On Sept. 8, The Forward published a column by Noah Berlatsky titled “Stephen King’s ‘It’ Shows Hollywood Still Has a Jewish Problem.” You don’t have to tell me twice that anti-Semitic tropes still run rampant in Hollywood. But I was surprised that Berlatsky argued that It proved this point.
In It, Pennywise the Clown faces off against a ragtag band of lovable outcasts — the fittingly named “Losers Club.” Among the misfits stands Stanley Uris, a Jewish tween in what seemed to be an almost entirely Christian town. I could relate. Here was a Jewish kid, wearing a yarmulke, talking about his upcoming Bar Mitzvah to a group of goyische friends who were, although somewhat misinformed, genuinely interested in his culture. Perhaps Stanley was mainly fleshed out in terms of his religion, but each member of the Losers Club had one aspect of their backstory that largely defined them. Eddie Kaspbrak must conquer a controlling mother, Beverly Marsh an abusive father.
Berlatsky notes that while Stanley and his family were secular in Stephen King’s novel, the Stan in the movie “is the son of a rabbi, and he is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. This is the only thing we see Stan doing on his own.” For Berlatsky, the decision to make Stan’s family more religious is unnerving because it caters to a largely non-Jewish audience. As the rabbi’s son, Stan’s Judaism is immediately more recognizable.
Yet, even in the few scenes that focus on Stan’s Judaism, his religiousness is complicated. In one scene, Stan’s father berates him for stumbling through his Torah portion. His father worries about what his congregation will think if his son struggles through his Bar Mitzvah. He tells Stan to put the Tanakh back in his office, as he’s “obviously not using it,” and Stan sheepishly complies. Thereafter, the movie doesn’t delve further into Stan’s religious beliefs. Yet, even in a few moments we see Stan’s complicated relationship with his father’s religious expectations, his struggle with his Torah section and, perhaps, his discomfort with his own faith. The sub-plot is not fleshed out, but in the end, this is It, not The Chosen.
Berlatsky oddly argues that another difference between King’s novel and the 2017 movie adaption was that “the film, in contrast, dispenses with any mention of anti-Semitism, just as it dispenses with any mention of racism directed at Mike Hanlon.” This statement is simply wrong. In Stanley’s first scene, the school bullies harass him and his friends. The bullies grab Stanley’s yarmulke, call it a frisbee and toss it into a passing school bus. The anti-Semitism is perhaps not as extreme as that which appears in King’s novel (Berlatsky cites a scene in which Uris’ wife recounts being kicked out of a country club for being Jewish), but it is nonetheless present and realistic.
Similarly, Berlatsky’s claim that the movie doesn’t show the racism that Mike Hanlon faces in unfounded. In one scene, the bullies speed past Mike in their car, nearly hitting him. “Get out of our town!” one of them yells as they speed away. In a later scene, Bowers, the main bully, pins down Mike and tells him that every time he sees the building where Mike’s parents died in a fire, he wishes that he had burned it down himself. Maybe Berlatsky forgot about these scenes, but Andy Muschietti’s adaptation has certainly not erased King’s depictions of prejudice.
Berlatsky also writes that “Stanley’s neurotic fussiness plays into stereotypes about effeminate Jewish men.” Is Stanley fussy? When Stanley gets uncomfortable, it’s always completely reasonable. He’s refusing to go into a set of sewers and trudge in “grey water.” He doesn’t want to venture into a horrifying abandoned house (I probably wouldn’t go in either). He’s freaking out because he just had his face gnawed on by a child-eating demon. Never once during the movie did I think, “There goes Hollywood, portraying Jews as fastidious and picky again.” I felt proud for Stanley, as if he were a little brother of mine evidencing his good sense.
“Probably a good call to not let your friends drag you into that rundown house that you’re almost positive a demon-clown lives in,” I thought.
Stanley isn’t alone in his revulsion towards the grimiest and creepiest scenarios. Eddie, whose controlling and hypochondriac mother has imbued him with anxieties about germs and dirtiness, shares Stanley’s refusal to slog through grime and slime. The characters’ obstinance doesn’t seem like cowardice or pickiness. It seems like a damn good sense of self-preservation.
Berlatsky concludes that Jews far too often appear in movies and TV shows as victims, religious token or oversimplified tropes. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve seen more than enough sniveling, wimpish, haggling Jewish stereotypes to last me a lifetime. I’ve also seen terrific work that explores Jewish and Jewish-American experiences, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, An Honest Man and now Menashe, which focuses on the oft under- and ill-portrayed Hasidic community. For me, Stanley stands firmly in the latter camp. He’s not a nebbish, or a “globalist,” or a banker, or some thinly guised metaphoric version of any of the three (looking at you, banker goblins in Harry Potter),
In truth, I don’t think Berlatsky is far off-base, especially in his diagnoses of how Jews are, on the whole, portrayed in Hollywood. But I have a hard time seeing Stanley as exemplifying such troublesome portrayals. Stanley is nuanced and likable. He has a complicated relationship with his faith. He’s reluctant about his Bar Mitzvah, but still committed to defending it to his friends (a situation that I found myself in in middle school).
Does Stanley present a complex exploration of pre-teen Jewish identity? For sure not. But considering that It explores numerous engaging subplots and still gets the kids to fight Pennywise in under 150 minutes, I’m more than satisfied.
Shay Collins is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.