Charlie Chaplin: Jewish or Goyish?
As nearly as can be determined, Charlie Chaplin is virtually part Jewish almost most of the time.
John McCabe, Charlie Chaplin
In March of 1978, Charlie Chaplin’s body was stolen from his tomb in Switzerland and held for ransom. Two months later it was discovered buried in a farmer’s field and returned to his wife Oona, who remarked, dryly, ‘Charlie would have found this ridiculous.’ According to rumour, the Swiss government suspected that his remains had been stolen by anti-Semitic groups, upset that a Jew should be buried in a Christian cemetery. Chaplin’s Jewishness made him an enemy of the FBI and put him on the Nazi’s list of international targets. He is perhaps one of the most famous Jews in American history hence it is all the more surprising to learn that he was not, in fact, Jewish.
Since his early days as the Little Tramp, a role he assumed in 1914, Jews had believed Chaplin was secretly Jewish. The fact that his name was not Jewish was irrelevant; it was common practice for Jews to change their names when entering show business (Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson). In the 1948 edition of a Jewish encyclopedia, Chaplin is listed as a Jewish movie star, and the name ‘Israel Thonstein’ is mentioned alongside the claim that he was from an old Eastern European Jewish family. As proof, the encyclopedia cited a 1931 article from the New York Herald Tribune, which commented upon the way Chaplin’s eyes could convey both sadness and joy in a uniquely Jewish fashion, and a Budapest Jewish paper which claimed to trace his Jewish ancestry (as Thonstein) back to Hungary.
More important than birth records and names was the fact he looked, acted and ‘felt’ Jewish. To Jewish eyes, Chaplin told Jewish stories. Famously, one critic recalled watching The Gold Rush (1925) next to a middle-aged Jewish woman: ‘Oy!’ she wailed, as the Tramp tried to escape from his on-screen tormentors, ‘What do they want with him, the goyim?!! What has he done to them?’ The Tramp, small and powerless, was taunted and hounded by authorities who hated him without reason, in what appeared to American Jews as the enactment of the Jewish condition. Hannah Arendt wrote in 1944 that Chaplin symbolised the ‘effrontery of the poor ‘little Yid’ who does not recognise the class order of the world because he sees in it neither order nor justice for himself ’. Meanwhile, in Sholem Aleichem’s 1916 story, ‘Motl in America’, the hero spends his time watching Chaplin films and extolling the virtues of free America in which a Jew like Chaplin can become rich and famous.
For film scholar Patricia Erens, the Tramp is a variation on ‘dos kleine menshele’ or ‘little man’ of Yiddish literature, the poor and long-suffering antihero, the shlemiel (a little man with no luck), and the luftmensch (the ‘man of air’ who lives on dreams). Erens cites the numerous Jewish references in Chaplin’s oeuvre, in particular the prevalence of skullcaps and Yiddish newspapers as props, and a scene in The Vagabond (1916) in which the Tramp finds a Jewish man eating pork at a buffet and helpfully changes the ‘ham’ sign to ‘beef ’.
Many of the characteristics we associate with ‘acting’ Jewish—the nasal voice, the New York accent, and the verbal wit a‘ la Groucho Marx—were unavailable to the makers of silent pictures. Chaplin, however, was a dancer, an acrobat, and a pantomime extraordinaire and able to communicate other, non-verbal cultural indicators to a savvy audience—the comic shrugs, the outdated black coat, the facial pathos combined with frantic body movements, the chaotic presence that mocks the establishment. Above all, Chaplin achieved a subtle gender inversion through the graceful, almost balletic eluding of his macho tormentors. Jewish audiences recognised this physical portrayal from the Yiddish stage and read it as a visual metaphor for the disempowered Jew in a hostile world.
