Uncut Gems: Loopholes for Depicting Jews (and Others)?

It doesn’t take long to realize that Howard Ratner, the jeweler in Uncut Gems, a movie written by Benjamin and Joshua Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, is one flawed Jew.

Howard (rivetingly played by Adam Sandler) is an accepted figure in New York’s Diamond District, where many Jews make their living. Judging by his offices, his posh Long Island home and his Midtown getaway apartment, Howard makes a good living. He is blessed with a beautiful wife and with healthy children but prefers the company of a young mistress (Julia Fox, in a finely nuanced performance) who works for him.

Howard’s daughter knows that she can’t count on him for anything, and we witness his son starting to lose innocence when he hears about the mistress despite Howard’s careless manipulations to hide the truth from the boy. Howard devotes almost all of his energy gambling on sports and alienating loan sharks, including his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), and exploiting family members like his father-in-law (Judd Hirsch).

Howard feels some ties to the Jewish People. While watching a TV documentary, he sits up and takes notice of Ethiopian Jews and their reverence for the Torah. Mostly, he is attracted to the opals with which they decorate their ritual objects. He is moved by accounts of injuries in the diamond mines, but it is greed rather than sympathy that prompts him to procure an opal from them for much less than he thinks it’s worth.

Ratner rejoices over his spoil when it is smuggled to him in a dead fish. The opal brings rare taste and beauty to his store, which is filled with vulgar items like a crucifixion figure featuring Michael Jackson, not to mention vile and sacrilegious language.

By seeming lucky chance, star basketball player Keven Garnett (playing his 2012 self with artistic aplomb) visits the store, and Howard shows off his new treasure in hopes of instant profit. Howard brags about its originating with “Black Jews,” but without mentioning how they were exploited, both in Ethiopia and by Howard. Fascinated by both the gem and by its back story, and by Howard’s not insincere suggestion that it might have mystical powers, Garnett asks to try it out overnight and Howard obliges, finagling Garnett’s championship ring as friendly collateral. 

Even as we learn that Howard owes $100,000 in gambling debts to loan sharks who are ready to hurt him, we witness him pawning the ring in order to bet more money, this time on Garnett who seems to be “flying” to the hoop due to the purported “powers” of the opal. Ironically, this motivational connection to the stone makes Garnett reluctant to return it by Howard’s deadlines set by dangerous thugs.

So begins a marathon of self-obstructing and self-endangering escapades that are but daily routine to Howard, who is also endangering his family members and co-workers. Howard has found his toxic soulmate in his equally erratic and irresponsible girlfriend.

Despite his trappings of success, Howard is a hopeless gambling addict. His decisions are all bad, and each one hooks the audience into a morass of non-stop nail-biting suspense, tension and stress. 

This film will forever be associated with its “Jewish” themes, and not just with the exploitation of Ethiopian Jews by a fellow Jew. This movie highlights Jewish rituals and associations.  Howard is quick to point out, for example, that the first scorer in the NBA was a Jew.

Howard offers Passover greetings while walking the streets and we learn that his wife is waiting until after Passover, for the sake of giving the children one last unified holiday, to announce their pending divorce. After a build-up like that, the filmmakers seem compelled to go through with a Passover seder (dinner ritual), complete with undercurrents of tense family dynamic, adults and children doing readings and rituals. 

Indeed, this movie’s Passover will forever be associated with a shocking scene in which Howard’s wife (firmly played by Idina Menzel) tells him how much she can’t stand him or look at him. While at first, she comes across as a shrew, in short order it becomes clear that she has been a saint to put up with him for so long. Yet it is also clear that she has her own vain nonsense, like wearing her “bat mitzvah dress” to the seder so she can brag about still fitting into it. 

Howard sports a garish Star of David ring and displays a mezuzah on the door of his shop.  But the Scriptural passages in that mezuzah do not inform what goes on in those offices. Rather, it is the door itself, or its electronic lock system, that determines, as it were, Howard’s fate. The door buzzer and not the mezuzah provides the most suspenseful and pivotal moments in the film. That may be a commentary on the role, or lack of role, of the mezuzah and other Jewish rituals referenced here.

