Films About Tough Jews

Yes, it’s a list, not a joke

Films About Tough Jews photo
Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as two tough Jews in 'Defiance.'

Back in 2002, a dude named Adam Weitz wrote a jokey list titled "Films about Tough Jews." The list, in its entirety, was:

The Ten Commandments

Hardy-har-har. Well, I just found that list this year, and I'm retroactively ticked off about it. There are a whole lot more movies about tough Jews than that. For the purposes of this list, we're going to keep it to Jews who show physical toughness, not just mental or emotional grit.

The mention of a mob movie on a list of "tough Jews" might itself be a reference to the 1999 book Tough Jews : Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams. This is not the only book about the Jewish involvement in organized crime; another has the lovely title But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters. (There are also The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America and even The Book of American Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History so you can tailor the costumes for your Jewish-mobster movie more accurately).

Movies about such tough Jews include the one about Bugsy Siegel and the one about Meyer Lansky. Jewish mobsters Moe Green (based on Siegel) and Hyman Roth (based on Lansky) appear in the Godfather films, too. A Jewish mobster movie that aims at the epic proportions of The Godfather is Once Upon a Time in America.

Jewish gangsters are even mentioned in the theme song to an Elvis movie. In "Jailhouse Rock," which imagines "the whole cell block" busting into song and "the rhythm section" was composed of "the Purple Gang."

The idea of "tough Jews" must include athletes, and they have been depicted on screen as well. There are boxers from Daniel Mendoza (back in the 1700s! No movie yet …) to Barney Ross and Max Baer (unfairly maligned in Cinderella Man). The Israeli victims of the Munich Olympics massacre included three weightlifters and two wrestlers. Speaking of the Olympics, Chariots of Fire features a Jewish athlete tough enough to compete in a race he didn't even train for … and, in a way, Ben-Hur becomes an athlete to compete in that famous chariot race.

Then there are the "tough Jews" who are soldiers and rebels. There are some movies about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and other movies about Defiance against the Nazis. There are several about the early days of Israel, including the Exodus from Nazi Europe and the American Jewish general who Cast a Giant Shadow over the founding of the Jewish State. There are even two about Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli soldiers achieved Victory at Entebbe over terrorist hijackers in Uganda.

Protecting the home front, Jewish police officers have appeared onscreen as well. Liev Schreiber plays a Chasidic cop on Fading Gigolo, Melanie Griffith goes undercover in a Chasidic community in A Stranger Among Us, and Andy Garcia investigates an anti-Semitic murder in Homicide (There is still room for a Jewish firefighter movie…).

It's harder to find Jewish characters in science-fiction, superhero and fantasy movies, but they are out there. While his heritage is not as well-known as his origin, Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing -- a member of the Fantastic Four -- is Jewish. And I challenge you to find a tougher Jew than one who can stop a semi with his literally rock-solid shoulder.

Tough Jews -- in the heat of competition and on both sides of the law -- have been depicted time and time (and time) again in the movies. So if you want me to keep listing them, well, as the superhero says, "I could do this all day."

(OK, so Captain America, while he was dreamt up by Jewish artists, isn't Jewish himself. But he did do this.)

Paul Wieder photo 375
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