DURING the summer of 1925 the illustrious American thermodynamicist Percy Bridgeman, chairman of Harvard University's physics department, wrote to Britain's most distinguished physicist, the New Zealander Professor Ernest Rutherford, strongly urging employment for his brilliant young protégé, J. Robert Oppenheimer: ‘As appears from his name, Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race. He is a tall, well set-up young man, with a rather engaging diffidence of manner, and I think you need have no hesitation whatever for any reason of this sort in considering his application. ‘ Bridgeman reveals by implication what the ‘usual’ defects of the Jewish ‘race’ might be considered to be: Oppenheimer is atypical because he is not short, physically awkward, unattractive, or aggressive.
Assumptions about Jewish faults ‘of this sort’ were ubiquitous among the intelligentsia and elite classes of nineteenth-century London and Vienna. During the first decades of the twentieth century negative images of Jews were prevalent in the United States as well; Bridgeman's statement was made during the heyday of antisemitic quotas in most American universities. While discriminatory quotas have largely disappeared in the United States, portrayals of Jews in contemporary Western literature, cinema, and the media indicate that negative images of the ‘usual’ Jew still flourish. Jews are still often pictured as being physically smaller or lacking in prowess, loud, over-emotional, and aggressive.
Negative images of Jews were propagated publicly by non-Jews for hundreds of years. Yet today, more often than not, American Jewish writers, film-makers, and television personalities are responsible for portraying characters whose peculiarities of physique and personality make them recognizable as Jews to large and diverse audiences. One common element in such contemporary portrayals of Jews has been a sense of marginality based on a profound discomfort with their own physical being, and especially with their erotic impulses. The characters created by novelist Philip Roth, film-maker Woody Allen, and comics Jackie Mason and Richard Lewis convey vivid impressions of themselves as being different-and often unpleasantly so-from the non-Jews around them.
The definitive novelistic articulation of Jewish difference and marginality in mid-twentieth-century America came out of the mind and mouth of Roth's Alexander Portnoy, who, as an adolescent, noticed his nose growing at an alarming rate into distinctively Jewish proportions.