Indeed, aside from the “mystical bond” between Howard and the opal and its “Black Jews” and his Black star client, the “Jewish connections” in this film are vacuous. When Jews gather at a school play, they talk superficialities, compare trips, size up each other’s’ Pesach (Passover) plans. The school play itself may be a thoughtless suburban nod to old stereotypes of Jews, as well as a backdrop for a warning that Howard, foolishly, does not take seriously.  

The other major “Jewish connection” in the film is Howard’s meditation on possibly having colon cancer: “Jews and colon cancer,” Howard reflects. “What is that? I thought we were the chosen people.”  His doctor notes that “Colon cancer paid for my house in the Hamptons.” That’s the most intimate “Jewish” dialogue here. 

Howard’s deepest dialogue is with Kevin Garnett who tells him, “You haven’t been straight with me since I came here.” Only then does the star-struck Howard open up about how he conspired to profit off of Kevin and the Ethiopian Jews and felt justified in doing so because that is his skill, like Kevin’s ability to play basketball!  It is Howard’s most honest and obnoxious -- and maybe likable -- moment, though Sandler has done a good job of portraying Howard sympathetically, crucial to the film’s retaining, as it does, its unrelenting suspense and tension.

Whatever we may think of Uncut Gems, there is no question that it represents a watershed moment in the depiction of Jews and Judaism in film.  In my over forty years as media critic for the “National Jewish Post and Opinion” (Indianapolis), I have chronicled ugly depictions of Jews in TV and film. In an early review, of The Adventures of Duddy Kravitz (Jan. 30, 1981), I naively suggested that writers who depict bad Jews should consider providing a character to point out that such behavior is not consistent with Judaism. That seemed at the time to be a fair request of artists interested in mediating between freedom of film expression and the classic Talmudic interpretation of the verse, “You shall love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5) as teaching that one must make God “beloved” to others, Jew and Gentile alike, by behaving in a decent and ethical and gracious manner, at home and in business, so reflecting well on the Creator and on the Jewish People.

Significantly, the quintessential Talmudic narrative about honoring God by behaving ethically is about a gem. It recalls Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach whose students purchased him a donkey and then were ecstatic that the owner had inadvertently left a rare stone in the saddle. When the Rabbi found out what had happened, he told them to return the gem to the Arab immediately, asking, “Do you think me barbaric that I should take advantage of the letter of the law?” The Arab reacts, “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!”

Have media folk cancelled Prophetic exhortations to Jews to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and to represent their God in an ethical and loving manner? 

Maybe not entirely. Uncut Gems and other recent Jewish-themed films and TV shows seem to represent a new consensus that may quickly spread to the depiction of other groups or ideologies or “types.” The trend in these therapeutic times seems to be that it is all right to offer the most outrageous depictions of Jews as long as the main characters are depicted as victims of overwhelming conditions: Howard Ratner’s gambling addiction, Rebecca Bunch’s bipolar illness (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), violinist David Eli Rapoport’s being smothered by mentors and handlers and crippled by post-Holocaust traumatic disorder (The Song of Names), or even chronic foolishness (Norman).  

Directors Bennie and Josh Safdie obviously feel that all is fair once a character in the film calls Howard a “crazy ass Jew.” Josh Safdie went so far as to attribute Howard’s character or lack thereof to medieval Church policies that forced “material overcompensation” upon Jews as a survival mechanism (as if Jews had no training in virtue then or ever since!). 

Some loophole! Indeed, the end of the film (which I won’t give away) troublingly suggests that Gentiles have not only underestimated the Jewish survival mechanism, but oppose it to their own detriment, even when it is vulgar and disrespectful.

Are our filmmakers embracing a culture of victimization in order to depict Jews outrageously? Could it be that they are also blaming Howard’s actions on some kind of obsession with the opal? Or are they encouraging that obsession? After all, spirituality in this movie abandons biblical and Talmudic teachings and rests in the opal itself, which, in good New Age fashion, is described as containing the whole universe. Is the opal being offered as a common spiritual ground for Ratner and for the fictional Garnett? What would be the binding morality? 

These questions challenge American society as well as the Jewish community.

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