What are some examples of Jewish tough guys?
May 4, 2007 5:32 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of famous Jewish tough guys who have addressed their Jewish identity in an interesting way?

I'm deciding on a topic for a research project in a class on Jewish culture, and one topic I'm considering is the Jewish "alpha male" -- for example, Howard Stern, Andrew Dice Clay, Lenny Bruce, Bill Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Lewis Black, David Lee Roth, Gene Simmons, or Jon Stewart. Historically, being Jewish has not been stereotypically associated with being macho or cool, so it would be interesting to examine how these guys publicly addressed their Jewishness. For example, Goldberg and Adam Sandler made it a proud part of their identities, Howard Stern uses it in a more self-deprecating way, and Andrew Dice Clay changed his old Jewish name and, to my knowledge, doesn't really talk much about being Jewish.

Who are some other Jewish celebrities similar to those I mentioned, who are/were popular in youth culture? Any links or references to where specifically they addressed being Jewish, either explicitly or implicitly, would be much appreciated. Portrayals of "tough guy" Jewish characters in movies/TV, such as John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski, would also be interesting.
posted by lunchbox to Media & Arts (65 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Max Baer?
posted by drpynchon at 5:42 PM on May 4, 2007

This isn't exactly pop culture, but IIRC, Phillip Roth's novel The Counterlife has some long, interesting sections about a settlement in Israel led by a charismatic Jewish man who seems like the quintessential alpha male.
posted by jayder at 5:44 PM on May 4, 2007

I don't know if fictional Jewish tough guys count, but Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay features both a Jewish circus strongman (Sam Clay's father), and then, a comic-book superhero who fights Hitler in an effort to liberate the Jews (the Escapist).
posted by mikeyk at 5:51 PM on May 4, 2007

The Beastie Boys?
posted by neckro23 at 5:52 PM on May 4, 2007

Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel?
posted by MsMolly at 5:53 PM on May 4, 2007

James Caan of Rollerball and The Godfather fame.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:54 PM on May 4, 2007

Meyer Lansky
Bugsy Siegel
Scott Storch
(only kind of kidding)
posted by cosmic osmo at 5:55 PM on May 4, 2007

(damn preview!)
posted by cosmic osmo at 5:56 PM on May 4, 2007

Don't know if you're interested in older stuff from outside the US, but Jewish Londoners were pretty big in boxing circles for many years, which goes against the non-macho stereotype.
That tradition got put to good use by hard men like Morris Beckman and the 43 group.
posted by Abiezer at 6:01 PM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not sure if you'll be considering satire, but I've always enjoyed the Hebrew Hammer because its appeal among Jews is somewhat split. Some think it's hilarious and others -- at least the older relatives in my family -- think it's somewhat on the scandalous side of unfunny (note: my uncle is in it).

I also think of David Sedaris and David Rakoff as the power-through-extreme nebbishness club. They're both gay male NYer jews who don't present in the usual ways and yet have a lot of the typical "jewishness" in them according to most people.

Oliver Sacks got very very popular before he did a memoir that had a lot of discussion of his Jewish identity. He and Daniel Pinkwater fit the "misfit Jew kid" mold and Pinkwater went on to write about that character over and over. Sacks just found other misfits to write about.

If you really want to dig, I'd read Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book which talks about how Jews in NY basically created the superhero comic genre and how a lot of their identity as first generation immigrants' kids had a lot to do with that genre of comics.

Then you can point to Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky who took their own otherness and turned it into their life's work of political activism and analysis of power dynamics.

A.H. Sulzberger didn't use his "jewy" first names and used initials when he started running the New York Times even as people said of his tenure there "By the time he died last week at the age of 84, Rosenthal had done more than any one individual to reconcile the Times to its Jewish identity. He made being a Jew on the Times, or being a Jew of the Times, unashamedly, unexceptionally normal."

Many of these people don't fit your traditional mold of "tough guys" but they all had strengths in their own ways. I'd also suggest reading Tough Jews (about gangsters) and The Avengers (about WWII freedom fighters) by Rich Cohen both of which address the points you're looking to write about and both of which are readable and interesting, the second probably more than the first which is a first novel and somewhat shows.
posted by jessamyn at 6:01 PM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fictional character Ben Grimm.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:04 PM on May 4, 2007

Response by poster: Great replies so far!

