From Shylocks to superheroes, Jewish scrap dealers have appeared in pop culture as both antisemitic stereotypes and more rounded, complex characters.
Jonathan Pollack, an American Jewish history scholar, will explore these portrayals at a Jan. 26 talk at Jewish Museum Milwaukee in conjunction with “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling.”
Pollack is an honorary fellow at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and chair of the history department at Madison Area Technical College. He is the author of two articles and numerous presentations on the history of Jewish scrap dealers.
Pollack has a family connection to his area of research. A great-great uncle came to Dayton, Ohio, in 1892 and became a scrap dealer. The family business lasted 60 years.
Pollack is a consultant on the exhibit, beginning with its original run at Jewish Museum of Maryland. His talk, he said, “on popular culture depictions of Jewish people as scrap dealers is a fitting way to end the exhibit in Milwaukee.” The exhibit closes Jan. 30.
The premise of the exhibit is that 80 to 90 percent of scrap dealers in America in the first half of the 20thcentury were Jewish . They started as small-time peddlers and became scrap metal entrepreneurs.
In his talk, Pollack cites the evil Jewish stereotype of a Shylock-drawn character in an English play. He is a second-hand clothes dealer. Pollack also discusses the silent film era and its portrayal of the Jewish peddler.
“Over time, the scrap dealer becomes a more sympathetic character,” said Pollack, who holds a PhD in history from University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Jewish scrap dealers come across as people who have an entrepreneurial drive, but don’t have a whole lot of resources so they’re left trying to repurpose things that people have thrown out.”
Pollack discusses “Born Yesterday,” a 1950 comedy-drama film about an uncouth wealthy junkyard tycoon who tries to buy his way into Washington, D.C., society. “He’s definitely very much a tough guy, but he’s somewhat sympathetic.”
“The apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, himself the son of a Jewish scrap dealer, portrays a very prosperous, second-generation scrap dealer. “In his autobiographical writings, Richler (who was born in 1931) talks about the hustle that his father had to display so his family could have a more comfortable life,” Pollack said.
Another film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” based on a screenplay by Ted Allan, has a narrator with a grandfather who was a first-generation scrap dealer. “The grandfather is very much from the old country. He tells these magical, mystical stories. His day-to-day life as a second-hand clothes dealer precedes each of these stories.”
Another example of the Jewish scrap dealer in American popular culture is “Sanford and Son.” “There is an episode where Sanford meets a rabbi and toys with the idea of converting. He also comes to believe that he is descended from Ethiopian Jews.”
Then there is the fantastical – a minor character from the DC Comics universe called Ragman (Rory Regan), nicknamed the “tattered tatterdemalion of justice.” The character has strange Jewish origins that touch on the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Kabbalah, Abraham and more, Pollack said. “It’s an extremely Jewish comic by that point.”
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What: “Scrapping Stereotypes: Perceptions of the Industry in Pop Culture.” Jonathan Pollack, an American Jewish history scholar, will discuss.
When: Wednesday, Jan. 26, 7 p.m.
Cost: Free to the public.
Where: Register for digital access at JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org