Touted as the first acclaimed drama of the awards season, heralded as a generation-defining epic, there couldn’t be more pomp following The Social Network’s ass out the door. The ads may declare, in pointy all-caps, that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s nascent founder played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a genius, a punk and a billionaire, but they leave off one of the film’s other significant points about him: he is a curly-haired pasty-faced J-E-W.
More specifically, a Jew desperately trying to rise above the impotent fates of his circumcised brethren.
Aaron Sorkin, the seasoned television writer whose small screen work has featured the uninterrupted prosperity of liberal, educated, upper-tax bracket Jews, offers his first Heebish protagonist on film in Zuckerberg. While memorable characters such as Toby Ziegler on The West Wing or Dan Rydell and Jeremy Goodwin on Sports Night have all served as Sorkin’s post-religious culturally identifying mouthpiece, his Zuckerberg goes in a different direction. Where those characters have never wavered from the heritage that bred them to be talented wordsmiths (Sorkin’s Jews are always writers or creators), Zuckerberg can’t seem to run away fast enough.
Early in the film, Mark and best friend-cum-adversary Eduardo Saverin are at a Caribbean themed Alpha Epsilon Pi party populated with cherubic, wooly Jewfaces. The scene is punctuated by a boy in a yarmulke, rocking out on a set of steel drums. Later in the film, after Facebook inevitably takes off, he yells at Eduardo about what’s at stake should the site fail: “I’m not going back to Caribbean night at the Jewish fraternity…Did you like being nothing? Did you like being nobody?!” There is no question that the Caribbean party was lame, but what made it that way? Was it the uninterested gaze of the Asian chicks, the non-sequitorial Niagara Falls videos playing onstage? I have a sinking feeling that the trouble was the yarmulke, sitting atop the head of a rhythmless Yid goofing off on the steel drums. For the celluloid Mark and Eduardo, the real party had no yarmulkes, no Jews. The real party was at the hallowed, veritably jizz-stained walls of the Phoenix final club, whose exclusivity compels busloads of freshman hardbodies to disrobe and get doused with champagne. Who wouldn’t want to be those goys?
My curiosity about the Jewish overtones of the film led me to Arie Hasit, Zuckerberg’s college roommate and the first non-founder to put up a Facebook profile. “It’s offensive to suggest that Mark created Facebook to improve his social status, particularly to the many of us who were his friends.” A brother at AEPi with a penchant for banging a bongo, it’s entirely possible that Arie was the schmuck goofing on the steel drums. Built like a scruffy teddy bear with a smile to match, he moved to Tel Aviv after Harvard, straight to the center of a culture the film’s Zuck tries to avoid. It is clear, from the moment I ask about it, that the idea of the film strikes a nerve. “Regardless of whether or not the film is good, it bothers me. This is something that actually happened, these are events that I witnessed over the course of a few years. To see it all get misconstrued is unsettling.”
At a press conference for the film, director David Fincher didn’t mince words: this is not a biopic. Still, the filmmakers have attracted a shit-storm given that they made a film about real people, most of whom refused to cooperate with them. For example, actor Jesse Eisenberg portrays Mark in a manner that has been described as similar to someone with Asperger’s, an affectation that has been attributed to the CEO. “That is ridiculous,” Arie tells me. “It’s offensive to Mark, and it’s offensive to people with Asperger’s that people feel they can casually diagnose somebody that they know nothing about.”
But what of Zuckerberg’s Judaism? “I can’t really speak to that; it’s none of my business. He liked AEPi, so did Eduardo.” I tell him about the scene where Mark declares he can’t go back to life at a Jewish fraternity. “I never got any sense that Mark or Eduardo were embarrassed to be Jewish. Eduardo was in the Phoenix, and he sometimes brought his friends from AEPi to hang out there.” Mark has since gone back to speak at an AEPi convention and is featured prominently on the organization’s famous alum listing on its website. If he has tried to drop his affiliation, he has done a pretty terrible job, especially for someone who very nearly runs the Internet.
Sitting in a room with opposing counsel, Eisenberg’s Zuck is asked when he first shared his idea for Facebook with Eduardo. “It was at a party at Alpha Epsilon Pi”. The attorney needs clarification. “What’s that?” Mark takes a moment to answer, his face, which barely emotes throughout the film, is seen to almost sink, ever so slightly. “The Jewish fraternity.” Disdain. Shame. The silver screen Mark doesn’t want anyone to know of his Jewish beginnings.
The Farnsworth Invention, Sorkin’s 2007 Broadway play about the invention of television, featured a prominently Jewish David Sarnoff battling the unlikely Idahoan inventor, Philo Farnsworth. The reconciliation of his religion and his business savvy, two opposing worlds, form Sarnoff’s character arc while he is vilified for stealing Farnsworth’s technology. The Social Network tells roughly the same tale eighty years in the future, with Mark Zuckerberg a cross between both roles. Perhaps all of Sorkin’s Jews languish, on some level, in the depths of stereotypical self-loathing. The murky waters here are that the film assumes that being a Jew isn’t that cool. I, for one, don’t believe that is a given, and neither, it seems, does Mark Zuckerberg.
-Artwork by Harrison Freeman