Woody Allen and Jewish Identity

Samuel Aronson
Oct 20, 2016 · 13 min read

Woody Allen is without a doubt one of the most accomplished filmmakers in American cinema. He has put out a staggering amount of work, and continues to today. He is an icon, both for directing his films, but also starring in many of them. Woody Allen is Jewish and was raised in the faith, and this Jewish identity is often a topic in his films, be it intentional or otherwise. Allen has indeed made films highlighting Judaism, but even in films where Judaism isn’t the centerpiece, Jewish Identity often comes into play in one way or another. There is no doubt that Allen’s work has reached many a moviegoer. With this, comes Allen’s on-screen representation of Jews. These representations are then seen and reacted to by Allen’s huge audience. With these representations, come comparisons drawn to Jewish stereotypes. Allen uses stereotypes rather frequently within his films, but the intention is not to show Jewish people in a negative manner, rather the intention may be to give people a familiar entry point to a character, and even overcome said stereotype through its use.

With this, comes Allen’s on-screen representation of Jews. These representations are then seen and reacted to by Allen’s huge audience. With these representations, come comparisons drawn to Jewish stereotypes.

Woody Allen was born “Allan Stewart Konigsberg” in Brooklyn, New York in 1935. He subsequently changed his name to “Heywood Allen” at the age of seventeen. Allen was born to second-generation Jewish immigrants. He grew up in an almost entirely Jewish section of Brooklyn known as Midwood. His father worked many jobs, and his relationship with his parents, as well as with many other people in the neighborhood, became major source material for Allen’s later cinematic work. This middle class Jewish neighborhood is undoubtedly the source for many of Allen’s characters, as well as the way in which they are depicted and represented. He began his career in media when he attended New York University to study video production. He dropped out of the university however, and began work writing for a television show for comedian Sid Caesar. Though Allen encountered success writing for television, he became bored with it. Due to this boredom, Allen began to pursue stand up comedy.

This middle class Jewish neighborhood is undoubtedly the source for many of Allen’s characters, as well as the way in which they are depicted and represented.

Woody Allen’s standup career thrived in New York. He utilized a persona of a nebbish, downtrodden intellectual in these acts, which served him quite well. The persona served him so well, it carried into many of his later films as well. After some time Allen turned his attentions to the stage soon after, becoming a playwright of decent success. Though he never gave up on playwriting completely, films soon became Allen’s primary focus. In 1965 he wrote the screenplay for “What’s New Pussycat?” He did not direct this film and was disappointed in its final product. This disappointment led him to operate under the rule of directing everything he wrote, to ensure that his vision was realized. Allen’s career in film and stage continues today, as he is still actively working.

This disappointment led him to operate under the rule of directing everything he wrote, to ensure that his vision was realized.

Allen appears to have a certain preoccupation with some Jewish stereotypes. One of his most visited stereotypes is that of the nebbish, scrawny, bookworm-type Jew. He tends to cast this particular type of character as the lead for many of his films. It is more than likely that Allen sees much of himself in this character, especially as in many of these films; the stereotype is being played by Allen himself. Allen portrays and depicts this Jewish stereotype constantly, almost gleefully. He enjoys bringing this character to the screen, and drawing on its archetype.

Allen appears to have a certain preoccupation with some Jewish stereotypes. One of his most visited stereotypes is that of the nebbish, scrawny, bookworm-type Jew. He tends to cast this particular type of character as the lead for many of his films.

Allen’s love for this archetype may go deeper than his personal connection to it. This is a stereotype that has been belittled and used as the punch line for jokes for quiet some time. Allen himself fits this stereotype quite well, and it could stand to reason that he personally had to deal with these jokes and stereotypes with frequency. He seems to enjoy portraying these characters, with the full characteristics of the archetype. These characters however, with all of the seemingly negative characteristics, are always portrayed in a relatively positive manner.

Woody Allen’s personal Jewish identity and portrayal of Jewish identity seem to be intrinsically linked. This link stems from the fact that Allen is portraying many of his own characters, causing their Jewish identities to overlap. Allen’s characters are typically shown with the negative attributes of Jewish stereotypes, yet they are shown in a positive manner. This is Allen’s way of overcoming his own personal discrimination, as well as showing his audiences stereotypical Jews portrayed in a positive light. He uses these stereotypes both to give his audience a relatable character, but also to give an easy initial impression of a character, only to build depth and show a side or characteristic of a character that a viewer may feel as if they already know. Allen does this to show that both he, and Jewish people as a whole, are much more than just stereotypes, and cannot be labeled as such.

Allen is portraying many of his own characters, causing their Jewish identities to overlap. Allen’s characters are typically shown with the negative attributes of Jewish stereotypes, yet they are shown in a positive manner. This is Allen’s way of overcoming his own personal discrimination, as well as showing his audiences stereotypical Jews portrayed in a positive light.

Woody Allen has characteristically shown or portrayed his Jewish protagonist as perhaps not the most physically talented person, or most successful person in the room, but always as the smartest person in the room. In Annie Hall, Alvy is shown to be a moderate success, but is almost always the smartest, or cleverest guy in the room, no matter the circumstances. Alvy is funny enough, and smart enough, to be too “cool” for any situation that he doesn’t want to be in or makes him uncomfortable.

