Take a peek at 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 some in Hollywood have labeled “Jewface.”
The term refers to a non-Jew playing a Jew with stereotypical Jewishness front-and-center. Think sporting frizzy hair or invoking a heavy New York accent and Yiddish inflection. It was not a historical practice in the same way racist Blackface was in minstrel shows.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has addressed this issue on her podcast, frequently pointing out that Jewish actresses never seem to score roles as Jewish characters. At the end of September, she discussed a Time article on the subject when Kathryn Hahn was cast as Joan Rivers in a limited series about the late comedian’s life. Hahn is not Jewish. (USA TODAY confirmed the project is no longer moving forward at Showtime; a rep did not comment on if the casting backlash played a part in that decision.)
Silverman said that Hahn did nothing wrong – but a long history of non-Jews playing Jews has run rampant in Hollywood. “In a time 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?” Silverman asked.
Jewish actors – and actresses in particular – are often not cast in Jewish roles, which experts say propagates stereotypes and is symptomatic of Hollywood’s ongoing reckoning with inclusion. Broach the topic with caution and sensitivity.
“Questions of representation and minstrelsy, and appropriation are tricky enough, and then there’s this whole issue of whether people who aren’t Jewish should play Jews,” says Judy Klass, senior lecturer 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 is becoming more open than ever before in decades.”
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Eastern European Jews founded Hollywood studios decades ago, but they didn’t make many movies about Jews – especially in the 1930s as antisemitism grew around the world, Klass says. If a film called for a Jewish character, a gentile would almost reflexively get cast in that role.
“That’s a long-term problem in Hollywood,” Klass says.
Classic examples of this through the years run the gamut: Natalie Wood as the title character of “Marjorie Morningstar”; Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex”; Rachel Brosnahan as the title character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”; Kathryn Hahn as Rabbi Raquel on “Transparent”; and Jane Lynch as the upcoming 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,” Klass says. “And Jewish women are so often stereotyped in ugly ways that when there’s a role like a romantic lead, it’s such a rare thing that I wish that Jewish women could play it.”
Jewish actresses like Barbra Streisand, Gal Gadot, Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone and Rachel Weisz have certainly had tremendous (and Academy Award-winning) opportunities. But more instances of Jewish women playing Jewish characters and more opportunities in creating their own stories would ensure further representation.
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Silverman pointed to Rachel Bloom and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as examples of Jewish women writing, producing and starring in their own shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Broad City.” Comedy, Silverman said, has always made more room for Jews.
Still, few roles for Jewish women exist. And when those roles do exist, they rely on stereotypes, explains Klass. Like a nagging Jewish mother (think Mrs. Wolowitz on “The Big Bang Theory”) or a spoiled Jewish American Princess (think Shoshanna Shapiro on “Girls.)”
This ignites a wildfire of problems when no Jews are involved at all. A production of “Falsettos” in the West End in 2019 was criticized by Jewish Brits because no Jews were cast; the show relies on Jews making jokes about themselves.
The issue remains thorny, though: If someone like Meryl Streep, who played the Jewish character of Ethel Rosenberg in “Angels in America,” was perfect for a role, should producers deny casting her as such?
“One reason it’s tricky is no one knows exactly what Jews are,” Klass says. “Because people who are not very religious are still Jews. Many of them feel culturally Jewish. Many people who want to completely assimilate would still be considered Jewish by certainly Hitler, but also modern white supremacists. It’s a very murky issue.”
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But some don’t find it all that murky. “I don’t think it’s problematic generally, that non-Jews are playing Jews,” says Michael Berkowitz, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London. There are much weightier issues for Jews in the U.S. to focus on – the dangerous antisemitic QAnon, for example.
He thought “Jewface” might make for a fascinating “Curb Your Enthusiasm” plot – and it turns out, it is one this season: Larry David (as a fictional version of himself) tries creating a new show called “Young Larry” a la “Young Sheldon” and is blackmailed to cast a non-Jewish Latina girl as a young Jewish girl.
Berkowitz adds that Jews exist across racial lines, and it’s problematic to think of them as a monolith 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 due to stereotypes.”
Silverman acknowledged that more pressing problems lurk in the world – but recognizes something can be important in a different way: “Are there worse things I could be kvetching about? Yes, of course. But here we are.”
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