Jewishly Universal - Woody Allen's Film-Persona, its Jewish Roots and Universal Appeal, with references to Annie Hall and Manhattan

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)




1.1. The Schlemiel
1.2. Jewish Humor


3.1. Annie Hall ’s Alvy Singer
3.2. Manhattan ’s Isaac Davis




“ Drawing universal insight from the traditions of Yiddish humor, Allen established himself both as a comic Everyman and one of American filmmaking's true auteurs.“ (Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide)

Woody Allen, known as the “Intellectual” among American filmmakers, is one of the most productive Jewish artists of our time. Never limiting himself on just one genre, he has entertained audiences with humorous one-liners, stand-up routines, comic prose, plays, screenplays, acting roles, and film direction for more than half a decade. His self-mocking style, frequent triple involvement (writer, director, actor) in his films and casting of his real life lovers (e.g. Diane Keaton) as his character’s film lovers, have led to a diffusion of Allen the private person, Allen the public person and the so called “Allen persona”, a type also known as Stadtneurotiker.

Allen, born Allan Stewart Konigsberg, has often denied (in interviews) that Jewishness plays a major role in his work, other than just simply being a part of himself. “It’s not on my mind; it’s not part of my artistic consciousness. Of course, any character I play would be Jewish, just because I’m Jewish.”[1] This claimed disinterest and his often negative and critical depiction of Jewish characters and habits has led to him being labeled as a self-hating Jew. Nevertheless, many critics argue that the Allen film-persona and Allen’s humor have their roots in an old Jewish literary and comedic tradition and the central concept of the schlemiel as hero, which he has adapted to his individual circumstances - late Twentieth century, New York, English etc. - and successfully transferred to the film medium.

Although, as already mentioned, Woody Allen explores very different genres, one major characteristic of his work is “the persistence of the character whose role Woody Allen performed himself most of the time but had sometimes interpreted by other actors: his persona.”[2]

Dealing with the persona’s Jewish roots is definitely helpful in understanding Woody Allen’s humor and the Stadtneurotiker -type though he has succeeded in universalizing his character’s appeal and transforming him into a “Stellvertreter für den Außenseiter in “uns allen””[3] by uniquely combining a variety of different influences.

In this paper I am firstly going to deal with some general aspects of the schlemiel -character, who is said to be Allen’s link to the Jewish literary and comedic tradition. Other points in this more general part, dealing with the Jewish roots of the so called Allen-persona, will be the specifics of Jewish humor and the outsider aspect. In the second part I will examine other aspects of Allen’s Stadtneurotiker -type that make him unique and universal at the same time, outlining its major characteristics, before exemplifying them on two of the most popular of Allen’s Stadtneurotiker - Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer (Der Stadtneurotiker is the German title for Annie Hall) and Manhattan’s Isaac Davis.


1.1 The Schlemiel:

“As a Jewish comic, [Woody Allen] inherits a rich oral and literary tradition that runs from the low-brow self-mockery and mother-in-law gags of Borscht-belt jokesters to the complex modernist stories and novels of a group of writers that includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller . Allen shares with all the Jewish humorists, from the lowliest Catskill comic to the Bellow-Malamud-Roth literary triumvirate, an ironic sense of self and the world, and a joy in language.”[4] [5]

Foster Hirsch sees the central link among the major works in this literary and comedic tradition in the concept of the schlemiel as a hero. Among the literary “brothers” of the Allen-character Hirsch counts Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Bernard Malamud’s Arthur Fidelman, Phillip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, and Joseph Heller’s Yossarian. “Failure is their lot, ironic complaint their response.”[6]

