A high schooler tries to come to terms with the whole liberal Jewish intellectual thing.
New York Jewish intellectuals. The people who went to therapy to discuss philosophy, impressed their dates on account of that philosophy, and then complained to their therapists about their dates.
They were probably unpopular in high school, but found a kindred spirit in a Jewish man who wore glasses and had a penchant for wit and irony. In the 1970s, Woody Allen’s alter-ego in “Annie Hall,” Alvy Singer, stereotyped a New York Jewish girl as: “Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps, and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings…”
I’m a high school senior who grew up on the Upper West Side, but not on Central Park West. I probably won’t apply to Brandeis, and I don’t know of any socialist summer camps, and certainly didn’t attend one. The joke, and stereotype, is a bit before my time. I wasn’t around during the “Annie Hall” days of New York, when people went to parties and discussed articles they had just read in Dissent and Commentary (or was it Dysentery?), while Singer hid in the bedroom watching the Knicks.
I learned of the city’s former identity from Woody Allen movies, which my dad began to show me when I outgrew “Arthur” and the Olsen twins. At the time, I could barely understand the sarcasm or irony, and yet there was something unforgettable about the movies. It must have made me come back to them; learning the jokes of the films as I did multiplication, studied the Civil War, and SAT vocab. By middle school, I was quoting Woody Allen (even when I didn’t understand the punch lines) to peers who not only had no idea who he was, but erupted in giggle fits over his first name.
I came to realize that Woody (can I call him that?) — both his own persona and that of the characters he created — were Jewish New York, arms flailing, nervous ticks and all.
The New York Jew was awkward, a bit self-loathing, void of much religious connection, until you see his face when Annie Hall orders pastrami on white bread with mayo. After Woody Allen, audiences began to ask: Were all New York Jews this funny? Obsessed with death? What Woody saw as ironic has become more akin to iconic.
The idea of Woody Allen has become almost an archetype of what it means to be a Jew in New York, an idea that remains in the consciousness of many even when they notice that the world he portrayed is now distinctly different. Alvy Singer still exists, if only in our minds, (not a day older than he was when the films premiered), even though the world in which he lived looks very different, and the man who played him has aged 35 years.
Maybe there was some truth to these portraits. Woody’s New York of the 1970s was a different time, but it still does seem familiar. After all, brainy Jews still are a little awkward, overly anxious, a bit self-loathing, and for some, like Allen’s characters, obsessed with Nazis. However, Woody’s Jews never had much religious connection. Apart from a visit to Annie Hall’s grandmother — who sees Singer as if dressed as a chasid, Judaism, the religion, is hardly found. Being Jewish was more about doing things a Jewish way. In his films, Jewishness was not the High Holidays and bar mitzvahs; but rather, it was also jokes about Jewish stereotypes, going to intellectual movies (and making fun of the so-called Marshall McLuhan experts), and complaining about anti-Semitic comments. My rabbi would be shocked, but following my first years of Hebrew school, a film director had become another kind of spiritual guide.
Even though Woody’s characters rarely enjoyed romantic success, many of his films are love letters to New York. From the Gershwin soundtracks to the glittering Manhattan skyline at night, Woody’s New York City made audiences forget about the crime, the un-air-conditioned subways, the rodents, and the dangers facing those who crossed Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. He made the outcasts from high school feel a little more special, as if the world of a New York Jewish intellectual might just be in their future.
Woody always remained a part of my childhood, a fixture of Jewish New York, like Zabar’s or the Salute to Israel parade. Although we lived on the same island, somehow I never thought so much about the man himself, but rather the films he created. Yes, there have been scandals in his personal life, and yes, in “Manhattan,” Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is my own age and attends school just blocks from my own. But I have learned that I can admire Woody Allen the director, even when I am disturbed by some elements of him as a man. He could remain a figure of his films. `
Well, that is, until last February, when I got the opportunity to meet him (at the 92nd Street Y — where else?), and I ended up having a photo taken with him. The man whose films I saw when I was too young to understand them, who introduced me to a former Jewish New York, stood beside me, an older, grayer version of Alvy Singer, still wearing the same glasses, and seeming like he’d rather be anywhere else. I was almost expecting him to duck out of the room to go watch the Knicks. ◆
Basia Rosenbaum, a senior at Hunter College High School, writes for the paper’s arts pages.