After watching Baz Luhrmann’s, The Great Gatsby with my husband, my son and my granddaughter, we sat in Chipotle’s eating tacos and burritos, talking about the film—Luhrmann’s over the top party scenes, other scenes that were strangely like or unlike the novel. Some of us liked the movie; others liked portions. None of us was wholly enthralled, wholly engaged. My granddaughter talked about the acting, my husband about the party scenes. My son brought up the stereotypical Jewish character.
“Which one was that?” my granddaughter said.
“You didn’t get it,” my son said. His tone, both statement and question, remained kind.
At fourteen, my granddaughter has experienced anti-Semitic remarks thrown at a Jewish boy in her class, Asian slurs thrown at her. She is both Anglo and Asian. My son, her father is American and Jewish, her mother Korean and Buddhist. I’m not sure how my granddaughter identifies, but she is very comfortable with Jewish rituals and Jewish holidays.
My granddaughter guessed at the Jewish character. “Gatsby?” “Nick?”
“Meyer Wolfsheim,” my son said.
My husband talked about the character’s model, Arnold Rothstein, notorious for fixing the 1919 World Series. Maybe. As for me, I was thinking about literature, the Jew as villain, a theme that goes back to the New Testament. An English major, I remembered my anglophile professor lecturing and reading aloud from Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Such blatant anti-Semitism glossed over. Accepted. By everybody. Except me. In my one-armed desk, I shrank to my spine.
Watching Wolfsheim on the screen, I felt disoriented. Who was he? Why was he dark skinned? Was the director was playing back to a medieval stereotype—the Jew as devil with black skin and flashing eyes. Researching, I discovered that Luhrmann had spoken of a “non-controversial casting strategy.” Non controversial? I found the Wolfsheim character both strange and offensive. Was Luhrmann contending that by casting the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchn in the role he had avoided a stereotype? Tom Buchanan calls Wolfsheim a “kike.” His name is Meyer Wolfsheim. Camera work exaggerates Wolfsheim’s lips, his nose. His features are coarse; he is coarse, a stereotypical Jew.
Yet, my granddaughter doesn’t recognize him. In school, the buzz word is tolerance. Difference is played down. Both racism, anti-Semitism seem to be caught under an umbrella of anti-bullying. Yet, kids toss racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Better, I think, to let them know the history of those remarks. Why not have a discussion about stereotypes? Where they come from. Who perpetuates them and why. Why not let present day understanding illuminate a darker past? But a discussion of race and anti-Semitism would necessarily bring students to a discussion of class, perhaps a more sensitive subject in these United States than either race or Jews. And isn't that what The Great Gatsby is about, class in the greatest democracy on earth, a glass wall, a glass ceiling, the privilege of the Daisys and the Tom Buchanans?