Hit TV series Sons of Anarchy is a violent, yet poignant Hamlet-esque drama about a gunrunning Californian biker gang…
In Ha’aretz in 2013, Ruta Kupfer argued that, “Again and again, TV shows acclaimed for their nuance and character development rely on a two-dimensional depiction of Jews. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Orange is the New Black: Jewish stereotypes, without the guilt.”
After watching six seasons of Sons of Anarchy – a violent, yet poignant Hamlet-esque drama about a gunrunning Californian biker gang – a very different conclusion can be reached. The most striking thing about this particular series, in contrast to many others of its kind, is the complete absence of cardboard cut-out Jewish characters with wholly stereotypical traits. Sons of Anarchy is remarkable for including Jews where one might least expect to find them.
Created, directed and produced by Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy follows – over seven seasons (hinting at some Judaic inspiration), the final one of which is about to air – the lives of the close-knit biker gang SAMCRO, short for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original. Based in the fictional town of Charming in Central California, SAMCRO’s semi-legal existence is predicated on running guns – with the occasional disastrous foray into drugs – as well as a series of legitimate businesses including a motor repairs workshop, an adult film studio, and a high-class brothel.
Co-operating with local law enforcement to keep Charming free of crime, SAMCRO stays one step ahead of the federal agencies in the pursuit of its own profits. However, given the nature of its businesses, as is to be expected, the club comes into contact with a host of adversaries, including morally ambiguous federal agents, ambitious Assistant District Attorneys, corrupt businessmen, Chinese gangsters, the IRA, neo-Nazis, rival biker gangs (which themselves are often demarcated on racial lines) and so forth.
At the head of the Redwood table, and the heart of the show, sits club president Clay Morrow (played by the very Jewish Ron Perlman). His conflicted stepson Jackson “Jax” Teller (played by British-born actor Charlie Hunnam) is vice president and son of the late co-founder (with Morrow) of SAMCRO, John Teller. After discovering some of his father’s old effects, Jax begins questioning the destiny of SAMCRO and his role within it, setting in motion the downward spiral of turmoil which ravages the club.
So what is it about this formidable, leather-clad, small-town tribe which makes it such an unlikely location to find Jewish characters? Charming (population: 14,679; motto ‘Our Name Says It All’) is certainly not the typical urban/e setting of New York or Los Angeles and their sitcoms and dramas. Sons of Anarchy is a world away from the likes of Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld which have inhabited our screens for years. This is a place in which you would expect Jews to not fit in, not to pass. Indeed, SAMCRO is a tribe bound by membership. They have a strict code which they honour and they are bonded by a covenant to help their “brothers”. Often, though, in typical biblical fashion, this covenant is broken and with fatal consequences. Thus, the appearance and inclusion of a whole plethora of Jewish characters is unquestionably striking.
At the show’s centre, we find at least two long-running, influential Jewish characters, as well as a bounty of other peripheral characters. The first of these is the “mother” of SAMCRO herself, Gemma Teller-Morrow (played by Katey Sagal who is of Ukrainian Jewish descent). In episode three of series one, Gemma’s Jewishness is first identified during an unsettling, though oddly moving interaction, with Ernest Darby (Mitch Pileggi), leader of a local Neo-Nazi gang, the NORDICS. While their interaction is fleeting, it becomes apparent despite their provocation, that these two characters not only know one another well, but have an underlying level of tolerance for one another, despite their patent differences, epitomised by the swastika tattoo emblazoned across Darby’s neck. It is even insinuated that the pair may have had some romantic connection to one another in earlier years.
Up until this point in the show, there is very little explicit indication that Gemma is Jewish. Indeed, there is very little thereafter either. However, Gemma embodies the new breed of character which can be described as the “tough Jewess who sweats”. This is a new type of female – such as Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) – who resists the Jewish American Princess/Mother stereotype because she kicks ass in the service of herself and her family. In a later episode, Gemma is brutally raped by two members of the Neo-Nazi gang in an attempt to rouse Clay in to retaliation. During the scene in which Gemma is attacked, the camera focuses largely on the swastika tattoo on her attacker’s throat. Gemma, being a determined and fiercely independent woman, decides not to tell anybody about her assault, thus undermining and ultimately undoing her attacker’s plans for gang warfare.