Across the world this misconception raged, gaining him enemies to the left and the right. The German-American Bund helped spread the rumour that Charles Spencer Chaplin was born Israel Thonstein and in the book that accompanied the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, Thonstein is cited as the maiden name for the mother of ‘The Jew, Chaplin.’ In 1948 the US Navy investigated Chaplin on suspicion of Zionist activity: shipping guns to Palestine, as well as around 36 tanks. But it was the FBI under Hoover that became Chaplin’s greatest political and legal enemy. Chaplin’s FBI file is a comprehensive laboratory for identity construction that began in 1922 and remained open until after his death. The file chronicles Chaplin’s downfall, the suspicion of Communist activities, the Mann Act trial for transporting unmarried women across state lines for deviant purposes, and further rumours and innuendo that led to his expulsion from America in 1952. Chaplin is continually described as ‘of Jewish extraction,’ given the name of ‘Thonstein’ as an alias (though there is no proof that Chaplin ever used this name himself), and assigned attributes such as ‘Jewish accent,’ ‘talks with hands,’ and Russian birth.
Crucially, it was not Jewishness that alarmed Hoover but ambiguity. According to Omer Bartov in his compelling work The Jew in Cinema, Jewish characters are often portrayed as slippery and protean, possessing an insidious ability to obscure their Jewishness and blend in. The emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe at the turn of the last century had left them free to shave and dress in modern clothing, making them impossible to detect. This new found ambiguity of Jewish identity made them, in many gentile eyes, the most dangerous minority in civilised society. Ambiguity was the dominant paranoia of Cold-War America, which felt itself threatened by the enemy within—the Communists, Jews and homosexuals who were so hard to detect. The insistence on Chaplin’s Jewishness helped reinforce the notion of an ‘authentic American’ by establishing firm conceptual borders through identity construction and categorisation.
Not only did both Jewish and gentile audiences see him as a Jew, but Chaplin himself very nearly became convinced of his own Jewishness. While he did not officially doubt his mother’s version of his parentage, in which her legal husband, Charles Chaplin, Sr., a non-Jewish pop singer, was his biological father, there were times when he clearly wondered if the questions surrounding his lineage were true, and if they were more scandalous than imagined. His step-brother Sydney had a Jewish father and the world’s insistence on Chaplin’s Jewish origins prompted him and many others to wonder whether their birth stories had in fact been reversed.
‘All geniuses,’ Chaplin was heard to remark,‘have some Jewish blood in them.’ Flattered by the widely held misconception about his Jewish identity, his understanding of Jewishness was simplistic and stereotypical: Jews were blessed with superior intellect and financial acumen than non-Jews. Further, he believed that his physical attributes compounded the myth: he was short with curly black hair, ‘Oriental facial features’, and a prominent nose. In footage taken of famed British comedian Harry Lauder’s visit to Chaplin Studios, Lauder draws Chaplin on a chalkboard. Chaplin makes great show of stopping him, pantomimes ‘too Jewish,’ and re-draws the nose. Quite how to interpret this is unclear, but Chaplin either believed himself to be Jewish or was making fun of those who did. In the absence of confirmed roots, Chaplin may have sought to align himself with a group that, although outsiders in mainstream society, seemed to him possessed of an ancient and mystical national bond. When the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt visited Chaplin’s studios, Chaplin told him that he owned all of the cantor’s recordings and that ‘Whenever I feel a little blue, I take them out and play them. They do something to me. They unite me, oh so closely, with my Jewish ancestors.’
Chaplin was an actor, and he played one role after another all his life. He occasionally told people he was Jewish, which sounded better to his director’s ears than ‘poor English gutter trash.’ But sometimes, including in his interviews with the FBI, he denied it, once commenting, ‘I am afraid I do not have that good fortune.’ Of his anti-Nazi picture The Great Dictator (1940) Chaplin said, ‘I made this film to show my unity with all the Jews of the world’. While American politicians and agents worried about the film’s ‘Communist’ message, the American Jewish establishment feared that an anti-Hitler film made by a Jew might make things worse for Jews in Europe. Chaplin’s own response—‘How can they get worse?’—indicates his own fearlessness. For the Jew in America, it was as if, as Stanley Kauffmann put it, ‘a David had arisen—a comic David—to fight Goliath!’
Holly A.Pearse holds a PhD in religion and culture, and specializes in the representation of Jews in art and media. At the moment, her research delves into the portrayals of Jewish-Gentile romance in American film, and she currently teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.