In Annie Hall, Alvy is shown to be a moderate success, but is almost always the smartest, or cleverest guy in the room, no matter the circumstances. Alvy is funny enough, and smart enough, to be too “cool” for any situation that he doesn’t want to be in or makes him uncomfortable.

In this particular film, Annie Hall, Alvy Singer is shown to embody the stereotype of the nebbish Jew. This is obviously a stereotype that has had a negative connotation. Allen’s character takes this stereotype and shows it early on. He then evolves the character of Alvy, giving it new depth. Alvy is shown to be quite funny and socially apt. He is charming and does very well with the ladies. While he looks, and to a certain degree, acts, the part of the stereotype he is aiming for, he also shows many other positive or admirable traits that are not incorporated into his stereotype. In this manner Allen is embodying the stereotype of the nebbish Jew, while simultaneously rising above it. From a general perspective of Jewish identity, this shows a form of acceptance of past stereotypes, with the aim of transcending these stereotypes.

Allen is embodying the stereotype of the nebbish Jew, while simultaneously rising above it. From a general perspective of Jewish identity, this shows a form of acceptance of past stereotypes, with the aim of transcending these stereotypes.

Allen seems to have a great preoccupation with relationships, and the sex that goes with them. This may stem from the nebbish stereotype Allen so often portrays. Allen’s self-portrayed main characters tend to be a bit sex obsessed, but unlike the stereotype, these characters tend to have very good luck with the ladies. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer is quite promiscuous, going from partner to partner seemingly effortlessly. He takes the nebbish, sex-starved geek stereotype he is portraying and again shows its duality. While maintaining the characteristics of this archetype, Allen’s characters have no problem in the department of love or sex, which departs from the archetype while maintaining all other features. This works on a personal level for Allen, as well as for the archetype. Allen personally shows his transcendence of the stereotype, while maintaining most of its traits. From the perspective of the archetype, he shows that people with these traits and characteristics are not necessarily limited to them, and can be “cool.”

He takes the nebbish, sex-starved geek stereotype he is portraying and again shows its duality. While maintaining the characteristics of this archetype, Allen’s characters have no problem in the department of love or sex, which departs from the archetype while maintaining all other features.

Besides just the sex involved in relationships, Allen is truly preoccupied with the relationships themselves. The relationships he focuses on are again, typically involving characters he himself is playing. These relationships do typically have an implicit stereotype or commonality of the Jewish identity. This is that of the relationship between a Jewish man and a Gentile woman. This has been a form of stereotype or trope since media has begun depicting Jewish-Americans. The idea of Jewish men only dating Gentile women has been a form of trope, and Woody Allen depicts it regularly. Allen depicts these relationships, but it cannot be told for sure whether he is doing so ironically, or of he is actually subscribing to this notion. The fact that Allen himself is typically the Jewish main character that is dating or married to these Gentile characters may further illustrate the fact that Allen embraces these stereotypes and uses them to overcome.

The idea of Jewish men only dating Gentile women has been a form of trope, and Woody Allen depicts it regularly. Allen depicts these relationships, but it cannot be told for sure whether he is doing so ironically, or of he is actually subscribing to this notion.

Comedy is very important to Woody Allen. Allen uses comedy in his films to deal with some serious social situations. This is something that seems to be intrinsic to Jewish culture. Humor is something tied to Jewish culture, and Allen is very in tune with this. The majority of his films are comedies, despite that fact that some deal with relatively serious topics. This is something essential to both the Jewish identity and Allen’s personal Jewish identity, and has persisted throughout the majority of his films.

Woody Allen uses humor in the vast majority of his films. He seems to enjoy using a self-deprecating style of humor for his Jewish protagonists, especially when that protagonist is being portrayed by himself. This raises the question as to whether the self-deprecation is meant specifically as an extension of Allen’s personal feelings, or, if it is used in representation Jewish comedy. Self-deprecation is considered a staple in Jewish comedy. Throughout Annie Hall, Allen is shown to have a rather large ego, while, either during standup comedy sets, or everyday conversation, he is shown to engage in a form of self-deprecating comedy. In Radio Days, Allen tells a story of growing up in New York as he did. Throughout this, his narration takes on a deprecating tone towards his past self in some sequences, while maintaining his status as a positive protagonist and narrator.

He seems to enjoy using a self-deprecating style of humor for his Jewish protagonists, especially when that protagonist is being portrayed by himself. This raises the question as to whether the self-deprecation is meant specifically as an extension of Allen’s personal feelings, or, if it is used in representation Jewish comedy.

This use of self-deprecating humor is done so knowing of its status as a staple of Jewish humor. A possible reason for the use is most obviously to show the comedic know-how of Jewish people. The more complex reason could be to show the duality of the jokes. These jokes have been a staple of Jewish comedy, and could by many listeners or observers be indicative of true feelings of Jewish people. Hearing just these jokes without context or only shown within the context of a set of stand up comedy could give that impression. Allen showcases such humor in the context of having a more complex narrator. This narrator is capable of making these jokes, without believing them or actualizing them. This shows the duality of this form of humor. The jokes can be made without the whole-hearted belief in the content of the jokes, regardless of the history or status of the jokes. This further shows Allen’s ability to take stereotypes or archetypes of the Jewish identity, use them, and then further build upon them to positive effect.