In fact the word schlemiel comes up in many descriptions of Allen’s screen persona. In his book Elemente jüdischer Tradition in Woody Allen, Kinne gives an interesting list of examples, quoting, Irving Howe, Max Gordon, Anthony Lewis, among others[7]. Howe calls Allen himself “a reincarnated Menashe Skulnik, quintessential schlemiel of the Yiddisch theatre”. Max Gordon, owner of the “Village Vanguard”, one of the biggest club-theaters of the Sixties, called Allen’s style “schlemiel approach”. And Lewis agrees with him by stating: “Woody Allen portrayed himself from the start as a Jewish looser, a schlemiel whose attributes as Jew make him a loser in contemporary American society.”[8]

Considering this concurrent “labeling” and Hirsch’s statement about the “schlemiel as a hero”-concept (at the beginning of this part), understanding the meaning and origins of this literary persona seems crucial for a better understanding of Allen’s roots and place in the Jewish literary and comic tradition.

There are several etymological interpretations of the term schlemiel. In her book The Schlemiel as a Hero, Ruth Wisse comes to the conclusion that Dov Sadan’s interpretation, based on his survey, is the most detailed one.[9] Referring to his Hebrew article “Lesugia:shlumiel” Wisse filters out the following as the basic meaning of the term: “the good and devoted man, who is either accidentally or characteristically a prey to misfortune.”[10] Though the term has its roots in Jewish literature, it gained popularity through the book Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, written by the Christian author Adalbert von Chamisso in 1813. The story’s main character becomes an outsider after giving away his shadow and ends up travelling from one place to another. Angelika Janssen interprets the missing shadow as the missing homeland.[11] According to Sadan, Chamisso’ s use of the term coincides to a great extent with its use in the literary works of his German Jewish contemporaries, who use it to describe a person destined to be “different”: “different, homeless, alien, and Jewish”.[12]

Another characteristic of the schlemiel -character is that he “has ... a hand in his own destruction; the more he attempts, the greater seem his chances for failure”. Wisse puts it that way: “[the schlemiel is] the active disseminator of bad luck”.[13] Nevertheless passivity is still associated with this Jewish-type. According to Foster Hirsch, the schlemiels of modern Jewish linterature are self-absorbed and self-centered. They talk and reconsider much more than they actually act. On the one hand this allows the schlemiel to act more responsible – which is one reason why he can be seen as a hero - but on the other hand it seems to alienate him even more by isolating him in his own world and sometimes leading to a loss of touch with reality.

Kinne points out that the schlemiel-character has gained more complexity over time. The schlemiel and the intellectual can now be seen as different sides of the same persona - a complementary pair that goes back to the traditional complementary pair khokhm and tam from Hassidic tales.[14] While the khokhm finds life more unbearable the more he thinks about its meaning, the tam always finds a way to interpret reality in a way that it becomes more bearable. He gives Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog as an example for such a character in literature, with, as Wisse calls it, “twofold perception of himself in relation to the world” – “both giant and dwarf, alien and center of the universe, failure and success, cuckold and great lover, intellectual and schlemiel”.[15] According to Kinne, Herzog continues the tradition of changing the world subjectively through interpretation rather than objectively through action. And this is where Allen comes in:

“Der Schlemiel hat sich weiterentwickelt. Sowohl Herzog als auch Allens Figuren repräsentieren eine höhere Entwicklungsstufe des Schlemiels: den Schlemiel in Amerika der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, der sich veränderten Lebensbedingungen ausgesetzt sieht. Dennoch kann der Schlemiel als Schlüssel dazu betrachtet werden, Allen im Kontext der Jüdischen Tradition zu sehen.”[16]

Foster Hirsch describes the modern schlemiel, as “typically divided [and] contradictory” –

“a quicksilver compound of intellect and lust, rational skepticism and irrational

fantasies. He is caught somewhere between the religious and social tradition in which he has been raised, and which he still clings to in part, and modern nihilism; escaping from the ghetto and ghetto mentality, he is still in search of a place of his own – he’s a man in solitary exile and yet he retains memories of the stable social structure that always has been the basis of traditional Jewish unity.”[17]

1.2. Jewish humor:

The same duality that can be seen in the schlemiel -persona is also typical for the Humor, which the schlemiel uses as a way to make his life more bearable.

