Light spoilers ahead for “The Fabelmans.”
When my parents arrived to pick me up from dance camp the summer I was 15, my new 6-foot-plus friend turned to me and uttered a line since oft-repeated. “What do you come from,” he asked, “a family of hobbits?” While the people to whom we’ve recounted this story over the years tend to find it more insulting than funny, my family has always been in on the joke. As a group of four, my parents, sister, and I span a range from just barely 5 feet (me) to 5-foot-5. I think that we’ve held onto the comment not only because it’s true — we are indisputably short — but because it ties us together in a sense of shared identity.
For me, being short and being Jewish are inextricably linked. I know there are plenty of tall Jews out there — but still, in our collective consciousness, Jewish people are often thought of as short. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet in TV and film, short Jewish characters, particularly men, are often the butt of the joke. (Think “Dirty Dancing,” in which Baby turns down the resort owner’s condescending grandson for Patrick Swayze, or “Gossip Girl,” when Blair is dismayed by her nebbishy 5-foot-2 stepfather-to-be.) When Jewish men (outside of Woody Allen films) make it to love interest status (and even then, they’re still the nerdy or neurotic type), they’re generally tall: Adam Brody as Seth Cohen in “The OC” (my first onscreen crush) is 5-foot-11, Max Greenfield as Schmidt in “New Girl” is 5-foot-10, and David Schwimmer as Ross in “Friends” is 6-foot-1.
This is why, after watching Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” it took a few days for me to put my finger on what felt different: The movie provides a rare example of an openly Jewish male protagonist who, despite being very short, has transcended the comic-relief category to make it to the rank of leading man.
With the Oscars right around the corner, “The Fabelmans” — which is nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture — is having a moment. The autobiographical film is a bildungsroman tracking the childhood and adolescence of Spielberg’s fictionalized alter-ego, Sammy Fabelman. From the outset, the movie, like its eponymous family, is very proudly Jewish. They eat kugel and challah at the Shabbos table; the grandmother criticizes her daughter-in-law’s brisket; and the kids note that theirs is the only house on their street not lit up for Christmas. Although Sammy’s parents, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams (the question of whether they should have cast Jewish actors is a topic for another day) are middling to tall in height, their children, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and his younger sisters Reggie and Natalie (Julie Butters and Keeley Karsten), are quite short.
In life, Spielberg is 5-foot-8, but 20-year-old LaBelle is 5-foot-4. The first half of the movie shows Sammy, a budding filmmaker, at ease with his many friends, most of whom aren’t noticeably taller than him. Together, they gallivant around the Arizona desert and joke about girls, and, given the fact that Sammy’s buddies regularly give up their weekends to help him make movies, we can even assume that he’s pretty popular. “The Fabelmans” shifts in tone when Sammy and his family move to Northern California. As Sammy and his sisters walk to their new school on the first day, Reggie asks them to “leave the Fabelman mishigas behind them.” On arrival they’re confronted by a gaggle of 6-foot-something teens. “It’s like we got parachuted into the land of the giant sequoia people,” says Sammy to his sisters. I can only imagine that Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner included the Yiddishism to remind the viewer that in this environment, the Fabelmans’ otherness is caused by the intersecting vectors of both their Jewishness and their shortness.
What follows is a section built directly from Spielberg’s own experiences, in which Sammy is the victim of antisemitic bullying. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes Spielberg as saying that although the bullying was “only a small aspect of my life…I was made very, very aware of being an outsider, early on.” Spielberg uses Sammy’s height to give a visual element to that outsider status. But what’s unusual is that this status doesn’t relegate Sammy to the annals of nebbish-dom; in fact, it’s actually what enables him to start dating a popular girl. Although Monica is obsessed with Jesus and conflates kissing with proselytization, she’s also clearly into Sammy: During their first after-school hangout, she says to Sammy that Jesus must have looked a lot like him “because he was Jewish. A handsome Jewish boy, just like you.” While this isn’t exactly my favorite cinematic meet-cute of all time, it does allow Sammy Fabelman to be something I’ve rarely seen afforded to a character: A short Jewish guy who’s portrayed to the audience as cool and appealing (albeit in an alternative way).
I’m not blind to the fact that tallness has been a part of traditional beauty standards (especially for men) for a very long time, and that that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But as a short Jew who’s about to marry a short Jewish man (like Spielberg, he’s 5-foot-8, technically above average, but you wouldn’t know it in our height-obsessed society), I’m just grateful for the positive representation.
In a recent New York Times op-ed on the advantages of being short, Mara Altman quoted the economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith as saying that heightism is “one of the most blatant and forgiven prejudices in our society.” While there are many parts of being short that I like, I’ve had bosses bend down to talk to me, TSA agents ask me if I’m old enough to be travelling alone (I’m 29), and, just like Sammy Fabelman, I was always the worst in gym class at volleyball. All I ask is for more characters for the short Jews among us to look up to.