The Religious Affiliation of
Woody Allen influential director and actor
From: John Baxter. Woody Allen: A Biography, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.: New York (1999), page xviii:
Head bent over the slip of wood [about to play the clarinet in a New York City jazz club], [Woody] Allen looks intent and pious. He might be tying to a phylactery, the leather box containing a religious text which, like all Orthodox Jews, he wore for morning devotions every day while he lived with his parents in the early forties.
Baxter, Woody Allen: A Biography, pages 7-12:
Allan Stewart Konigsberg was born on 1 December 1935, in the Bronx... Why 'Allan Stewart', two Scots names? Nobody is any longer sure. Certainly not from any Hibernian ancestors, since the Konigsbergs were 100 per cent Jewish. Allen's father, Martin Konigsbeg, met his mother, Nettea Cherrie, in 1930 in the butter-and-egg market on Greenwich Street in Brooklyn... Nettie [Woody Allen's mother] was stuck with the job of book-keeper for the family business, a luncheonette. It was a role often allocated to the smarter younger daughters of Jewish families.
... [pg. 9] Many Flatbush residents are Hasidic Jews, a community which in Allen's childhood had only recently begun migrating from the Lower East Side, and which congregated in the Brooklyn suburb of Brownsville... Over the next seven years, the Konigsbergs moved more than a dozen times, usually sharing apartments with Nettie's sisters [Woody Allen's aunts] or relatives who had fled Hitler... Jewish culture has blurred so completely into the American-Anglo tradition that it can be difficult to visualise its original alienness.
... [pg. 11] German was so common at home and English such a rarity that, for a while as a child, Allen spoke that language... At least part of the time, most of the Konigsbergs and Cherries spoke Yiddish, the lingua franca of European Jewry, created when eastern Jews who spoke only Hebrew were forced to adopt German methods of writing, as well as many German and French words... By the early twentieth century, waves of immigrants had brought Yiddish to America, where it flourished, a convenient secret language, rich in terms of irony and scepticism, and as such central to Jewish humour. Allen was to find it crucial in making his mark as a comic.
... [pg. 12] Ralph Rosenblum, the editor who worked on many of Allen's early films, was also a Jew from Brooklyn
From: Eric Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography (2nd Edition, revised), Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA (2000), pages 40-41:
In short, [Woody Allen] loathed everything that made Port Chester an escape from city living, which was the exact thing he yearned to escape back to. He had such a hard time that after a couple of months of unpleasantness, his parents let him move in with his maternal grandparents in Brooklyn.
Allan and his grandfather had a good relationship, and Nettie, who loved her father very much, wanted Leon's values to rub off on him. She wanted to raise a son who would please him and she hoped he could transmit his faith and his devotion to Judaism; it was important to her that Allan leam Hebrew and say the prayers because of her father. But although he attended Hebrew school as he was told to and went to the synagogue with his grandfather (Nettie went only occasionally, Martin seldom), Allan had an ecumenical view of religion. That is, he found all organized faiths equally useless.
"I was unmoved by the synagogue, I was not interested in the Seder, I was not interested in the Hebrew school, I was not interested in being Jewish," Woody says. "It just didn't mean a thing to me. I was not ashamed of it nor was I proud of it. It was a nonfactor to me. I didn't care about it. It just wasn't my field of interest. I cared about baseball, I cared about movies. To be a Jew was not something that I felt 'Oh, God, I'm so lucky.' Or 'Gee, I wish I were something else.' I certainly had no interest in being Catholic or in any of the other Gentile religions." The notion brings forth a laugh from him when he says it. "I thought those kids in Catholic school who couldn't see movies because the Legion of Decency wouldn't permit them, or who said their catechism, were silly beyond belief. I thought, 'What a waste of time.' And I felt the same thing in Hebrew school, my mind drifting out the window, not learning anything, just counting the minutes until it was over."
