Who can play a Jew? Celebs claim double standard over onscreen representation
With the role of Golda Meir going to Helen Mirren and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg to Felicity Jones, more voices are asking why identity politics in casting doesn’t seem to apply to Jews
While promoting her starring role in Amazon Prime’s extraordinarily Jewish show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” actress Rachel Brosnahan was asked a version of the same question over and over again: Are you Jewish?
The answer is a decided no, but Brosnahan gamely brushed off the query repeatedly, noting that she was surrounded by Jewish culture growing up in a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago.
When the show premiered in 2017, there was only a little bit of noise about Brosnahan’s lack of Jewish credentials as the star of one of arguably the most Jewish shows ever to hit the small screen. Miriam “Midge” Maisel is not incidentally Jewish; she jokes about Yom Kippur and summers in the Catskills, and gossips in the synagogue pews.
But over the past few weeks and months, a growing chorus of voices has once again been speaking out about Jewish representation in Hollywood — at a time when Jewish stories and characters are more prominent than ever onscreen.
Many are pointing out that while casting directors are becoming more and more careful not to miscast minority roles — relating not just to race but disability, sexual orientation and more — Jewish characters are still regularly, if not predominantly, played by non-Jews. And that it has virtually always been this way.
“If you’re interested in this topic and this topic is really meaningful — and I think it is meaningful to the Jewish community — then the conversation has never lapsed,” Malina Saval, a Los Angeles-based features editor for Variety, told The Times of Israel. “People that care about this haven’t stopped talking about it, and I don’t think we will.”
The most recent backlash was kicked off by news that Kathryn Hahn will play the legendary comedian Joan Rivers in an upcoming Showtime miniseries. But the practice is commonplace and well-trodden: Helen Mirren was cast as Golda Meir in an upcoming film, Felicity Jones portrayed Ruth Bader-Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex,” Wendi McLendon-Covey played Beverly Goldberg in “The Goldbergs” and significant chunks of the cast of Jewish-centric shows such as “Hunters,” “The Plot Against America” and “Transparent” are not of Jewish descent. One of the few characters not played by Seth Rogen in the Jewish-steeped and brined film “An American Pickle” is played by the non-Jewish Sarah Snook.
While the issue has been discussed for some time, the conversation hit a new peak in recent weeks. Two of the most prominent voices speaking out against the phenomenon are comedians Sarah Silverman and David Baddiel, on their respective sides of the ocean.
Silverman, with more than 12 million followers on Twitter alone, reiterated in no uncertain terms earlier this month how she feels on the topic. Today, when “the importance of representation is seen as so essential, and so front and center, why does ours constantly get breached, even today, in the thick of it?” asked Silverman. “One could argue, for instance, that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface.’”
“I think acting is acting and I get that all this identity politics is annoying,” added Silverman, a comedian and actress whose sister lives in Israel. “I love watching an actor play a character that is wildly different than who they are — but right now, representation fucking matters. So it has to finally also matter for Jews as well.”
The conversation is a nuanced one: can only Jews play Jewish characters? Isn’t acting a profession based on portraying someone other than yourself?
And where does the line get drawn? Could Jewish actors no longer play non-Jewish characters?
Tony Shalhoub, the actor of Christian Lebanese descent who plays the very Jewish Abe Weissman on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” pushed back against the recent outcry.
“I always feel that we’re actors,” Shalhoub told the New York Post last week. “We were trained to — at least I was — to not play myself, to play characters. And so it’s troubling to me that they’re limiting actors.”
Shalhoub added that if “we start to go down that road, I don’t know where it ends. Are people who are members of the Mafia, are they going to be upset that people who haven’t actually committed those types of crimes are playing those roles?”
Baddiel — whose recent book, “Jews Don’t Count,” tackles this issue as one of the many instances where he believes discrimination against Jews is ignored or minimized in ways that it is not against other minorities — said comments like Shalhoub’s are missing the point.
“Neither myself nor Sarah Silverman think anything else but [that] we should let actors act,” Baddiel told The Times of Israel in a recent exchange. “In an ideal world, everyone could play anyone. In the world where we live, more and more, it simply is the case that minority parts have to be played by actors from that minority… So if Jews are somehow exempt from that stricture you have to ask why? And the answer is: because Jews don’t count.”
But the issue is far from black and white, even among those who closely follow and study the matter. Helene Meyers, a professor at Southwestern University and author of the recent book, “Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition,” said she is ambivalent about the casting of non-Jews as Jews.