The philosophical component is very important for the Jewish comedic tradition. There has always been an earnest background to Jewish humor. “Er stand nicht im Widerspruch zum Ernst des Lebens, sondern in inniger Verbindung damit.”[18] A good example for this is the opening joke of Allen’s Annie Hall:

“Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort. And one of ‘em says: ‘Boy, the food in this place is really terrible’. The other one says: Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”[19]

Kinne traces this tradition back to the Bible and quotes Israel Knox, who wrote in an article for Judaism magazine: “The humor of the Scriptures is the humor of irony, and is not the opposite of high seriousness. It is complementary to it: another way of telling the truth, of putting matters right.”[20]

The self-mocking, self-deprecating aspect of Jewish humor is, according to Woody Allen, not something that is typically Jewish.

“People always talk about Jewish humor, but I find the same things are true in gentile comedians that are true in Jewish comedians. When you look at what Bob Hope does when he tells jokes, or any of those comedians that are out there that are not Jewish, they do self-deprecating comedy, they are cowards, they chase after beautiful women and fail. They do the same thing that Jewish comedians do.”[21]

Here Woody Allen once again underlines the universality of humor and comedy. The only thing that he considers to be a sign for humor being specifically Jewish is when it “exploits the Jewish social fabric”.

“I’m not a religious person, but in the Jewish families that I’ve known and grew up in there were certain social values that were common to them – appreciation of theater, of classic music, of education, certain professions like medicine, law. When that appears in your comedy, it has the patina of Jewish humor.”[22]

Many critics agree that Allen’s humor represents an outsider position, exemplified by the Jewish outsider-position but not limited to it. He succeeded in transforming the Jew into an identification-figure for every alienated person in modern society, by broadening “the Jew’s sense of alienation into a universal state of being”.[23]

“For the Jew the plight centres around the challenge of alienation and assimilation, the humor itself spun from the tension of a very real conflict: his Jewish vs. his American identity. For the non-Jew the conflict is more diffused, but powerful nonetheless: his personal vs. his mass-culture identity.”[24]

Following this more general part, which dealt with the roots of the Allen-persona in Jewish literary and comedic tradition, this second part shall be more specific and outline the major characteristics which make up the Stadtneurotiker -type.


The term Stadtneurotiker was first used in the title of the German version of Allen’s movie Annie Hall. This term has since than been persistently used in German secondary literature and gradually also in everyday language to describe a specific type no longer limited to film-characters and Allen. The term is also often used to describe Allen himself, which underlines once again how closely associated Allen and this artificial persona are. One additional reason for this phenomena is Allen’s molding of the persona by his physique: “unattractive according to classic aesthetic values, he is short, looks weak and is short-sighted”.[25]

A new component of the Allen-persona’s already complex and fragmented identity, as already mentioned when talking about the modern schlemiel, comes to the fore in the German neologism Stadtneurotiker – the urban component. Most of Woody Allen’s films since the second half of the1970ies are set in New York City. There is such a strong connection between the Allen-persona and New York that they often seem to become one - the “inner world” of the Stadtneurotiker as a direct reproduction of the complex and fragmented (offering countless identities – ethnic, social, religious etc.) outside world of the big city.

“Woody Allens Figuren sind Großstadtcharaktere insofern, als das städtische Leben in Allens Filmen den Umgang der Menschen miteinander bestimmt und auch die Persönlichkeit der Figuren prägt, die oftmals Berufen in der Medien- oder Unterhaltungsbranche nachgehen.”[26]

The Stadtneurotiker is a city-dweller searching for his own identity and seeking to find the meaning to his life. A victim of angst, the persona desires to be accepted into mainstream America, which according to Rivet is a recurrent motif in American mass-media. “In America, casting oneself as an outsider may in fact be considered a dominant cultural trait.”[27]