Now, however, he is consumed with questions of eschatology and a merciful God's existence; with questions of morality and justice when God may either not care or be absent from worldly life. Those issues are at the heart of two films made fifteen years apart: Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a man has his mistress killed when she threatens to expose their affair and his financial manipulations, and, in a farcical way. Love and Death, in which the characters played by Woody and Diane Keaton--Boris and his (like Rita) cousin Sonia--given the opportunity to kill Napoleon, argue like two undergraduate philosophy majors over the moral rectitude of their action or inaction.
For all his questioning and agonizing. Woody Alien is a reluctant (he hopes there is a God) but pessimistic (he doubts there is) agnostic who wishes he had been born with religious faith (not to be confused with sectarian belief) and who believes that even if God is absent, it is important to lead an honest and responsible life. His observations and jokes about God and religion make him a favorite of theologians. Yet Allan Konigsberg was, he says, "amoral and impervious. When I say amoral I think of an incident with my grandfather, who was a kind and sweet man whom I liked very much. I was eleven or so and I found a counterfeit nickel on the street. It was clearly counterfeit. But I suggested fobbing it off on my grandfather, who was old and wouldn't know the difference. Now, this is an amoral act. My mother caught me later and asked, 'How could you ask for five pennies for a counterfeit nickel? That's terrible.' And I was unfazed by it. The consequences or the morality of it never crossed my mind for a second."
He attributes his attitude to his father, for it turns out he was not impervious to influence. Religious faith and tradition may not have rubbed off on him but the rough hand-to-mouth world Martin inhabited did.
Baxter, Woody Allen: A Biography, pages 27-28:
Few aspects of Allen's life demonstrate this more effectively than his use of his Jewishness. The Konigsbergs were Orthodox, which meant that Allen prayed each morning with phylacteries bound to his arm and forehead, attended temple in a yarmulke, fasted on high holidays and spent part of every Saturday for eight years in Hebrew school. All these merely accentuated his resentment of religion. He was bar mitzvahed in 1948, but mainly he remembers, he says, the movie he saw on the day before--Canon City, the story of a Colorado jailbreak. At the party afterwards, he blacked his face and did an imitation of Al Jolson -- hardly the act of a devout religionist.
From his first film, Take the Money and Run, all the references to his Jewishness are derisive. In jail, Allen's character, Virgil Starkwell, agrees to be a guinea pig for a new drug. It turns him briefly into a rabbi, and Allen is seen sitting in his cell with rabbinical beard, hat and ringlets, discoursing on the Talmud. Later, meeting other cons in the prison chapel to plan an escape, he makes a clumsily broad sign of the cross before the altar, then kneels in a pew and pretending to pray, falls into the bobbing movement known as 'hoveling' often adopted by older Jews at prayer. Up until Broadway Danny Rose, and also in oddities like Zelig and Shadows and Fog, Allen was to return for easy laughs to Yiddishisms and the use of Hassidic rabbis as joke figures. He uses the references as a means of distancing himself from these stereotypes, in the same way that his physical unattractiveness perversely turned him into a sex object. Perhaps he thought that overt Jewishness would transform him in the mind of his audience into an honorary Gentile... Allen uses Jewish humour the way he uses Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Flaubert in his humorous pieces for the New Yorker: not as a medium for humour, but as a subject for parody.
The contradictions of his philosophy caught up with Allen in middle age, and in 1982 he made Zelig, a fantasy about the son of a Yiddish actor who, unable to decide who he is, develops the capacity of a 'human chameleon', and can transform himself into anything: Jew, Christian, even a Nazi. Some devout Jews find Allen's comedy troubling. He has alienated many by his penchant for shiksa [non-Jewish] women, both in real life and in his films--almost all of the 'Woody' character relationships in the films are with Gentile women--his stand against Israel's anti-Palestinian policies and, of course, the scandal over Mia Farrow and their children. To many, this last seemed merely the culmination of Allen's persistent attack on the institution of the Jewish family, which he routinely depicts as riven with dissent. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Judah, revisiting his old house, relives a family seder of his childhood, the event is a pretext for bickering and for Judah's agonised questions about guilt and retribution.
