and the audience cannot help but laugh at everything she says. Just as Simon says in Rewrites, “Never try to make comedy funny. Honesty will do nicely, thank you,” Maisel doesn’t tell any jokes at all-she just uses the pain from her real life and turns it into Art!

Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander)
Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander)
Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander)

Not only are Jews distinctly successful in the Arts and Comedy-they also have a distinct style that stems from the Jewish culture. Legendary actor Jack Lemmon once said that you cannot take a single word out of a Neil Simon line, because it will throw the whole rhythm off. Just as works in the Shakespearean canon have certain rhythms the actor must follow, there are specific rhythms to Jewish comedy. Jewish comedy can be very sarcastic, self-deprecating, dry, and deadpan, and one of the pinnacle examples of this is in the hit television series Seinfeld, created by Jewish comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. In one episode, Jerry is at a diner with his friend George Costanza (played by Jewish actor Jason Alexander), and George laments, “I don’t have any black friends,” to which Jerry quickly replies: “Other than us, you don’t have any white friends either.” One can practically hear these words and their inflections as one reads them because of their very distinct, cultural rhythm.

This is also apparent in the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof, written by Jewish playwright David Auburn, when Claire says, “And he’s in a band? A rock band?” and Catherine replies, “No a marching band. He plays trombone. Yes a rock band!” One would be hard-pressed to miss the inflections from the sarcasm in these two lines because of the clear rhythm they carry, just like with Seinfeld and with the works of fellow Jewish comedy writers including but certainly not limited to: Mel Brooks, Seth Rogen, and Carl Reiner.

COMIC BOOKS

A silly image of Batman with a Kippah, Manischewitz, and Challah!
A silly image of Batman with a Kippah, Manischewitz, and Challah!
A closer inspection shows some startling similarities between Jews and everyone’s favorite Caped Crusader!

Another field of Entertainment that the Jews created in America was the Comic Book industry. According to Rabbi Adam Benjamin Grossman’s Thesis Jews and the Underground Comix: The Reshaping of American Jewish Identity through American Popular Culture, “Detective Comics…became the first comic book that housed a single genre of original material.” Both Detective Comics (D.C.) and Marvel, the two leading players in both the comic book industry and the comic book movie adaptation industry, were created by Jews. Not only did Jews create the companies overall, but “two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio” named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster specifically created Superman, and Batman was created by Jewish writer and artist Bob Kane and Jewish writer Bill Finger. While Batman is considered to be the most popular superhero of all time (appearing in the most comic issues at 14,358), a closer look at the psychology of Batman shows some intriguing links to the Jewish American identity.

Batman’s origin story has altered here and there throughout his many comic issue appearances, but for the most part his story is as follows: A little boy, Bruce Wayne, is out for a night at the theater with his parents when they are robbed and shot by a mugger. Bruce is highly traumatized by this event, and when he gets older, he gets his body to physical and mental perfection and dons the famous black mask and cape to become “The Batman”, protecting the fictional “Gotham City” by hunting criminals and protecting its innocent citizens. On its surface, one might say this story does not resemble the average Jewish experience. While many Jews (at least, in America) have not seen their parents murdered in front of them, they have still used the trauma they had experienced to make their world a better place. Eugene’s older brother Stanley tells him in Broadway Bound, “every good comedy has conflict and a character who desperately wants something.” This may not sound tragic right away, but closer inspection shows that both Bruce Wayne and the Jews desperately want something more than anything in the world. The devastating thing is that they will never achieve it. It is as if both Bruce Wayne and Jewish Artists have a Napoleonic Complex of sorts, where they are compensating for what they truly want from life. No matter how many families the Batman saves, Bruce Wayne will never get his beloved mother and father back, even though their murder was what sparked his mission in the first place. His mindset is, “I may not be able to save my family, but I will make sure no one else loses their parents!” No matter how successful Jewish artists get, many will never escape their ancestors’ painful past or their own current struggles with antisemitism. As there has been so much out of the Jewish people’s control throughout history, these Artists make up for that lack of control by taking what they can control and making it as terrific as it can be.

Similarities to Other Minority Groups

Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Suzan-Lori Parks, the first black female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama

All that being said, one cannot claim that Jews are the only minority group to suffer and turn that struggle into Art. Canadian feminist and former mayor of Ottawa Charlotte Whitton once quipped, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.” This quote can be applied to many disenfranchised groups, including black people. Associate Professor of Theatre and Diversity Affairs Coordinator at The University of Florida, Dr. Mikell Pinkney, states in his textbook The Theoretical Development of African American Theatre and Drama:

Just as the Jews created Hollywood to literally and figuratively create a higher status for themselves, so have black Artists. Where the Jews faced antisemitism, black Americans have dealt with horrific racism since being forcibly brought to the United States of America. Just as Spider-Man (co-created by Stan Lee, the Jewish co-founder of Marvel) teaches “With great power comes great responsibility”, black female playwright Suzan-Lori Parks says on her responsibility to her race as an artist:

Parks further goes on to say:

Just as Jewish writers such as Simon, Seinfeld, and Auburn have uplifted themselves and their fellow Jews by utilizing and popularizing Jewish form, so does Parks suggest that black Artists can change their position (as well as the position of all black people) in society through their Art. Finally, civil rights activist and performer Maya Angelou once said,

Jews and black people, as well as all oppressed groups, are alike in that they’ll never be able to change the past, but they can and do work to make the present and future as bright as possible so that their ancestors will not have suffered in vain.

Conclusion

Jewish physicist Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” One cannot deny that, instead of letting their pain drown them, the Jewish people have overwhelmingly used their pain to help move them forward. At first glance, this Thesis, Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own, and websites like jinfo.org may just seem like Jews patting themselves on the back. But the real reason Jewish success is discussed through these vehicles is to show the world that the Jewish people will not back down no matter how much hatred is thrown in their direction, as well as to attempt to make peace with those who hate them. Perhaps, after reading this Thesis or any further readings, someone who used to dislike Jews might think to themselves, “Well, I have them to thank for some of my favorite superheroes, standup comedians, and movies, so maybe I should consider their point of view and open up to the idea of befriending them.” Of course, this is idealistic and possibly not realistic, but if there is anything one can take away from this Thesis, it is that Art absolutely has the power to impact this world.

One must hope that the Jews will continue to fight antisemitism and injustice to all oppressed groups through the power of the Arts!

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This story was originally written as an Honors Thesis, and you can find the published version with a full bibliography for further reading in The Institutional Repository at the University of Florida: https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00068371/00001

Actor. Comedian. Writer. Director. For all things Datz, check out eddiedatz.com