The Tale of Two Sandlers: The Jewish-American Schlemiel and Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler’s brand of comedy has always been of interest to me. And since today is Adam Sandler’s birthday, I was thinking about what to write about Sandler. To be sure, Schlemiel Theory has no blogs on Sandler save for a blog that discusses Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) within the context of the schlemiel and his/her adverse relationship with war.   In this blog I want to briefly take note of two ways that scholars have addressed Sandler. On the one hand, Daniel Itzkovitz addresses Sandler in terms of the schlemiel character and its relation to American culture; and on the other hand, Lawrence Epstein reads Sandler in terms of a new generation of post-assimilation Jews who are dealing with their Jewishness in nuanced ways that previous generations could not. Both scholars provide us with interesting insights about Sandler. But the key to understanding their differing readings depends on how you understand the meaning of (and relationship of) Jewishness in (or to) America.   Reading one against the other, we see two competing readings of Jewishness.   And we see…the Tale of Two Sandlers.

Daniel Itzkovitz brings up Daniel Sandler in his essay “They are All Jews.” In his essay, Itzkovitz queries into what has happened to Jewishness in America after films like Independence Day. Even though “Jewishness” seems to be coming more and more to the forefront in this (and other films) he wonders whether this “Jewishness” has more to do with Hollywood and less with reality (since, after all, there is a worry that, with intermarriage and assimilation, less of this new generation is interested in Jewishness and his continuation).

In this film, the main character Jeff Goldblum (who plays David Levinson, a “computer geek”) teams up with Will Smith (who plays Captain Steve Hiller, a “Black fighter pilot”) to save America and the world from an alien invasion. As a part of this teaming up, there is a “conversion of the Jewish nerd into a manly hero”(233). This “conversion” works to remake the Jew “into an unironically hypermasculine and stunningly generic ethnic: my big-fat-Jewish-savior, whose ultimate job is simultaneously to stand in as a universal representative of an unthreatening and vacuous difference, and to do so in part by converting everyone else to the newly watered down Jewishness”(234). In other words, Itzkovitz suggests that this film has the Jews stand in for a kind of bland new sense of difference in America. We are all Jews now, meaning all of our differences are non-threatening. The stand in for this is a Jew that goes from being a nerd-schlemiel to a “an unironic hypermasculine..ethnic”(234).   Itzkovits calls this “Hollywood’s ‘new male Jew’ and this is marked as a “world converting cinematic pinnacle”(235). In these moments, the minorities come together to save America and the world and, as Itzkovitz claims, to convert ethnic difference to something vacuous and unthreatening.

In contrast to this we have the “new schlemiel films” that cast actors like Ben Stiller, Jason Biggs, and….Adam Sandler. Given the new film paradigm with Independence Day, Itzkovitz wonders about these new schlemiel films. Now we have two “prominent categories” of Jewish men in America: “either as vaguely eccentric standard bearers for ethnic tolerance in a new multicultural America…or as vaguely eccentric embodiments of the middle class everyman. As the latter group makes clear, if the “neurotic nebbish” is really “out,” someone forgot to tell Hollywood”(241).   Biggs, Stiller, and Sandler, are “neurotic nebbish” schlemiels, the “unwholesome trinity of antiheroes whose in whose humiliations we find supreme pleasure”(241).   They“challenge us to rethink the manly triumph celebrated by Goldblum’s character”(241).  

Writing on Sandler, Itzkovitz notes how in films like The Waterboy (1998), Punch Drunk Love (2002), and Anger Management (2003) he “plays nice guys prone to humiliation by tougher men and women but who ultimately triumph”(242). And in other films like Eight Crazy Nights (2002) and First Dates (2004) “the manhood of his Peter Pan-ish characters is called into question by their inability to grow up”(242).

What Itzkovitz finds most interesting about Sandler (Stiller and Biggs’) “nebbishe outpouring” is that the Jewishness of these “new Hollywood Jews” reveals more about the “instability of postmodern culture than about Jews”(243). In other words, there is nothing really Jewish being disclosed about these films so much as the fact that “as much as American Jews are becoming mainstream, American audiences are “becoming Jewish”(243). They are becoming “instable.” And Jewishness is, as David Biale and Jon Stratton argue, becoming identified with being American. It is being naturalized. In this sense, Sandler really doesn’t tell us much about Jewish identity save for the fact that he, like other Hollywood Jews who play schlemiels, has “generalized” it and shown us more about American culture than about Jewishness.

What Itzkovitz would rather see, in other words, is a Jewishness that tells us more about being Jewish and not about America. But we don’t find this coming out of Hollywood.

Lawrence Epstein, in his book The Haunted Smile, sees Sandler in a different light.

He argues that Sandler has “found a crucial spot in the comedy of his generation”(250). His films are “about the anxiety of growing up, about the need to reconcile with the family, and about taking responsibility”(250). Instead of seeing this as speaking solely to a general American audience, Epstein takes note that “part of Sandler’s comedy comes from his Jewish heritage. The emphasis on family and family reconciliation so prominent in Sandler’s films is embedded in Jewish life”(250).   He goes on to note that Sandler is “famously proud of being Jewish” and “draws on those traditions” so that other Jews of his generation and Americans of his generation “needed”(250).   In other words, Epstein argues that Sandler’s comedy draws on Jewishness and speaks to Jews of his generation and it speaks to Americans. It is literally Jewish-American comedy.

But there is more to the story.

Epstein argues that Sandler shows us that “part of his movement toward maturity” includes a “willingness to embrace an identity that transcends his individual self” – that is, Jewish identity. Epstein’s proof of Sandler’s willingness is the fact that he sung the “Hannukah Song” on Saturday Night Live which became an “ethnic anthem.”

He is openly a Jew and “like his generation, doesn’t have to or want to hide being Jewish or feel any shame either. And in this sense there is a great irony.” The irony is that in previous generations Jews would do their utmost not to appear “too Jewish” in public (even though, Epstein agues, Jewishness was “enveloped and penetrated them”). Through Sandler, argues Epstein, we can see how Jewish values can “influence other parts of….identity and vice versa”(252).   Epstein sees Sandler as “balancing” Jewishness with being an American.   “The future of American and Jewish comedians will in part be determined by how they finally balance their American and Jewish identities”(252).

In contrast to Itzkovitz, Epstein’s Sandler is not simply a stand in for American identity he is a symbol of the future task of Jews to balance Jewishness.   His Jewishness, in this or that film, is a part of a larger spectrum.   Itzkovitz sees his Jewishness in a different light. And although Itzkovitz doesn’t discuss the “Hannukah Song,” one can assume that this is a part of the multicultural project that neutralizes ethnic difference. The Jewishness that interests Itzkovitz is more ambivalent and, as I said, most likely won’t be found in Hollywood.

I’d like to end with a clip of Don’t Mess With the Zohan. It shows us a more recent Sandler who is still looking to balance out Jewish identity. But in this film, unlike his other films, he is more explicitly Jewish than ever. And in the film the nebbishe American schlemiel and the hypermasculine Israeli merge to create an odd character who is struggling with his identity. His move to America is prompted by his more effeminate need to leave war behind and cut hair. This film leaves us with many questions about what has become of Jewishness in Hollywood and the meaning of ethnic difference. It also shows us how Sandler is “balancing” his Jewish identity – between America and Israel.   Perhaps this film is also a Tale of Two Sandlers….

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