The “concern about who plays whom is heightened by the fact that antisemitism and insensitivity to Jewish issues have become part of the new normal,” Meyers told The Times of Israel. But, she added, “on the other hand, if the roles and the storylines are informed by deep Jewish knowledge and Jews are involved in the creative process, I’m less concerned about the identity of the actors.”
She also cautioned against drawing parallels to the backlash against the casting of other minority roles. “White Jews have historically made movies — though often in Jewish-unfriendly contexts,” said Meyers. “This means that we are simultaneously insiders and outsiders in the industry. That’s important to remember when making comparisons with the media histories of other groups.”
But Saval rejected any attempts to inject such a narrative into the conversation.
“No one’s saying that Jews aren’t getting work in Hollywood,” Saval said. “The fact is Jews are not being cast in the roles of important Jewish figures. We see it happening all the time.”
She also noted that Jews have historically held prominent roles in the American film industry because, “in most cases, they weren’t allowed to partake in other parts of American life because they were Jews.” Using the prevalence of Jews in powerful Hollywood positions, she said — something that has clearly “not prevented Jews from not getting cast in the roles of iconic Jewish figures” — is conflating the issue and “is not necessarily productive.”
In comments on her podcast, Silverman noted that “of course there are many Jews behind the cameras — especially writers and producers.” But she suggested that there is a “shame and a self-hatred” that plays a role in the stories they tell and their casting choices. “Too often, I think, Jewish writers don’t want to see themselves reflected in art, not the way they see themselves. They want an ideal instead, saying their words and reflecting and representing themselves back at them through crystal blue eyes.”
Many of those most vocal on this issue have pointed out that the roles in question are often those where Judaism and the characters’ Jewish identity are central and pivotal to the role.
“These are people for whom their Judaism played a very specific role in their professional and personal lives,” said Saval, who wrote about the issue in Variety back in June, citing the portrayal by Gary Oldman — who has trafficked in antisemitic tropes — of Herman Mankiewicz in the film “Mank,” the three non-Jewish actresses playing Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” and the Jewish child hiding out in the Holocaust film “Jojo Rabbit” — played by non-Jewish Thomasin McKenzie.
Baddiel suggested that, when it comes to casting minorities in the roles of minority characters, the issue is often less about accuracy but “respect.”
“It’s brilliantly summed up by the deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who said recently ‘Deaf is not a costume,’” said Baddiel. “The true lived reality of being deaf can perhaps only be portrayed by someone who is deaf, otherwise it is only an impression, and impression can blur easily into what can feel like mockery. So the question must then be asked: if deaf is not a costume, why is Jewishness?”
A growing number of voices have brought the conversation to the forefront, driving headlines and think pieces across media outlets.
Actress and new “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik, one of the most vocal Jewish figures in Hollywood, declined to comment to The Times of Israel about the issue, but shared Silverman’s recent comments on it in a Facebook post.
“I’ve been saying this for years,” wrote Bialik. “We need to talk about this. Thank you Sarah.”
The issue was also the subject of a recent buzzed-about Time magazine article by Lilith magazine executive editor Sarah Seltzer, where she suggested that “the idea of letting an actual Jewish actress interpret a Jewish role is pushing a cultural boundary we didn’t realize was still there.”
On a recent podcast episode, Fran Drescher, who created, produced and starred in “The Nanny” as Fran Fine, a groundbreakingly Jewish primetime character, said she fought to keep the role Jewish and tailored to her experiences.
“The character was always written as Jewish because it was created for me,” Drescher told the “All Inclusive” podcast with Jay Ruderman. But CBS asked to switch the “character to be Italian, not Jewish,” she said. “I really dug in my heels and said, ‘I’m sorry, but the character of Fran Fine must be Jewish.’… I’m not Italian, and we can’t write Italian with the richness of specificity that is our brand of comedy.”
Saval said the recent chatter surrounding the issue has her cautiously optimistic that it is being taken more seriously.
“I think the fact that people are continuing to raise awareness about it… I think people are starting to listen,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the systemic change yet, but the fact that the conversation is out there and people are starting to pay more attention — I’m going to look at that as hopefully a positive sign.”
Baddiel said that he and Silverman have been talking about the issue for some time, and he is gratified to see it gaining more traction.
“I’m going to take a tiny bit of credit for radicalizing Sarah Silverman over the issue of Jewish identity,” said Baddiel. “I think via her being outspoken about this, the issue of how Jews are cast is in the conversation, which is great… Whether anything will change I don’t know. I think we are in the process of that.”
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