My favorite scene in Independence Day is probably the stupidest. Late in the film, as the aliens make their final push against humanity, Judd Hirsch’s character huddles deep inside a bunker. He’s wearing a kippah and holding a siddur. He asks James Rebhorn’s cowardly defense secretary to join him in prayer. “I’m not Jewish,” Rebhorn says. “Nobody’s perfect,” Hirsch responds.
It’s a dumb gag—totally inconsequential to the plot. As dialogue goes, it’s certainly no “We will not go quietly into the good night.” It’s definitely no “Welcome to Earth.” It’s not even “Hello, boys… I’m back.” And yet, when I saw it as a gawky, pubescent growing up in a heavily Jewish enclave of Montreal, that throwaway joke meant a lot to me for what it said. Not about Hirsch’s character—who was essentially every New York Jew stereotype smooshed into one—but about his son, zooming above the planet in an alien spaceship with Will Smith, the future of humanity resting on his shoulders. Jeff Goldblum was pretty much the only world-saving, tuchus-kicking Jewish action hero I had. In that character—his semitic features, nervous stuttering, general neurosis, and overall Goldbluminess—I saw myself in a way I never did in Die Hard or Rambo or Lethal Weapon.
While the dearth of Jewish action heroes was too bad for me, a kid growing up in the era when anti-Semites still hid in shame instead of marching in their best khakis and tiki torches, in the age when “alt-right” dipshits like Richard Spencer can become household names, it’s downright tragic. If ever we needed a modern-day, pop culture Maccabi—a take-no-shit, guns blazing, martial arts-knowing, kosher ass-kicker who can inspire confidence in young Jews—it’s right now.
Throughout cinema, there have been ample portrayals of traditional Jewish heroes. Charlton Heston’s Moses comes to mind, as does his Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, pretty much every story from the Old Testament has been adapted: Samson and Delilah, the story of Ruth, King David (whose Richard Gere-starring version, with its copious nudity, was well-appreciated by all the students in my Hebrew high school’s Tanach class). These are tales with heroes and action, yes, and those swords-and-sandals epics did tend to have battles and chariot races. But they weren’t exactly action heroes; these are biblical protagonists, more godly than godlike in their powers. And they weren’t truly ours either: The proliferation of the Abrahamic religions means they belonged almost as much to Christians and Muslims as they did the Jews.
Meanwhile, movies have certainly never had a shortage of Jewish representation. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner introduced Yiddish slang into the American lexicon while making some of the most impactful comedies of the 20th century. Woody Allen is a cretin, but he did reinvent the dramedy, while his “neurotic intellectual” archetype laid the groundwork for how middle- and upper-class, postwar American Jews saw themselves. Through films like Yentl and Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand taught gentiles the concept of chutzpah. Seemingly every aspect of Jewish life and culture has been mined, from the shtetl of Fiddler On The Roof to the suburban hell of the Coen brothers’ A Simple Man, but the movies have never given us a serious, overtly Jewish action hero.
That’s not to say there aren’t Jewish movie characters who kick a little ass. It’s just that when they do, people tend to find it hilarious. For example: Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With The Zohan and Adam Goldberg’s The Hebrew Hammer—two deeply weird comedies that seem to have been made solely for audiences familiar with Israeli and Orthodox cultures. While Zohan’s only real connection to Judaism is its running jokes about hummus, Israeli electronics stores, and the opportunity for Sandler to play with a funny accent for 90 minutes, The Hebrew Hammer offers up the closest thing to a full-on Jewish action film we’ve yet gotten. Goldberg plays a private eye (or “circumcised dick”) who dresses like a resident of Borough Park by way of Shaft while carrying some heavy weaponry and even heavier mother issues. But again, it goes for the laugh rather than the thrill: It all climaxes in a battle between the Hammer and an evil Santa that ends when the former deploys “Jewish Guilt.” (Nevertheless, I’m wishing good mazel to Goldberg in his effort to crowdfund a sequel.)
Complicating things, whenever movie Jews do fight seriously, it tends to lack the moral unambiguity that marks the best action flicks. “In any movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We’re capping motherfuckers,” Seth Rogen says in Knocked Up, his fellow tribe members Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel joining him in celebrating Steven Spielberg’s 2005 historical drama. As they point out, the film—about the assassins assigned to take out those behind the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics—is not only good, but it also portrays Jews as so sexy and dangerous that even these three schmucks could get laid because of it. And they’re right: Munich is a tense thriller, and both Eric Bana and Daniel Craig make killing terrorists look awfully hot. Neither of them are true action heroes, though. The film spends much of its time focusing on the horrific cycle of violence they’re perpetuating, as well as the psychological and spiritual toll it takes. These are considerations that, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t undertake while stalking the Predator.
Then, of course, there are the Holocaust movies. From the Auschwitz revolt of The Grey Zone to the doomed battle of the Warsaw Ghetto in Uprising to the war of attrition conducted by Jewish partisans in Defiance, there have been plenty of stories about the most traumatic event in Judaic history with violence—righteous violence—at the heart of them. Their leads are heroic, and the action they undertake is often thrilling, if understandably harrowing. But they definitely aren’t John Wick. They’re ordinary, often doomed people fighting not to save the day, but usually just to die with dignity. Even the most inspiring, hopeful film about the Shoah will always ultimately be about pain and suffering—and that has too often become the prism through which Jews see themselves. In this current political climate, where hate crimes are on the rise and political leadership talks about the “very fine people” taking part in the resurgence of racist fascism, we need a new narrative. We need movies about tough Jews taking control.
There is precedent for this, in the case of a similarly marginalized people. In the years when the Black Power movement was fighting against oppression, blaxploitation films gave black Americans a new way to define themselves within a culture that had continued to neglect them. These people needed stories that reflected their reality, and heroes they could see themselves in. And thus Shaft, Super Fly, and Coffy arrived to establish their own rules in a society that shunned and ignored them. They became icons because they captured an idea relevant to the black American experience: You’re on your own, so you have to take care of your own. I’m not suggesting the Jewish American experience, even as anti-Semitism has persisted, has been comparable in trauma. But the underbelly of hate that fuels them both hasn’t gone away. The Jewish people have long ignored it, even joked about it—but these days, that’s no longer an option. Not when you have a president retweeting the vilest anti-Semitic edgelords the internet has to offer, and even welcoming them into the White House. Not when he’s emboldened weekend SS warriors to chant, “Jews will not replace us,” in the streets.
In an informal social media poll of my Jewish friends on the most badass Jew in movie history, there was near universal consensus: Inglourious Basterds’ The Bear Jew. An American World War II soldier who sports an impressive physique and an even more impressive baseball bat, Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) singlehandedly rewrites the narrative of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. When we were at our most powerless, he was powerful. He wasn’t scared of Nazis; he brought the fury and the vengeance of his entire people down upon them. We didn’t even mind that Quentin Tarantino’s historical revisionism bordered a tad on the offensive; watching The Bear Jew empty his machine gun into Hitler’s face was the ultimate fulfillment of fantasy.
It’s a story that cinema has thus far failed to replicate, though this year’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus came close, finally confirming the oft-rumored Jewish heritage of its protagonist, B.J. Blazkowicz, and thereby making the game into a deeply personal tale of righteous retribution. I want more of that feeling. I want my kids to have more stories that teach them about their own badass history, and that you don’t fuck with the Jews. And I want them to have a movie character that makes them feel that kind of strength, the way Jeff Goldblum (by proxy of Judd Hirsch) once did for me. These are scary times for us, with scary people holding scary beliefs having access to the highest offices in the world. We need tough, Torah-toting heroes more than ever.