Abiezer: older and outside the US is great. In fact, I am specifically looking for these to round out my paper.
posted by lunchbox at 6:04 PM on May 4, 2007

(I don't think David Sedaris is Jewish. In fact, I'm almost certain he's Greek Orthodox Christian.)
posted by cosmic osmo at 6:07 PM on May 4, 2007

Henry Winkler, who starred as Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on the popular sitcom, "Happy Days", (1974–1984)!

From the Jewish Journal:
"What Makes Henry Tick? "Happy Days" are here again as Henry Winkler discusses the secret weapon that helped him navigate through career highs and lows -- his Jewish upbringing"
"cool incarnate", wore leather jacket

From Retro Watercooler TV:
"Henry Winkler as "The Fonz" waz & iz Da' Man"
"He looked tough, he acted tough, and he was tough. But if you ever you were in a fix, he'd be sure to pull you through..."
posted by kapec at 6:08 PM on May 4, 2007

Foiled! I dropped in to say "The Fonz", but kapec beat me too it, and furnished links too.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:12 PM on May 4, 2007

Ariel Sharon is was tougher than you ever were, no matter how tough you ever were. David Ben-Gurion makes Sharon look like a nancy boy. Golda Meir also had more testosterone than most guys. Of course the real, real tough guys were Moses and David.
posted by caddis at 6:15 PM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Moses took on Pharoh. Oh yeah, that was no small scuffle in the parlor.
posted by caddis at 6:17 PM on May 4, 2007

Well then, the East End also has its celebrity Jewish gangsters like Jack "Spot" Corner.
posted by Abiezer at 6:26 PM on May 4, 2007

Larry David
posted by milarepa at 6:35 PM on May 4, 2007

As mentioned above, a high percentage of Prohibition-Era gangsters were Jewish. I don't know about cool, but you just don't get much tougher than that.
posted by lekvar at 6:37 PM on May 4, 2007

I think you want to take a look at Tough Jews by Rich Cohen.
posted by OmieWise at 6:40 PM on May 4, 2007

Hank Greenberg!

First Jewish superstar in the major leagues, hall-of-famer, and totally direct and unabashed about his religion and heritage (in the 30s, no less!). Famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. He was in the war, too.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:40 PM on May 4, 2007

Fictional character: Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. I've been watching too much of Season 4 lately, so I consider him a pretty tough guy.
posted by CipherSwarm at 6:42 PM on May 4, 2007

Lou Reed.
posted by porn in the woods at 6:46 PM on May 4, 2007

[I was wrong about Sedaris, teach me to believe anything I read in an Amazon review...]
posted by jessamyn at 6:47 PM on May 4, 2007

Well if you're going to take Greenberg, you gotta take Sandy Koufax too, who also refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.
posted by Partial Law at 6:49 PM on May 4, 2007

posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 6:52 PM on May 4, 2007

Ozzie Sussman, the "Jewish Buzz Saw" of Rochester, NY. He was a fighter and a Rochester fixture for decades.
posted by tommasz at 6:55 PM on May 4, 2007

Partial Law writes "Well if you're going to take Greenberg, you gotta take Sandy Koufax too, who also refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur."

Yeah, but he didn't do it while Hitler was running Germany and Father Coughlin was on the radio. And Koufax wound up pitching three games in that series anyway.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:00 PM on May 4, 2007

I second Greenburg, although the guys I pointed out are still tougher, and then of course there was Jesus, but he had unnatural help. Greenburg is one of the real non-politics heroes. I wish I had half of one of his cojones.
posted by caddis at 7:02 PM on May 4, 2007

Wasn't Lyle Alzado jewish? Also, Paul Newman.

The NHL rookie of the year this year (not official yet), Evgeni Malkin, is Jewish.

Stephen Lewis, the roving UN Ambassador for HIV/AIDS in Africa is a smart, tough, mensch.
posted by Rumple at 7:02 PM on May 4, 2007

3rding Tough Jews.
posted by thejoshu at 7:13 PM on May 4, 2007

Portrayals of "tough guy" Jewish characters in movies/TV

I'm not even sure if Vin Diesel is actually Jewish or not, but there's a scene in the movie Knockaround Guys where he takes off his jacket and he's only wearing a wifebeater, and he's got this BAD-ass star of David tattoo on his arm. He proceeds to dress down and then beat down the toughest guy in the bar. Great movie but that scene alone is worth picking up the DVD.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:39 PM on May 4, 2007

see movie "The Believer"
posted by jonnygemini at 7:39 PM on May 4, 2007

If Israeli Jews count, then there's the whole Operation Wrath of God (and movie) dealybop, wherein Jews blew up a bunch of Palestinian militants (and ex-militants). Of course, Jewish identity is probably a different thing in Israel than it is in other countries.
posted by Citizen Premier at 7:56 PM on May 4, 2007

