Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.

Author:Cohen, Judah M.
Position:Book review

Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen. By Vincent Brook and Marat Grinberg, eds. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014. xxxiii + 275 pp.

Woody on Rye, when viewed from outside of the circle of scholars interested in Jewishness and Woody Allen's movies, seems like an insider conversation content to remain that way. The volume brings together a series of respected scholars to explore ideas and themes in Allen's movies from c. 1992 onward--films, Brook and Grinberg claim, largely overlooked in scholarship due to the "the major fissure in Allen's career caused by the Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn scandal" (ix). Unfortunately, the addition of a lens of "Jewishness" appears to hamstring the contributors--and their volume's contribution--more than it helps. Grinberg, in his own essay, provides a justification: "Woody Allen ought to be viewed as a serious Jewish artist and philosopher, whose Jewish or indeed Judaic thinking shines through even or especially in the absence of apparent Jewish markers, thematics, or identity" (38). Yet while this pairing seems natural on the surface (and may appeal theoretically to Jewish studies), these dual foci too often turn the volume into an exercise in scholarly self-affirmation. Despite Woody Allen's complex, and often dismissive, relationship to Judaism in his own accounts, his voice is drowned out here by scholarly fiat.

Scholarship that explores a celebrity's or artist's "Jewishness" has become its own cottage industry, achieving varying degrees of success. Often such studies involve combing a subject's works for indicators of Judaism, whether obvious or coded; triangulating these observations with other mediated accounts of the artist, such as newspaper interviews or profiles; and anchoring the discussion to more general thematic ideas in the work of prominent scholars. While at times illuminating, these kinds of studies have been critiqued as more interested in arranging data to achieve a preconceived end than in letting the evidence speak for itself. An entire volume predicated on such a preconceived end, moreover--here, Allen's Jewishness--has the trap already set. Attractive writing and humorous turns of phrase, as well as a whimsical design that replaces colons in chapter titles with a broken pair of glasses, cannot save many of the essays from suffering as a result. Historians might find particularly annoying the lack of primary materials engaged beyond Allen's films...

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