Tough Jews

In Others
September 13, 2009

So I’m just sitting around on a Sunday watching ‘Lucky Number Slevin’, a movie so complex that, by the time I was 40 minutes in it was very clear to me that I’d have to read the wikipedia entry if I hoped to understand it without multiple viewings. It’s a cute film though, and wins many bonus points with me for having Josh Hartnett spend 20 minutes wearing only a towel (see above). But I’d really forgotten why I’d mentally bookmarked it to watch until we arrived at ‘The Rabbi’, a gangster played by Ben Kingsley who has a team of hardcore Chassidic Jew assassins working for him. I love this stuff; not so much purely tough Jews as tough, comic, highly-identifying Jews. One day I want to write something like this, but in the meantime it reminded me of a piece I wrote for Jeneration for last year’s Jewish Book Week when they asked me for something on ‘my favourite fictional Jew’. I think they printed it on handouts but never put it online, perhaps because of the high levels of swearing, so here it is for your enjoyment.


To describe my favourite fictional Jew, there’s going to have to be
some swearing. I make no apology for that. It’s the whole point,
really. When do you ever hear people swearing about their Judaism? When
do you ever hear them ranting, and raving and shouting and screaming
about how much they love being Jewish? Nowhere. Except for one
character. I’m talking about Walter Sobchak, the ex-military bowling
fanatic  played by John Goodman in The Big Lebowski.

Walter converted to marry his ex-wife but he’s still passionate
about his Judaism. This is what he says when his bowling team has been
slated to play on Saturday:

Walter: I told those fucks down at the league office a thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!

Donny (a schmuck): What’s Shabbos?
Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t
work, I don’t get in a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t pick
up the phone, I don’t turn on the oven and I sure as shit [he roars] DON’T FUCKING ROLL! SHOMER SHABBOS!

The first time I saw this scene I almost leapt out of my seat in
excitement. I grew up Shomer Shabbos but no one I’d ever met had talked
about it so openly. We debated when to tell a prospective employer
about Shabbos; not too early in case they turn you down, not too late,
lest you should look secretive. We learned to slip out of work quietly
on a Friday afternoon. We learned to apologise, and speak softly, and
if someone asked us to a party on a Saturday to murmur “sorry, Shomer
Shabbos.” It had never occurred to me that one could angrily demand
respect for one’s Judaism. But now I know. We need more people like
Walter Sobchak, ranting and raving and not being afraid to cause a
scene. More people, please, who are Shomer fucking Shabbos.

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