"The Plot Against America" and the Jewish Insult

Promotional image for The Plot Against America. Via HBO.

This April, HBO aired the conclusion of The Plot Against America, a miniseries adapted from the Philip Roth novel of the same name. The Plot joins a growing list of recent alternative-history series (like Man in the High Castle and Years and Years), and presents viewers with a timeline in which FDR is defeated in the 1940 election by aviator hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh. With lush set design and costuming, the show brings viewers into a relatively calm world that will soon turn treacherous, a world that, for better or worse, can feel familiar at times. Our eyes in this world belong to the Levin family of Newark, New Jersey. As the Lindbergh presidency challenges all they hold dear, the more compelling drama lies in the way each member reacts to the changes. Each interprets their place as a Jew in America differently, and they are quick to talk, yell, quip, and insult to get their point across.

To be an Ashkenazi Jew in 1940 was to be connected more to a community than to a nation-state, adrift between the Old World and New. For teenage Sandy (Caleb Malis) and ten-year-old Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson), the world consists of Summit Avenue, a New World shtetl where Jewish families gather in the evenings on porches and street corners to mingle and debate the day’s events. It’s largely insular; the majority of the businesses frequented by the Levins are Jewish-owned, and the elders of the neighborhood toss out an affectionate boychik or an impatient nu. Although Levin patriarch, Herman (Morgan Spector) house hunts in wealthier neighborhoods, his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), is happy in this community, where, unlike in the mostly-non-Jewish town where she and her older sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) grew up, she feels like she belongs. It’s the earliest point of contention between the couple, with the conversation about which neighborhood they belong in mirroring the global discourse around Jews’ place in the world. The messaging at the start of the series is very much in Bess’s favor, showing us all the comforts of a recognizably Jewish home: bakery rugelach, lively Shabbat dinners, and frequent fights over a growing Nazi threat.

As Herman’s brother Monty (David Krumholtz) points out: “We do love to argue.” For every casual and fond mention of a mensch, there’s a disparaging shegetz, schmuck, or putz. This series does an excellent job capturing the argumentative nature of Jewish socialization and the mix of languages that have defined it. Herman, Monty, Bess’s mother, and the various Jewish businessmen that appear onscreen regularly sprinkle Yiddish into their conversations with each other and their children, who can pick up the context from cadence, even though they might not know the meanings of specific non-English words. When Herman secures a job for orphan nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) as a driver for wealthy construction mogul Abe Steinheim, Alvin quickly grows annoyed and resentful of how Abe disparages laborers and levies Yiddish insults against them. Abe, on the other hand, is irritated that he must explain the meanings of goniffs (dishonest people), yolds (fools), and bahamas (fat cows) to his driver, frustrated by the Americanization of Jewish youth. To him, there is a direct correlation between knowledge of Yiddish and a person’s allegiance to their Jewishness.

Abe is incorrect to assume Alvin's distaste for the Jewish bourgeoisie is indicative of a rebellion against the culture as a whole. Alvin, observing the negative effects of both homegrown antisemitism and capitalism, eventually joins the Canadian army to fight Nazis himself. Armchair activism and fireside chats about the state of the world haven’t cut it.  By this point in the show, Lindbergh has signed a treaty of nonaggression with Hitler, making it illegal for an American to fight overseas. In Alvin’s mind, Abe “does” Jewishness incorrectly by hoarding wealth and fighting unionization. Despite his uncle’s pleas to continue on a path of upward mobility, Alvin has no interest in business or industry if it means leveling money and power against the wellbeing of other Jews, especially as genocide looms over them. In 2020, the issues of policing Jewishness and trying to homogenize the Jewish opinion are still at the forefront of the conversation. While Abe and Alvin’s subplot is wrapped up by the end of the second episode, it illuminates a generational gap of language and ideals within the Jewish community, and presents two different paths forward for American Jews in the 1940s.