Menachem Begin? Trotsky?
posted by dilettante at 7:56 PM on May 4, 2007

Sammy Davis Jr.
posted by bru at 7:56 PM on May 4, 2007

Arthur Miller.
Read "Timebends" for some kick-ass stories of growing up, getting out, and moving on.
posted by Dizzy at 8:01 PM on May 4, 2007

Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, Borat, Bruno)

Oded Fehr (Israeli/American actor)

Jeremy Piven (his character on Entourage, Ari Gold, is based on Ari Emanuel, brother of congressman Rahm Emanuel, on whom the West Wing character Josh Lyman is based.)
posted by junkbox at 8:04 PM on May 4, 2007

Has no one said Woody Allen yet? Wow.
posted by sneakin at 8:15 PM on May 4, 2007

Best answer: Henry Winkler, who starred as Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli...

Don't forget his first cousin, Richard Belzer!

Other suggestions:

- early 20th Century Hollywood tycoons, Louis B. Mayer being the perhaps the most infamously alpha, but also guys like Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Darryl Zanuck.

- modern (late 20th Century) businessmen, like Michael Dell, the Bronfmans, Steve Ballmer, and the famously assholish Larry Ellison

- hardnosed New York politicians: Fiorello LaGuardia (brought down Tamany Hall; was half-Jewish and spoke Yiddish), Eliot Spitzer, Chuck Schumer

- other 'alpha' quasi-political figures: Jerry Springer (an ex mayor!), Kinky Friedman, Paul Wolfowitz

And does your question have to concentrate on alpha males, specifically? A ridiculously huge proportion of the 20th Century American labor, socialist, and feminist movements were Jewish chicks, relative to any other ethnicity. Emma Goldman had bigger balls, metaphorically, than just about anyone of her era.

Which reminds me: if you're going to tackle the issue of why Jewish alpha males are so stereotypically rare, you might want to start with the fact that Jewish women have traditionally been very empowered within their social/communal worlds, and especially in their home lives, though to a lesser extent within Judaism itself. Think of the fabled and feared Jewish Mothers who (stereotypically) wield so much intense cultural and religious power. Those famous guilt trips have an almost shamanistic quality to them! This kind of gender dynamic within the Jewish community probably has had a cumulative psychological impact on their sons and the other males in their communities, not always positively...
posted by Asparagirl at 8:22 PM on May 4, 2007

And to be clear, I am talking about Broadway Danny Rose in particular.

And, don't forget Superman, created in response to the public's view of Jewish manhood.
posted by sneakin at 8:22 PM on May 4, 2007

Um, am I the only one thinking, "Adam Sandler? Alpha male?"

Granted, he's an actor, and maybe he's really alpha in person, but then...

Henry Winkler? Just because his character's alpha (the Fonz, an ethnic Italian, yes?), doesn't mean he is.
posted by amtho at 8:54 PM on May 4, 2007

Not just British Jewish boxers, Americans too. It's hard to get more alpha male than Barney Ross, boxing champ and World War II hero at Guadalcanal. Of course, Max Baer beat Hitler's favorite boxer while wearing trunks with the Star of David. There are lots of other examples from boxing.

And then today, there's Dmitri Salita, who embraces his Judaism with particular vigor.
posted by j-dawg at 8:57 PM on May 4, 2007

Moe Berg - baseball player, scholar, polyglot, soldier, spy, sponge
Dr. Ruth Westheimer - scout, sniper, sex educator, author
Steven Seagal - aikido master, "actor," singer-songwriter, environmentalist, activist
posted by rob511 at 9:02 PM on May 4, 2007

Fictional: Ephraim & Solomon Gursky
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:03 PM on May 4, 2007

Ever heard of Mordechai Analeivitz?
posted by kosem at 9:06 PM on May 4, 2007

I gotta agree with sneakin, Woody Allen plays the wuss but he's a major intellectual tough guy.

Of course, how can we forget Harry Houdini? Mensch incarnate.
posted by smallerdemon at 9:22 PM on May 4, 2007

Yippie organizers Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
posted by Scram at 9:38 PM on May 4, 2007

The Israeli notion of the Sabra speaks to this topic.