After dealing with several aspects of the Allen persona in her essay “Woody Allen. The Relationship Between the Persona and its Author.” Rivet concludes:

“Paradoxically, although the persona generally moves in a restricted space – almost exclusively Manhattan, because Allen generally limits himself to Manhattan – and is representative of a certain contemporary type of character, we can consider the persona a universal character. He is a regular guy – the guy next door – with “normal” concerns which range from problems or conflicts of a well-defined part of contemporary society and transcend it to questioning the meaning of life. He does not experience extraordinary events, as Hollywood’s male characters often do. ”[28]


3.1. Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer

As already mentioned, Alvy Singer, the Allen-persona in Annie Hall, is the Stadtneurotiker. He is also the most self-referential of Allen’s film-personas and probably the most popular one.

Annie Hall, an urban dramatic comedy, Allen’s breakthrough film, which was released in 1977 and won four Academy Awards, marked a major transition in Allen’s film work and opened the way for his future projects. It was his first movie to be fully set in New York City rather than some fantasy landscape and the Allen-persona was developed as a realistic, modern, metropolitan character with everyday problems and anxieties, derived from the author/director/actor’s own experiences.

Annie Hall... is the free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness story of an inept, angst-ridden Brooklyn-born and Jewish stand-up comedian ... who experiences crises related to his relationships and family.”[29] The movie deals with general human conflicts like the search for identity, generation-conflicts, relationship-conflicts etc. as well as with more specific conflicts and personal conflicts, like the omnipresent Jewish / WASP-conflict.

Serious minded but still comical Annie Hall lives through the divided and contradictory character of the modern schlemiel / Stadtneurotiker Alvy Singer. He is a comedian incapable to enjoy himself. In a key scene Annie, the title character, equals him with New York City: “Alvy, you’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.”[30]


[1] Allen as quoted by Marie-Phoenix Rivet, “Woody Allen: The Relationship Between the Persona and the Author” in King, ed. Woody Allen. A Casebook, p. 27

[2] Rivet, p. 23

[3] Hirsch quoted by Kinne in Elemente jüdischer Tradition im Werk Woody Allens, p. 145

[4] This title was chosen by Foster Hirsch for chapter 5 of his book Love, Sex, Death & the Meaning of Life

[5] Foster Hirsch, Love, Sex, Death & the Meaning of Life, p. 131

[6] Hirsch, p. 132

[7] Thomas J. Kinne, Elemente jüdischer Tradition im Werk Woody Allens, p. 222

[8] all quoted by Kinne, p. 222

[9] Kinne, p. 222

[10] as quoted by Kinne, p. 223

[11] Angelika Janssen, Deconstructing Woody Allen, p. 79

[12] Wisse as quoted by Kinne, p. 223

[13] Kinne, p. 223

[14] Kinne, p. 234

[15] Wisse as quoted by Kinne, p. 235

[16] Kinne, p.235

[17] Hirsch, p. 136

[18] Kinne, p. 237


[20] Knox as quoted by Kinne, p. 237

[21] Michael Fox, “Is Jewish comedy unique? Woody Allen weighs in”

[22] as quoted by Fox

[23] Yacowar as quoted by Kinne, p. 140

[24] Goldman as quoted by Kinne, p. 140

[25] Rivet, p.24

[26] Janssen, p. 83

[27] Werner Sollors as quoted by Rivet, p. 31

[28] Rivet, p. 32



Excerpt out of 14 pages


Jewishly Universal - Woody Allen's Film-Persona, its Jewish Roots and Universal Appeal, with references to Annie Hall and Manhattan
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Instituet für Sociology)
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
538 KB
Jewishly, Universal, Woody, Allen, Film-Persona, Jewish, Roots, Universal, Appeal, Annie, Hall, Manhattan
Quote paper
Gergana Kantcheva (Author), 2003, Jewishly Universal - Woody Allen's Film-Persona, its Jewish Roots and Universal Appeal, with references to Annie Hall and Manhattan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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