While The Plot Against America exists as a refutation to the oft-cocky “it couldn’t happen here” assertion, a Jewish-centered story in the 20th century could not exist without confronting the connections between assimilation, comfort, and patriotism. The notion of what it means to be American, Jewish, or Jewish-American, is the crux of the Levins’ dilemma. Herman considers them distinctly American. They never miss Shabbat dinner, but prayers are soon bulldozed by talk of baseball. There’s a lack of unmistakably Jewish names in generations younger than Abe’s: Bess (Elizabeth) and Evelyn are both very Western names for a Yiddish-slinging mother to give her children. But as we’ve learned, they were not in a modern shtetl at the time, and it’s likely this choice was to hasten an attachment to an American identity in the name of protection, an answer to that generation’s questions upon arriving at Ellis Island. While Herman identifies with socialism more than his merchant brother does, he holds a great deal of pride and faith in the American way. With his steady job and bright future, he is confident that they have assimilated. But the show depicts his belief as a delusion. His social bubble of Summit Ave, full of people with similar thoughts about war and the presidency, deflects the reality of a country that is waiting with open arms for a fascist. 

But fascism doesn’t spring fully formed into the world; it must be cosigned and embraced. There is a token Jew in Lindbergh’s camp: the series’ insidious antagonist, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro). Growing his pulpit from a Newark synagogue, to the White House, to the national press, Bengelsdorf is anti-war and pro-Lindbergh. He seizes the opportunity to use his Jewishness to his, and only his, advantage. Early on, Alvin fumes that, by using his platform as a rabbi to cosign the Lindbergh campaign, Bengelsdorf is “koshering Lindbergh” by “giving all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy and not think themselves Nazis.” Herman listens to Bengelsdorf’s pompous postulating on the radio and demands, “Who do you think you are, Moses?” Bengelsdorf becomes further entangled with the Levins when Aunt Evelyn, seeking to fulfill her dying mother’s wish for her to marry a Jewish man after an unsuccessful streak of shkotzim, becomes Bengelsdorf’s assistant and then fiancée. Evelyn ascends to a position as head of the Newark Office of American Absorption, a Lindbergh initiative to assimilate Jews. And while Bess, Herman, and the rest have been seeking to carve out their own paths as Jews in the United States, these options are suddenly snatched away as their fates begin to mirror their European counterparts’. 

Past the point of casual arguments over family dinners, the central conflict of the story is now a showdown between two men convinced their side is obvious and undeniable. These older and newer American Jews are willing to use their own collective trauma against one another. “I think that man would sell every last Israelite back to Pharaoh,” Herman says of Bengelsdorf. Teenage son Sandy, who is growing increasingly resentful of his family’s inability to be quiet and peaceful Lindbergh supporters, calls his mother and father “narrow-minded ghetto Jews” and likens his father to “a dictator, worse than Hitler.” Throughout the series, Jewish characters also liken other Jews to Germans and accuse them of voting with pocketbooks instead of brains. There’s more than one reference to Pharaoh and the concept of siding with those would cause harm to one’s own people. In modern times, Jews will throw around “kapo” as an insult, once a true argument-ender that invokes betrayal and complicity of the worst sort, in casual conversation. 

It is crucial to portray the array of Jewish opinions and worldviews with as much diversity as there exists in our communities. This series is a rich and nuanced look at how, even while fighting a larger enemy, there are worthwhile conflicts closer to home as well, and they can explode just as spectacularly. Despite every aesthetic difference possible, The Plot has more in common with Curb Your Enthusiasm than it does The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, also a Jewish period piece. This is a series that understands the power of nuances of language and miniscule interactions, and is able to derive a compelling story from them. Herman Levin is not Larry David, but both know how to call out a putz when they see one. The Plot Against America knows the power of a good old-fashioned insult, the kind that illuminates the diversity in class, culture, and politics of the Jewish people then and now.

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How to cite this page

Diamant, Ilana. ""The Plot Against America" and the Jewish Insult." 30 June 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/plot-against-america-and-jewish-insult>.