Baxter, Woody Allen: A Biography, page 38:
The question 'Why "Allen"?' is easily answered. 'Just why Jews in the performing arts were expected to Anglicize their names is a question worthy of a separate study,' Kenneth Tynan wrote in a profile of comic -- and later Allen collaborator -- Mel Brooks, ne Melvin Kaminsky. 'To take three cases at random, it is to simply pronounciation, to enhance euphony, or to disarm bigotry that Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson, Benny Kubelsky becomes Jack Benny, and Isadore Demsky becomes Kirk Douglas?' In Allen's case, all three applied. However much he played on his Jewishness for humour later in his career, his primary concern at the beginning was to be thought Gentile.
From: Richard A. Blake, S.J. (a Jesuit), "Finding God at the Movies ... And why Catholic churches produce Catholic Filmmakers", website: Woodstock Theological Center (http://www.georgetown.edu/centers/woodstock/report/r-fea79a.htm):
...I have done some work on the Jewish background of Woody Allen...
From: John Baxter, Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas, Avon Books: New York, NY (1999), pages 22-23:
George [Lucas]... recalled a period of existential anguish when he was six. 'It centered around God,' he recalled. 'What is God? But more than that, what is reality? What is this?...' At least one other film-maker went through an almost identical crisis at the same age: Woody Allen's parents recalled that, at age six, their son became 'sour and depressed,' setting the scene for his later films.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, pages 12-13:
Even though both [Woody Allen's] mother, Nettie Cherry, and his father, Martin Konigsberg, were both born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the lives they lived as children and as adults were dominated by the shtetl [i.e., a small Jewish town or village in Eastern Europe] their parents fled but whose ways they continued to embrace.
Sarah and Leon Cherry spoke Yiddish and German and those were the first languages of Nettie, who was born November 6, 1908... Leon [Woody Allen's maternal grandfather] had a seat at the synagogue he attended every Saturday, and both he and Sarah were very religious. At home, every Jewish holiday was observed, every Seder was made.
Isaac and Sarah Konigsberg [Woody Allen's paternal grandparents] were also religious but not so faithfullly as the Cherrys. As with them, however, Yiddish was the primary language at home.. Still, Isaac was more of the modern world than any of Allan Konigsberg's [i.e., Woody Allen's] other grandparents. He dressed beautifully. He had a box at the Metropolitan Opera. He was the first Jewish salesman for a coffee company and often sailed to Europe on business. In time, he became quite successful--so successful that he sometimes sailed to Europe not on business but to attend the horse races... Then, in the stockmarket crash of 1929, Isaac lost everything... Despite Isaac's reversals, to Nettie he was always a cultured man because of his opera box. And not just to her. To Jewish families, and especially to immigrants who clung to Old World ways, the person of culture and learning was whom they respected: the doctor, the teacher, the rabbi, the lawyer, the violin player; people involved iwth serious work and not, as Isaac or Nettie would say, someone who wastes time with foolishness.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, pages 31-32:
[Woody Allen's] memories may seem harsh and perhaps the product of an imaginative raconteur, but others in his class corroborate them... Both also point out that although the students were predominantly Jewish, the teachers were for the most part Gentile, often Irish, and in some cases at least mildly anti-Semitic. It was not unknown for Gentile boys to be dismissed at the end of the day while Jewish boys were kept behind, thus deliberately making them late for Hebrew school...
The greater Midwood neighborhood was almost entirely Jewish, especially as it fanned out toward the larger, single-family homes where the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals lived. For the most part, the only differences among people there were whether they were Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews. But as the homes bcame smaller and the workers nonprofessional... there was some ethnic mix...The family in the house on the other side were both Russian Jews and Communists. They shocked the neigborhood by flagrantly not observing the Jewish high holy days; a mild version of them appears in Radio Days.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, page 33:
Although all of them struggled financially, Allan ws the only boy in an extended Jewish family and he was its cynosure [i.e., the center of attraction]... Until he was bar mitzvahed at thirteen, he was forced to attend Hebrew school after classes were dismissed at public school. But on Friday afternoons, when hebrew school was not held, or when he played hooky from it, he'd as often as not go to the Elm, the best theater for after-school shows because he could get there just in time to catch the last features children under sixteen could attend without adult accompaniment...