Another common theme among Jewish characters in Allen’s films is that of relationship troubles. Most older, Jewish, married couples depicted in Allen’s films are shown to bicker nearly constantly, his parents in Radio Days for example. This could be taken simply as the old adage “fighting like an old married couple,” but again in Annie Hall, Allen’s character, Alvy’s Jewish family is used to juxtapose his girlfriend’s non-Jewish family. Her family is shown peacefully enjoying a dinner, which is quickly compared to Allen’s character’s family, who are shown to be constantly bickering over petty matters, to no real consequence.

Alvy’s family is shown in other instances during the film, however. His family is shown to be a relatively normal group of people, albeit with some interpersonal problems. These problems are originally shown in contrast with a non-Jewish family. These are problems, however, of any average family, of any faith, nationality, or heritage. The family is later shown quite “normally,” normal in the sense of not conforming to any further stereotypes, as well as acting no differently than any other non-Jewish family. Allen again uses this stereotype as an entry point to the introduction of his character’s family, but then uses it to show these characters transcending their original stereotypes. He further shows that his Jewish characters can adhere to certain stereotypes, but are real, fleshed out beings, with far more depth than mere stereotypes.

Allen again uses this stereotype as an entry point to the introduction of his character’s family, but then uses it to show these characters transcending their original stereotypes. He further shows that his Jewish characters can adhere to certain stereotypes, but are real, fleshed out beings, with far more depth than mere stereotypes.

Jewish identity is something that is seemingly intertwined with Woody Allen’s films. His acting, directing, and writing of these films are done in a way to ensure that they are recorded and released exactly as he intends. Everything he does from a cinematic standpoint is deliberate. The deliberateness gives Allen’s characters a form of clarity. Everything that is done or said by one of his characters is due to Allen’s intention and design. Because of this, it stands to reason that any depiction of any character is done so by Allen with purpose. This characterization then obviously is in effect in regards to any characters that Allen may or may not be depicting with a stereotype apparent or in mind.

Everything that is done or said by one of his characters is due to Allen’s intention and design. Because of this, it stands to reason that any depiction of any character is done so by Allen with purpose.

Woody Allen has depicted many stereotypes of Jewish-American culture and identity. These depictions were done intentionally by Allen. The reason for these depictions, however, cannot be discerned with one hundred percent certainty. Allen could perhaps just be creating characters the way he knows how, using the events and experiences of his life. This is most unlikely and least satisfying answer however.

Another answer that could be posed is that of Allen’s own personal thoughts, feelings, and reflections. Allen sees himself a certain way, and may be putting a certain version of himself out there by the way of his films. This nebbish stereotype of Jewish individuals may in fact be Allen’s true persona, and he is putting out a version of this persona simply because it comes naturally to him and he identifies with it. This answer again, seems far too simple and is an overall unsatisfying answer.

This nebbish stereotype of Jewish individuals may in fact be Allen’s true persona, and he is putting out a version of this persona simply because it comes naturally to him and he identifies with it.

Woody Allen has, undoubtedly, dealt with some adversity growing up as a Jew in the time period in which he did. Certain stereotypes, such as the kinds he portrays, must have been used negatively towards him at some point in his life. This discrimination must have influenced him, both as a person, and as a creator of media. This influence of seeing and experience discrimination due to Jewish heritage could very well be the reason that such stereotypes persist, albeit in altered states, in his films. Allen puts forward these familiar stereotypes in his films, but instead of using them to alienate the characters from the viewers, the characters are, in some manner or form, endeared to the viewer, as any other character would be. These characters seem to embrace their stereotypes, or rather, Allen does, and they transcend them. This, to some extent, can counteract these stereotypes, and rise above the negativity associated with them. Allen doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, he embraces them full on. He then uses said stereotypes to overcome the very negativity and discrimination that they are putting forth. In this sense, Woody Allen’s work is an achievement for the Jewish identity, as well as a form of catharsis. While it cannot be confirmed that this is the way Allen intends his work, it is certainly one of the more satisfying answers or interpretations.

These characters seem to embrace their stereotypes, or rather, Allen does, and they transcend them. This, to some extent, can counteract these stereotypes, and rise above the negativity associated with them. Allen doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, he embraces them full on.

Works Consulted

Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1977. Online.

Bleiweiss, Mark E. “Self-deprecation and the Jewish humor of Woody Allen.” The Films of Woody Allen: Critical Essays (2006): 58.

Girgus, Sam B. The Films of Woody Allen. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“Heywood Allen.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Radio Days. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Mia Farrow, Seth Green, Michale Tucker, and Woody Allen. Orion Pictures, 1987. Online.

Woody Allen: A Documentary. Dir. Robert B. Weide. Memento Films, 2011. Online.

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