Check out the cast of Apple TV+’s latest comedy ‘The Shrink Next Door’. Or Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “Transparent”.
What do all these shows have in common? A bunch of non-Jews play Jewish characters. It’s a phenomenon that some in Hollywood have called “Jewface.”
The term refers to a non-Jew playing a Jew with stereotypical Jewishness in the foreground. Think sporty frizzy hair or a heavy New York accent and Yiddish inflection. It wasn’t a historical practice like racist Blackface was in minstrel shows.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has addressed this issue in her podcast, often pointing out that Jewish actresses never seem to score roles as Jewish characters. In late September, she discussed a Time article on the topic when Kathryn Hahn was cast as Joan Rivers in a limited series on the late comedian’s life. Hahn is not Jewish. (USA TODAY confirmed that the project is no longer on Showtime; a rep did not comment on whether the casting backlash played a part in that decision.)
Silverman said Hahn didn’t do anything wrong, but a long history of non-Jews playing Jews is prevalent in Hollywood. “At a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so central and central, why is ours still broken even today?” asked Silverman.
Jewish actors — and actresses in particular — are often not cast in Jewish roles, which experts say propagate stereotypes and is symptomatic of Hollywood’s ongoing reckoning with inclusion. Approach the subject gently and sensitively.
“Questions about representation, minstrels, and appropriation are tricky enough, and then there’s the whole issue of whether non-Jewish people should play Jewish,” said Judy Klass, an associate professor of Jewish Studies and English at Vanderbilt University. “Just embrace the complexity, embrace the ambiguity. This stuff is weird, and it’s getting weirder and more sensitive as bigotry becomes more open in decades than ever before.”
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Eastern European Jews started Hollywood studios decades ago, but they didn’t make many movies about Jews, especially in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise around the world, Klass says. If a movie were to evoke a Jewish character, a non-Jew would be cast in that role almost reflexively.
“That’s a long-standing problem in Hollywood,” Klass says.
Classic examples of this over the years run the gamut: Natalie Wood as the title character of “Marjorie Morningstar”; Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Sex Based”; Rachel Brosnahan as the title character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”; Kathryn Hahn as Rabbi Raquel on “Transparent”; and Jane Lynch as the soon-to-be Mrs. Rosie Brice in Broadway’s “Funny Girl” revival.
“There are so few good roles for Jewish women or roles of any kind for Jewish women,” says Klass. “And Jewish women are so often stereotyped in ugly ways that when there’s a role like a romantic lead, it’s so rare that I wish Jewish women could play it.”
Jewish actresses like Barbra Streisand, Gal Gadot, Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone, and Rachel Weisz have certainly had great (and Academy Award-winning) opportunities. But more examples of Jewish women playing Jewish characters and more opportunities to create their own stories would provide more representation.
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Silverman pointed to Rachel Bloom and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as examples of Jewish women who wrote, produced and starred in their own shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Broad City.” Comedy, Silverman said, has always made way for Jews.
Yet there are few roles for Jewish women. And when those rolls to do exist, they rely on stereotypes, Klass explains. Like a nagging Jewish mother (think Mrs. Wolowitz in “The Big Bang Theory”) or a spoiled Jewish-American princess (think Shoshanna Shapiro in “Girls.)”
This ignites a wildfire of trouble when no Jews are involved at all. A 2019 production of “Falsettos” in the West End was criticized by Jewish Britons for not casting Jews; the show is based on Jews making fun of themselves.
The issue remains thorny, however: If someone like Meryl Streep, who played Ethel Rosenberg’s Jewish character in “Angels in America,” was perfect for a role, should producers deny that she cast her as such?
“One of the reasons it’s tricky is that no one knows exactly what Jews are,” Klass says. “Because people who aren’t very religious are still Jewish. Many of them feel culturally Jewish. Many people who want to assimilate completely would still be considered Jewish by certainly Hitler, but also modern white supremacists. It’s a very dark one. matter.”
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But some don’t think it’s so dark. “I don’t think it’s generally a problem that non-Jews play Jews,” said Michael Berkowitz, a professor of modern Jewish history at University College London. There are much tougher problems for Jews in the US to focus on – the dangerous anti-Semitic QAnon, for example.
He thought “Jewface” could make for a fascinating “Curb Your Enthusiasm” plot – and it turns out it’s one this season: Larry David (as a fictional version of himself) tries to create a new show called “Young Larry” a la “Young Sheldon” and is blackmailed into casting a non-Jewish Latina girl as a young Jewish girl.
Berkowitz adds that Jews exist across racial boundaries, and it’s problematic to see them as monoliths in the first place.
“There are Jews in every racial group,” he says. “There are black Jews, brown Jews everything, although people tend to associate it in different ways, largely because of stereotypes.”
Silverman acknowledged that there are more pressing problems lurking in the world, but acknowledged that something could be important in a different way: “Are there worse things I could worry about? Yes, of course. But here we are.”
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