As the wife of Clay Morrow, the former wife of John Teller and mother of Jax, Gemma fulfils her role as the matriarchal head of this highly unorthodox “family”. To adopt club parlance, Gemma is the “Chief Old Lady”, mother and counsel to every member of this motley crew. Manipulating, calculating and orchestrating things from behind the scenes, she doesn’t resemble the stereotypical image of the Jewish mother one might expect, though her staunch and unyielding sense of family values is reiterated over and over throughout the show.
The second explicitly Jewish character is Robert “Bobby” Munson (Mark Boone Junior). Big and bearded, Bobby is identifiably Jewish from the outset. He wears a prominent Chai necklace and in his spare time he moonlights as an Elvis impersonator who plays Bar Mitzvahs, earning him the nickname “Bobby Elvis”. Rabbinic-looking and portly, he superficially resembles Topol’s Tevye, but he is closer in spirit to Walter Sobchak in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). In stereotypical fashion, Bobby is SAMCRO’s treasurer, overseeing the club’s finances and records. When the club buys the adult film company, Cara Cara, Bobby is sent in to help out with the books, conjoining two professions in which Jews have had a long history – pornography and accounting. We later learn that Bobby’s father was an accountant for the mob in Reno, Nevada, where he kept two sets of books for them. In good Jewish fashion, he passed on this craft to his son.
Interestingly, though Bobby’s Jewishness is explicit in this sense, no other verbal or cultural allusions to it are ever made. Bobby is completely assimilated in to SAMCRO, he is a long-standing member (who later becomes vice president) and is characterised as being extremely tough, often brutal. Thus his Jewishness is never evoked as being a barrier to membership or promotion in a gang in which you simply do not expect Jews to run. In contrast to this, much is made of the black origins of another club member Juan Carlos “Juice” Ortiz (Theo Rossi). Juice goes to great lengths to conceal his ethnicity, eventually gunning down a fellow club member who threatens to reveal him. Juice believes that if the club finds out that he has a black father, then his membership and even his life will be in peril. We can calculate, then, that by the club’s code, Jews are “kosher” where blacks seemingly are not. In this context, it is certainly ironic that, when explicit Jewishness is invoked, it is by Juice who, when asked if he speaks Spanish, ripostes: “I’m a Puerto Rican from Queens! I speak better Yiddish!”
Further, a number of orbital Jewish characters and Jewish actors pepper Sons of Anarchy throughout. In addition to Perlman and Sagal is Maggie Siff, whose father is Jewish, and who plays Dr. Tara Knowles, Jax’s high school sweetheart, who returns to Charming to escape the un-wanted affections of Joshua Kohn (Jay Karnes), an unhinged, obsessive federal agent who tracks Tara down and attempts to rape her. While Kohn’s Jewishness is nowhere identified, both of his names suggest his ethnicity. Lumpy Feldstein (Michael Fairman) is a Holocaust survivor and is a close friend of SAMCRO. As the owner of a local boxing club, he links Jews to their history of prize-fighting and boxing promotion. He is respected in Charming even by Darby who refuses to beat him up when asked to do so by an anonymous buyer who wants to buy his club. Lumpy has balls. He looks at Darby’s swastika tattoo on his chest and his own concentration camp number on his arm and tells Darby that he can’t make many friends with that kind of hate on his chest.
So why are there Jewish characters in Sons of Anarchy and why is their presence in an American drama significant? The biker gangs in Sons or Anarchy are clearly demarcated along racial lines: there are the Mexican “Mayans”, the African-American “Niners” and the Neo-Nazi “NORDICS”, all of whom are made of members who belong exclusively to those ethnic groups. SAMCRO provides the exception to this rule. Perhaps in order for our protagonists to appear more sympathetic, SAMCRO had to appear somewhat more multicultural. Including the one excluded minority here, in this case, Jews, was a way of achieving this. Additionally, the inclusion of Jews in a place where they seemingly don’t belong goes some way to stretching Jewish televisual stereotypes beyond the Larry Davids and the Jerry Seinfelds, to encompass something broader, more textured, even outlaw.
Danielle Friel recently received her MA in English Literature from the University of Birmingham. She is currently working on a number of projects before developing her research into a PhD.
Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film Studies at Bangor University. His most recent book is The New Jew in Film: exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema (2012).