Unsporting treatment of Jews on big screen

AS the Olympics approach, it is timely to consider the relationship between Jews, sports and film.

As the following joke from Airplane (1980) demonstrates, it has long been a tenet of Jewish humour that Jews do not do sports:

Air stewardess: "Would you like something to read?"

Passenger: "Do you have anything light?"

Air stewardess: "How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?"

The stereotype of the non-athletic Jew has long been considered grist for the humour mill.

In The Hebrew Hammer (2003), for example, members of the 'Coalition of Jewish Athletes' are, entirely predictably, nowhere to be seen.

Although this stereotype is clearly inaccurate in reality, the representations of Jewish sportsmen and women in cinema have been surprisingly few and far between.

US cinema frequently depicts Jews playing sports, but this is often for fun and not in any seriously competitive and/or professional sense.

Consider the 'Jewish Children's Polo League' in A Mighty Wind (2003) that rode on Shetland ponies instead of horses.

A variety of Jews play recreational basketball in such films as Keeping the Faith (2000), Eight Crazy Nights (2002), Along Came Polly (2004) and Prime (2005).

As we saw in an earlier column, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (1998) is dedicated to 10-pin bowling, but this is done as a leisure activity (albeit one which he takes very, very seriously).

The most surprising omission, though, is boxing. The one sport in Britain and the US in which Jews had any real history of participation has barely been represented in film in line with the sheer number of Jewish boxers.

The late 18th century was often described as a golden age of Jewish boxing and Daniel Mendoza, a maternal ancestor of Peter Sellers, was credited with the scientific invention of boxing.

By the turn of the 20th century it had undergone a resurgence in London and New York as renewed Eastern European immigration filled the cities with a new eager breed of Jewish working-class pugilists.

There have been films about Jewish boxers and Jewish boxers in film respectively, including His People (1925), Body and Soul (1947), Métisse (1993) and Cinderella Man (2005), all of which are obvious exceptions to the Jewish weakling syndrome.

Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) was one of Mendoza's most fervent admirers and prints of the boxer can clearly be seen on the walls of his apartment in the Pink Panther series.

But the number of these films is so few that they don't reflect Jewish domination of the sport in the 18th and early 20th centuries.

Also, the references to ethnicity often are so slight that blink and you'll miss them.

It is hard to prove why cinema has chosen to omit this history, but perhaps it can be speculated that the reason lies in its clear contradiction of two long-held, engrained, and intertwined stereotypes: the weak and unathletic Jew.

The passive Jew is supposed to be powerless not victimise and humiliate.

There have been exceptions, however, and key and serious Jewish characters have been defined by their athleticism in such sports as sprinting, fencing, cricket and, if we accept them as such, chess and table tennis.

In such films sport has been used as a means for Jews to assimilate, charting the clash between ethnic specificity and the mainstream culture and the struggle to pass and this will be the subject of my next column.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph