Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Lost in Oz? Jews in the Australian Cinema

Freda Freiberg

This paper was first presented at the Caulfield Arts Centre in March 1993, as a contribution to a series of seminars organized by the Jewish Arts Festival. An earlier version of it was published in Generation, 3:4 (1993).

Jews have resided, married, reproduced and died in Australia since 1788. In the early days of white colonisation, there were Jewish convicts, Jewish bushrangers and Jews on the goldfields (Levi and Bergman, Cohen). The most famous Australian military commander of WW1 and the first Australian born Governor General were both Jews. And yet Jews are not associated with images and archetypes of Australia and Australians. In Australian art and literature, myth and legend, the archetypal white Australian is represented by the Bushman, Ocker or Digger. Many of the defining characteristics of this "typical Australian" - his anti-authoritarianism, his skill at improvisation, his fondness for booze and betting, his disrespect for pretensions of class and culture, his respect for evaders of the law - are remarkably similar to those of the Jewish Cockney world, which supplied the imperial authorities with a source of transportees, but tend rather to be associated with the more numerous Irish Catholic component. The image of the Australian has to date excluded the Jew. Furthermore, archetypal images of the land of Australia - the outback, the Bush, the Red or Dead centre - also function to exclude the Jew, because iconographically the Australian landscape connotes untamed nature, the pre-historical and primitive, while the Jew is associated with urban civilization, business and culture.

In contrast, images of the American and America have accommodated the Jew along with other ethnic minorities - the Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans. Perhaps it was the strong Jewish presence in Hollywood - its Jewish studio bosses and large Jewish contingent of writers, composers, actors and directors - that made it harder and harder to exclude the Jew from the image of the American. Since the 1960s the American cinema has produced and exported Jewish stars like Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen, Richard Dreyfus and Ron Silver, no longer finding it necessary to disguise their Jewish identity. The American cinema has incorporated and reproduced a number of Jewish character stereotypes - the smothering Jewish mother, the Jewish Princess, the Jewish hustler, the neurotic Jewish son, the shlemiel - and parodies of Jewish family and religious rituals (Shabbat and Yomtov family dinners, Barmitzvahs, weddings and funerals). It has adapted stories, plays and novels by American and Canadian Jewish writers: comedies, such as Yentl (1983) and Enemies, a Love Story (1989) by Singer, Goodbye Columbus (1969) and Portnoy's Complaint (1972) by Roth; and tragedies such as The Fixer (1968) by Malamud and The Pawnbroker (1965) by Wallant. Although favouring the satiric strain, it has also produced "positive", somewhat nostalgic, representations of Jewish religious tradition and family life (e.g. in Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street (1974) and Crossing Delancey (1988), Barry Levinson's Avalon (1990) and the screen adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen (1981)). It has even produced portraits of the Jew as dedicated political radical (Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973), Ron Leibman in Norma Rae (1979)), albeit in the palatable guise of romantic comedy. Barbara Streisand's sexual attraction to the WASP male (Robert Redford) but prickly discomfort in WASP society in the former switches gender roles but otherwise mirrors the more common narrative motif of neurotic Jewish male attracted to WASP blonde and angsting happily ever after (vide Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977); Richard Benjamin in Portnoy's Complaint). In addition to kvetching complaints of post-adolescent or permanently adolescent Jewish males, prone to masturbation, fornication and voyeurism, the American cinema has given us comic/nostalgic accounts of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn or Baltimore before, during and after the War (e.g. Radio Days (1986), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Avalon).

We haven't had films or plays about growing up Jewish in Carlton or Bondi. We have had one controversial play, Ron Elisha's In Duty Bound (1988), about the generation gap in Holocaust survivors' families, which employs caricatures of Jewish family life (eating and excreting ad nauseam) and Jewish character stereotypes (the smothering mother and neurotic son) familiar to viewers of American Jewish films and readers of American Jewish literature. One Australian film, Henri Safran's Norman Loves Rose (1983), tried to take a new tack on the bad-taste Jewish family satire. In it barmitzvah boy Norman saves the marriage of his sterile shlemiel brother and discontented JAP (Jewish American/Australian Princess) sister-in-law Rose by getting her pregnant. Making jokes of the Jewish mother and the JAP is already par for the course but turning the adult Jewish male's low sperm count into a joke is below the belt and quite another matter. A Mel Brooks might have brought it off, by pushing the bad taste element ad absurdum; a delicate Continental touch might have brought it off by investing the eponymous lovers and their relationship with more charm. As it stands, it is an embarrassment to all concerned. Since the (critical and commercial) failure of this film, Henri Safran has reverted to archetypal Aussie material - directing series like A Fortunate Life (1986) and Bush Christmas (1983) for television.

The only other Jewish fiction films are actually mini-series: The Dunera Boys (1985) and Palace of Dreams (1985). In the case of the former, the local element is missing. The central characters are an East End Cockney larrikin (forcefully portrayed by character actor, Bob Hoskins) and a Viennese violinist (charmingly portrayed by Italian Australian Joe Spano). The Jews are all refugees or Cockneys; there is no local community in sight. So that the Jew once again is un-Australian, the outsider. The Australian is represented by a range of lovable comic stereotypes, as are the refugee Jews, but there are no Australian Jews. It's as if the breed did not exist, and were not agitating for the release of The Dunera Boys. The sentimental and soapy Palace of Dreams would appear to be the only exception to this general state of fictional affairs.

How do we explain this absence of Australian Jews from the screen? I believe there is no single or simple explanation but a variety of factors which collaborate to create this absence:

1. In the postwar post-Auschwitz era, non-Jewish writers and artists in Australia have been understandably hesitant or reluctant to represent Jews and Jewish issues, because of the sensitivity of the Jewish community, if not their own sensitivity, to the politics of representation. Jewish artists and writers too have to negotiate a minefield if they represent Jews and Jewish issues: the community is only too quick to attack them if their images of Jews are not "positive". Judging from the response to In Duty Bound, they are expected to dignify and romanticise Jews and Judaism, to confine themselves to ennobling or sentimental portrayals of Jewish characters, actions and beliefs. (In early postwar USA, both Philip Roth and Robert Warshow noted the hazards of Jewish writers writing about Jews, because of the censoring and self-censoring agencies operating on them. (Roth "Writing about Jews" and Warshow)

2. Because the Australian film industry is small and economically fragile, and has generally had more box office success with projects that reinforce myths of the Australian landscape and the Australian character, it does not appear to encourage projects with Jewish subject matter or Jewish characters. These are in fact associated with the Hollywood cinema, with American films, rather than Australian products...

3. We do not have an established body of Australian Jewish literature or drama to adapt to the screen. (It is telling that David Williamson has been called the Neil Simon of Australia, presumably because he constructs well-made plays based on the anxieties and power struggles of white, urban, middle-class males and evinces a flair for colorful repartee in the vernacular).

4. Stories of urban and suburban Jewish life have already been covered by the American cinema. With a common language and so much shared culture, how do you mark the differences between Australian Jews and American Jews? Norman Loves Rose (1982) highlights the hazards of adapting an American genre to the local scene; it ended up sinking in mid Pacific in no-man's land, neither American nor Australian ...

5. Closely connected to 3 and 4, there is no clear image of the Australian Jew, no typology to draw on. There is perhaps also no clear identity. But then a sense of identity is constructed out of representations; without representations there is no identity. There are representations of Australians and representations of foreign Jews but no representations of Australian Jews.

6. The Australian Jewish community is fractured and divided by internal differences - of national origin, language, political persuasion and religious practice. The only issues on which it is united are sensitivity to anti-semitism - symbolized archtypically by the Nazi Holocaust - and, to a lesser extent, attachment to the land of Israel. Thus the core issues of Jewish identity for Australian Jews are elsewhere - not here. Despite an increase in research activity and available publications, local Jewish history has perhaps not been sufficiently valued in the curricula of educators in this country.

7. The media hype devoted to local film and television productions may have endowed the industry with a certain glamour or prestige, thus creating misconceptions about the state of the Australian film industry, but closer examination reveals that it is hard to make a regular living in it, that it is an insecure livelihood. Whatever their religious or political convictions or national origins, Jews in Australia have tended to gravitate towards independent and previously secure occupations and livelihoods: retail trading, secondary and tertiary industry (the garment industry, manufacturing, the building, hotel and entertainment industries) and the prestige professions (the law, medicine, dentistry and accountancy). There are some Jewish men and women in the business side of the film industry - exhibitors, distributors and executive producers - but few Jewish writers and directors.

8. The traditional Jewish respect for the Word, emanating from the attribution of divinity to it, and the centuries-long expense of Jewish effort and intellect on biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, on exploring the syntactic and semantic subtleties of divine discourse, have been deemed responsible for the flowering of secular Jewish scholarship and authorship in the modern age. But here in Australia Jewish wordsmiths are mostly concentrated in the academy and the law, with a very small representation in the creative arts. This clearly relates to the previous point, the streaming of local young Jewish talent into secure professions, the obsession with security at the expense of creativity.

9. Australian audiences, Jewish or not, are not aware of an absence, because they are able to see Jewish experience represented on screen in numerous imported films. The film market here remains dominated by Hollywood products, which (as noted above) include many films with a Jewish flavour. In addition, the local arthouse cinemas regularly import and screen European films of interest to Jewish audiences, such as Louis Malle's Au Revoir les Enfants (France, 1987) and Agnieszka Holland's Europa,Europa (France, Germany, 1991). In recent years, the institution of an annual Jewish Film Festival, organized by Les Rabinowicz initially under the patronage of the AFI, has brought a collection of recently completed overseas films with Jewish content (documentary and fiction) to audiences in Melbourne and Sydney every November.

In the so-called independent film scene in Australia, professional survival is even more precarious than in the so-called mainstream. The independent scene covers a range of practices: avant-garde and experimental film and video, super-8, oppositional or personal or minority documentaries, short films. Exhibition outlets are limited to film festivals, Eat Carpet on SBS television, occasional seasons of Australian shorts and docos on ABC-TV or SBS, and educational institutions. Most independent filmmakers rely on government support to survive, because their products are not commercially viable.

In this area there are a number of Jews, most of them working intermittently on film projects while earning a living as teachers of film courses or administrative assistants in film culture institutions (such as the AFI, the AFC, Film Vic). Here again not many of these people offer signs of Jewish identity in their films. A rare exception, Karen Altmann made a feature-length documentary on Raoul Wallenberg, which won an AFI award, and was applauded for its systematic research and sharp editing, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by a dramatized American mini-series on the same subject that appeared at the same time. Karen also collaborated on a project to film interviews with Holocaust survivors in Melbourne, and directed a Ron Elisha script for the SBS Six Pack series (produced by Bob Weis in 1992), but was clearly ill at ease in the role of fiction director.

The most promising young Jewish talent to emerge recently in the independent film scene is Jackie Farkas, a graduate of the Australian Film & Television School in Sydney, and the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who are survivors of Auschwitz. She recently won a number of awards for her witty graduation film, an experimental short called Amelia Rose Towers (which defied exhibition norms by screening in Village theatres, as supporting short to The Crying Game) but it is her other student production, The Illustrated Auschwitz, screened in 1992 at the Melbourne Film Festival, the Experimenta Film Festival and the Dresden Film Festival, that is especially impressive. A small, cheap, personal film, shot on super-8, it has a powerful impact on its viewers, demonstrating that it is still possible to touch and move audiences cynical about the prospect of "yet another film about the Nazi Holocaust". An experimental documentary that completely avoids talking heads, and the usual parade of facts and figures, it evidences a probing and questing filmic intelligence, as well as unusual respect for its human subject (for a more detailed discussion of this film, see Freiberg "Wizards").

It is to be hoped that the seduction of making it in the international filmmaking arena will not deter Farkas from employing her considerable gifts on subjects closer to home. For the absence of representations of Australian Jews, and of Australian Jewish history, is worrying. So long as Jews are not seen as being located in Australia, in the local scene, they will continue to be seen, by themselves and by others, as alien, as non-Australian, if not un-Australian - a situation that re-inforces the insecurity of Jews and the fears of non-Jews, with potentially serious social and political repercussions.

Postscript, January 1994

This paper concentrated on the representation of Jews in the postwar Australian cinema and therefore omitted consideration of Strike me Lucky, Ken Hall's 1934 comedy starring Roy Rene, the popular prewar Australian Jewish vaudeville comedian. The omission may have been justified by the paper's focus on the contemporary situation but it was also convenient because Roy Rene makes me feel very uncomfortable. My initial, quasi- instinctive response to him was to censor him out of my account, but the editor of this journal persuaded me that I should overcome my Jewish bourgeois feminist better judgement (which is totally offended by him) and give this popular prewar clown some attention. So here goes.

It seems to me that the Mo persona owes something to Chaplin's tramp persona (the down-and-out clown, the nebbich loser), and something to Groucho Marx's lecherous persona, but he has neither the charm and pathos of the former, nor the outrageously insouciant insolence of the latter. The leering, cringing, hook-nosed Mo, of Strike Me Lucky, who ssppittss and splutters when he speaks, is just too close to the Nazi caricature of the Jew for post-Holocaust Jewish comfort.

Strike Me Lucky lacks a coherent or sustained narrative. It is composed of a plethora of separate comedy sketches, rather like a contemporary television comedy programme (Fast Forward or Comedy Company). It pastiches and parodies a number of different film genres and character types (including Mae West), but the narrative motifs are cited rather than developed in any sustained manner. Mo's Jewishness is almost another non-sequitur in the film. After two short sketches involving him gaining and losing a job as an assistant to a Jewish tailor, there is no further reference to people or things Jewish - except for the ending, which, like the opening shot, is an absurd, well-nigh cryptic, Jewish joke, with no connection with the other events in the film. The opening joke is a book title called 1001 Ways to Cook Ham, which is rejected not by Mo (the logical person) but by the romantic lead, in favour of Romeo and Juliet. The closing joke involves Mo and June East (the Mae West impersonator) opening a Jewish Home for Bankrupt Bookmakers Children - clearly a topical reference to both the Depression and the large number of Jews working as on-course and off-course bookmakers in this period.

Roy Rene's stage success seems to have been founded on his vulgarity - the use of obscene gestures and double entendres; on his Ocker language (Mo's 'Mots' sent the audience into paroxysms of laughter); and on his lively exchange of insults with the audience. [footnote 1] His stage routines could not be incorporated into the cinema of his day, being too vulgar to pass censorship, and needing a live audience for him to interact with. The dirty stage Jew performed a useful social function: he allowed his audience to indulge their taboo obscene thoughts and feelings. and then chided them for doing so. Without the obscenities and the interaction, he is just a dirty Jew. One may perhaps see his theatre as a precursor to the Ocker comedies of the early 1970s (such films as The Adventures of Barry MacKenzie (1972), Stork (1971) and Alvin Purple (1973)) as well as Barry Humphries' theatre work, in its obscene exhibitionism and hostile aggression against the audience. But the Ugly Australian stereotypes in Humphries' work and the Ocker comedies display a certain development in social psychology, for the audience no longer finds it necessary to project their dirty thoughts onto the figure of the Jew.

If a connection can be traced between Mo's theatre work and the Ocker comedies, there is no such discernible connection between his type of comedy and the comedy of Norman Loves Rose. In his analysis of jokes, Freud (ch III) identifies four major types of tendentious jokes - (i) obscene/exhibitionistic jokes; (ii) hostile/aggressive jokes; (iii) cynical/critical jokes; and (iv) sceptical/sophistical jokes. The first two types are favored by the Ocker comedies and Roy Rene's theatre practice. Freud uses Jewish jokes from the folk tradition, especially "schadchen" (matchmaker) jokes, to exemplify the third type. This type of joke is one that Jews tell each other about each other; it is one that criticises Jewish institutions and customs from the inside. This is the kind of humour employed by Norman Loves Rose. Compared with the Ocker comedies and much American Jewish satirical comedy, it has a low level of hostility/aggression, and a low level of obscenity/exhibitionism; but, in an affectionate and gentle way, it ridicules the institutions and practices of Jewish society. Its debt to Yiddish (Eastern European Jewish) folk humour is underlined by the casting of Carol Kane (who played the wife in Hester Street) as Rose.

As Freud (ch V) also noted, for a joke to work, the audience must be receptive, must share the same internal inhibitions, and the same social experience, as the joker. The discrepancy between the critical and popular reception of the Ocker comedies, and the poor critical and popular reception of Norman Loves Rose remind us, if we need to be reminded, just how hard it is to make a successful match between comedy and consumer, and between consumer and critic. The schadchen could bring the partners together, could promote the desirability of the match (by reciting the assets and virtues of prospective partners) but could not ensure a happy marriage; we critics are no better able to succeed, even when we try, and most of us are now quite cynical, if not sceptical, about the whole idea of marriage.


1. Bill Wannan, in Australian Folklore (377), provides a list of 'Mo's Mots' - expressions made popular by Roy Rene. They include: 'Strike me lucky!'; 'Cop this!'; 'You beaut!'; 'A bunch of ratbags'; and 'Give us a go, missus! The same source offers accounts of Mo's trouble with the law over his obscene language, and his popular audience-insulting routines ( e.g. spluttering, 'Oh, you filthy beasts!' or 'What's the matter with you mugs?', when they laughed at his dirty jokes). Works cited

Cohen, Lysbeth. Beginning with Esther: Jewish Women in New South Wales from 1788. Jewish Times, 1987.

Elisha, Ron. In Duty Bound. First performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1979. Melbourne: Yackandandah Playscripts, 1988.

Freiberg, Freda. "Wizards of Oz: Into the 90s between Documentary and Fiction". Artlink 13:1 (March-May 1993): 13-14.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their relation to the Unconscious. The Pelican Freud Library, Vol 6. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Levi, J.S. and G.F.J. Bergman. Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788-1850. Adelaide: Rigby, 1974.

Roth, Philip. "Writing about Jews". Commentary 36:6 (December 1963). 446-452.

Wannan, Bill. Australian Folklore: A Dictionary of Lore, Legends and popular Allusions. Melbourne: Landsdowne Press, 1970.

Warshow, Robert. "Clifford Odets: Poet of the Jewish Middle Class". The Immediate Experience. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

New: 22 November, 1995 | Now: 25 March, 2015