Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Gentleman and the Rogue: Jewish Protagonists in Lessing's the Jews and Dani Levy's Go for Zucker!

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Gentleman and the Rogue: Jewish Protagonists in Lessing's the Jews and Dani Levy's Go for Zucker!

Article excerpt


As a reading of Lessing's 1749 play The Jews together with Dani Levy's 2005 feature film Go for Zucker!, this article argues that, despite a separation of two-and-a-half tumultuous centuries, there are important themes connecting these two critical narratives of German-Jewish relations. (1) Both pieces approach the "Jewish Question" from within the comedy genre, each responding in their way to the centuries-old stereotype of the deceitful, roguish Jew in their appeals for tolerance. Notions of assimilation, "foreignness" and the place of Jews within a perceived or actual German nation are central to both texts. Neither Lessing's nor Levy's hero appears Jewish, each appealing in his own way to norms of Germanness. Lessing's traveller is wealthy, well-mannered and honest to a fault; Levy's Jackie Zucker is an endearing rogue, a classic reunification loser. Despite their differences, the heroes of both pieces compel non-Jewish audiences to recognise them as exemplary Germans, not foreigners to be treated with suspicion and prejudice.

What can a one-act stage comedy written by a Saxonian Protestant in the mid-eighteenth century, and a made-for-television comedy directed by a Swiss-born Jew in the twenty-first century, have in common? The two comedies are separated by two-and-a-half centuries of revolution and nationalist struggle, the nineteenth-century emancipation of German Jews, the ascent of some Jews to positions of influence and privilege, the twentieth-century upheaval of two world wars, the horrors of Nazism, and the unification, division and reunification of Germany. For all the historical space that separates these two comedies with their Jewish heroes, however, there are numerous striking parallels which invite us to consider the two texts together. The pieces were both surprise comedy hits of their day. The Jews, written by a 21-year-old Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1749, was frequently performed in the 1760s and 1770s, although there is a paucity of information on its critical reception, whilst Dani Levy's Go for Zucker!, enjoyed popular and critical acclaim in equal measure when it was released as a feature film in 2005. (2)

Both pieces approach what in Lessing's day was known as the "Jewish Question" within the comedy genre, yet both contain an earnest appeal for tolerance and better understanding of the situation of Jews in Germany. Both are thoroughly contemporary. Lessing's play alludes directly to events such as Frederick the Great's anti-Jewish legislation, and Levy's film takes place a decade and a half after German reunification as its hero still struggles to find his feet in post-GDR Berlin. Both pieces ignited a vigorous discussion of Jewish issues-for Lessing, the question of whether Jews could be contributors to an enlightened society; for Levy, whether it was now possible to enjoy Jewish comedy sixty years after the Holocaust. Both are defined by the questions of assimilation and "passing," and draw comedic and dramatic power from pre-existing notions of the Jew as inherently foreign. Both also engage with the stereotype, reaching back beyond the eighteenth-century, of the Jewish rogue earning his keep by dubious means. Where Lessing was intent on subverting this cliche, Levy creates a lovable rogue who reappropriates this trope. This article will consider these and other themes common to the two comedies, showing just how pertinent the "Jewish Question" of pre-emancipation times remains to German culture in the twenty-first century.

Lessing's The Jews

The one-act play begins the morning after an attempted robbery and murder. An unnamed traveller and his unreliable servant, Christoph, have spent the night as guests of the Baron, whom the traveller has saved from a cowardly roadside attack. The thieves, whom the Baron has assumed were Jews, due both to his existing antisemitic attitudes and to the fact the robbers wore beards, are in reality two of the Baron's employees in disguise. …

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