The Many Jews of Oppenheimer 

Design by Iris Tsouris

Months after its release, I am unapologetically writing a piece about Oppenheimer. To put it simply, I adore this film. It is an amazing and exhilarating experience that is, above all, thoughtful. Of course, maybe that should be the bare minimum for a film spanning more than three hours. Still, in my multiple viewings of the film, Oppenheimer far surpassed whatever this baseline might be. The film is a thriller, a noir, a piece of historical fiction, and a biopic. It allows one to view Oppenheimer and the events of his life through an eerie and psychologically troubling lens. 

Through all of these genres, Oppenheimer grounds itself in different versions of American Jewishness. In the film, as in real life, Oppenheimer clashes with Lewis Strauss, one of the original members of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and eventual chair of that same organization. In Strauss and Oppenheimer’s first encounter, Albert Einstein, another Jew, makes an appearance. Before this, however, Strauss remarks to Oppenheimer that he’s the president of Temple Emanu-El in New York. Located on the Upper East Side, Temple Emanu-El is the first Reform congregation in New York City and has long existed as a base for the movement. Strauss, who calls himself a “self-made” man, clearly sees his leadership role at Temple Emanu-El as an indicator of status. He has made his way up to the top of a significant Jewish institution. He flexes this symbol to Oppenheimer but receives only a nod. 

Does Oppenheimer even know what this means? In the film, he never suggests any kind of propensity for his religion. Earlier in the film (and earlier in the timeline of this non-chronological story), Oppenheimer meets Isidor Rabi, a physicist who in the film goes by ‘Izzy’. During this portion of the film, the two are young men traveling to Zurich. Oppenheimer has just delivered a lecture in Dutch, having learned the language in six weeks. Izzy calls him a “schvitzer”—in Yiddish, a show off. Oppenheimer is confused, and Rabi remarks, “Dutch in six weeks but you never learned Yiddish?” In real life, Rabi emigrated from what is now Poland to the United States. His family, like so many others, spoke Yiddish at home. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer was a second generation American Jew who was raised by wealthy parents on the Upper West Side. Is it his wealth that disconnects him from the Yiddish language? The location of his childhood? A generational gap? 

Oppenheimer’s detachment from the Yiddish language is not the only element that sets him apart from Izzy. During this part of the film, which is set in the late 1920s, Oppenheimer has just completed studies at Göttingen in Germany, and he meets Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg would later go on to head the Nazi project to build an atomic bomb, the role that Oppenheimer takes on in America. Within this context, Rabi mentions his fear and anxiety about traveling through Germany. “Ever get the feeling our kind isn’t entirely welcome here?” Izzy asks Oppenheimer. “Physicists?” Oppenheimer responds. “Funny,” Izzy says. This might be a mistake on Oppenheimer’s part, a joke, or perhaps a subtle reference by the film to the antisemitic labeling of Einstein’s work as “the Jewish science.” 

Although Oppenheimer has seemingly no interest or investment in his own religion, he cares about religion to some extent. He named the first test of the atomic bomb “trinity,” in what can only be seen as at least partially a reference to the most famous trinity, the Holy Trinity. Meanwhile, the film’s most memorable line, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” is a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text. 

Thus the film establishes four types of American Jewish caricatures: first, the recent immigrants and refugees, seen through Einstein. Second, the earnest, first-generation Jews, who perhaps do not consistently practice religion, but feel a cultural connection, as seen through Izzy. Thirdly, the Strauss type, who is able to—in a very American way—transform Judaism from a religion to an institution, wherein what is ultimately a form of community service can become a form of gaining power. And finally, Oppenheimer himself is a particular kind of Jewish intellectual, one who has an interest in religion, but doesn’t seem to understand his friend’s fear when traveling through what is about to become Nazi Germany. 

Past the world inside of the film, the film’s cast undoubtedly brings these characters alive. Although, on both of my viewings of the film, audience members laughed when Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein was first shown, not a single performance in the film disappoints. There is an ongoing conversation about non-Jews playing Jews in films; a conversation that I feel particularly invested in. As an ethnic minority, shouldn’t Jewish actors be prioritized when representing characters of their own ethnicity? At the same time, there is the opposing argument that breaking down whiteness into further categories for purposes that aren’t cultural can lead to other issues. Conti himself is not Jewish, but he is ethnically Italian. Herein lies yet another conversation. Are Jews allowed to play Italians? Are Italians allowed to play Jews? Historically, the answer seems to be yes—see James Caan in The Godfather for one of countless examples. Aside from Conti, both Strauss and Izzy are portrayed by Jewish American actors, Robert Downey Jr. and David Krumholtz respectively. Oppenheimer, however,  is played by Cillian Murphy, a man who is neither ethnically Jewish nor (abiding by the rules of this unspoken Jewish-Italian alliance) Italian. Murphy’s Irish accent even seems to poke through at times. In this very specific case, I argue for forgiveness on the basis of artistic purpose. Oppenheimer is different from his Jewish peers, separated from his religion and culture. Perhaps Murphy’s own ethnicity makes this implicitly clear. Or perhaps this is all worthless, and Murphy’s ethnicity is irrelevant to the character he plays, especially since he plays him well. 

Needless to say, the roles that Judaism and Jewish American assimilation play in understanding more aspects of this truly rich film cannot be understated. I’m always a proponent of re-watching, re-reading, re-looking, but in the case of Oppenheimer, I’d especially encourage that to better understand the film as a whole. 

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