The allusion is to a tenacious, thorny desert plant with a thick hide that conceals a sweet, softer interior i.e., tough on the outside, sweet and tender on the inside.

Probably my favorite part of the movie Munich, that nobody picks up on, is when Geoffrey Rush's character goads Eric Bana's character into taking the assignment by questioning whether he was a true Sabra or not.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:11 PM on May 4, 2007

Comic creator Jack Kirby (nee Jacob Kurtzburg); I'm specifically thinking about an incident referenced in Will Eisner's The Dreamer where he faced down an attempted mob shakedown.
posted by jtron at 11:44 PM on May 4, 2007

Zeev Rosenstein - Israeli mafia boss
Avigdor Liberman - Moldovian/Israeli politician
Arkady Gaidmak - Russian oligarch/soccer team owner/illegal arms dealer
Zeev Jabotinsky - Zionist leader
posted by ciocarlia at 4:14 AM on May 5, 2007

Mr Phil Spector

Also - slightly unrelated - 'Once Upon a Time in America' is a great movie about Jewish gangsters.
posted by Kiwi at 4:15 AM on May 5, 2007

Meyer Lansky in Cuba orders up a kosher meal from a hotel chef. Chef provides the meal. Mr Lansky calls him in and asks, "What did you put in this dish?" Chef tells him. "But that's not how it's supposed to be made," says Lansky. "I know," says chef. "So, why did you make it this way?" asks Lansky. "Because it tastes better this way," says chef. Lansky thinks, then he says, "Yes, it takes better this way." And the chef becomes Lansky's personal chef until the collapse of the Batista regime, when he decides to join the revolution instead of take the proferred trip to America. Story as related to me by the chef's son.
posted by londongeezer at 5:07 AM on May 5, 2007

Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow and most of his main characters would fit this role. They are consistently portrayed as smart, yet tough men who struggle to reconcile their Jewish identity with their own ideas.
posted by rabbitsnake at 6:53 AM on May 5, 2007

I'm not even sure if Vin Diesel is actually Jewish or not, but there's a scene in the movie Knockaround Guys where he takes off his jacket and he's only wearing a wifebeater, and he's got this BAD-ass star of David tattoo on his arm. He proceeds to dress down and then beat down the toughest guy in the bar. Great movie but that scene alone is worth picking up the DVD.

As a public school teacher who witnesses a fair share of bathroom graffiti, I believe the six-pointed star is also a (non-Judaism-related) gang sign.

Also, if memory serves, Judaism frowns on tattoos, so much so that if you have one you can't be buried in a Jewish graveyard. Perhaps Vin Diesel was not thinking this far ahead.
posted by HeroZero at 6:54 AM on May 5, 2007

Judaism frowns on tattoos, so much so that if you have one you can't be buried in a Jewish graveyard.

Sorry for the mini-derail, but that isn't true, actually.
posted by jessamyn at 7:13 AM on May 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

(In above comment, 'tastes' not 'takes').
- Trotsky, who led the Red Army during the Russian Civil War 1918-21, ferociously.
- Stalin's NKVD (KGB) boss Yagoda (indeed, plenty of Bolsheviks were Jewish).
- The Jewish terrorists in Palestine before creation of Israel, eg the Stern Gang.
Not exactly positive role models, but conceivably Alpha Males all...
posted by londongeezer at 7:54 AM on May 5, 2007

Plenty of alpha males in the book of Judges. Samson, Ehud ben Gera, etc.
posted by greatgefilte at 8:44 AM on May 5, 2007

Koufax was absolutely the toughest. His last years in baseball he had to soak his left elbow in a bucket of ice water for an hour after every start to fight the pain and inflammation.
posted by bukvich at 9:26 AM on May 5, 2007

There's the fictional Nathan Heller, lead character in a series of fact-inspired mystery novels by Max Allan Collins. Barney Ross (mentioned above) is also a character in some of those novels. Max is all about traditional, hard-boiled tough guys.
posted by Clay201 at 5:48 PM on May 5, 2007

Handsome Dick Manitoba
Joey Ramone
posted by AJaffe at 10:53 AM on May 6, 2007

Dang! I'd No Idea Joey R. was In My Tribe!
I'm ten feet tall.
posted by Dizzy at 3:38 PM on May 6, 2007

The toughest of 'em all: Arnold Rothstein.

... pretty much a gangster's gangster.
posted by ph00dz at 9:03 AM on May 7, 2007

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