[Woody Allen] enjoyed his own company and, as well, he enjoyed fabricating different roles and identities, generally of a larcenous nature. One was to be a dreidel hustler. He imagined spinning the little lead top with a Hebrew letter on each of its four sides until, after a time, he was able to have the letters come up in his favor more often than not. He saw himself as a little Legs Diamond, awash in his winnings, his best dreidel in a smart carrying case that he toted from city to city on luxurious trains, his precious spinning hand perfectly manicured as he cooly played for $100,000 a game.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, pages 27-28:
[Woody Allen] tried again in Crimes and Misdemeanors... That, anyway, is how the scene was written. It is not hot it was played. He and cinematographer Sven Nykvist talkd it over and they both felt that the audience wouldn't get the point; instead, they would just see the bleached and shadowed photography that results from shooting in the sunlight... So they decided for the audience's sake to make it rain because at least the lighting would be pretty. Even then, he reshot the scene on fifteen different occasions, each time with various changes... and in the end, the line went unused. "I can't get a break on this movie," he complained one day as the rain teemed on its own and the budget swelled as he tried to reshoot yet again with Jenny. "Maybe it's too realistic, or it's too atheistic--and probably it turns out there is a God, who doesn't want this picture made. Or maybe not at this price."
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, page 5:
Woody assumed before he left New York [on a trip in 1988] that he'd be too distracted by the travel and the new places to give much thought to his two script ideas, but that wasn't the case. He couldn't get the one with the thirty completed pages off his mind and it became clear that it was the story to proceed on. His suroundings surely added an extra push. The disparate issues of religious faith, the measurement of success, and moral responsibility in the face of an absent or silent God that his film ideas raised, occur again and again in the works of those Scandinavian artists he likes--Bergman, Ibsin, and Strindberg.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, page 225:
Comical names are an integral part of a comic story, and Woody's choices for characters, he says, were modeled more after Benchley than Perelman (with Perelman and Benchley, and to a lesser degree Woody, even a slight knowledge of Yiddish adds to their funniness). The cast of "Opera Synopses" includes Strudel, God of Rain; Schmalz, God of Light Drizzle; Immergluck, Goddess of the Six Primary Colors; and Ludwig Das Eiweiss, the Knight of the Iron Duck. Benchley created Dickensian figures (George, Lillian, and Baby Lester Gummidge); tradesmen (Abbamonte and Frinchini, shoe repairers); and corporations (the Frivolity Mitten Co.). Woody has invented Europeans (Fears Hoffnung, Horst Wasserman, and Gunther Eisenbud); mafiosi (Thomas "the Butcher" Covello, Albert "the Logical Positivist" Corillo, Little Petey "Big Petey" Ross, and Kid Lipsky); the chess masters Gossage and Vardebedian; and the intrepid Kaiser Lupowitz, a private eye who could have been named by Perelman. There is a chorus of characters in his play God inspired, no doubt, by the Physicians' Desk Reference -- Trichinosis, Hepatitis, and Diabetes; and Everywriter's publisher: Venal and Sons.
Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, page 231:
Without Feathers [by Woody Allen], published in 1975, had a broader scope of writing and included two plays, God and Death.
From: "Religious Affiliations of Celebrities" page in "Celebrity Religion" section of "Religion Facts" website (http://www.religionfacts.com/celebrities/religions_of_celebrities.htm; viewed 20 April 2007):
Below is an index of the religious affiliations or belief systems of celebrities (both living and dead; in film, television, music, literature, academics and politics), listed in alphabetical order by last name...
Celebrity: Woody Allen (b. 1935)
Quotes, More Information, Sources: "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends." - "My Philosophy" in The New Yorker
Webpage created 27 May 2005. Last modified 20 April 2007.
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