Does Jewface Exist?

This is an important conversation, but we’ll take a breath before running a campaign to promote Fair Representation of Jews in the Entertainment Industry.
December 2, 2021
Alessandro Nivola and Rachel McAdams in “Disobedience”

A mild controversy began in 2019 with the UK premiere of the Tony-winning musical “Falsettos,” whose opening number is “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” None of the cast or production team were Jewish. There wasn’t even a Jewish director. British Jews are generally quiet when it comes to ethnic outcries, but this led to a high profile letter sent to London’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper criticizing the approach of “Falsettos,” which equated to cultural appropriation since the musical represents Jews, but there was a complete lack of Jews in the show or production team. The letter used the term “Jewface.” This is an important conversation, but we’ll take a breath before running a campaign to promote Fair Representation of Jews in the Entertainment Industry. 

An ironic flipside of the Jewface phenomenon was seen in October when the non-Jewish actor Eddie Marsan faced antisemitic abuse for playing a Jewish anti-fascist character in the BBC drama “Ridley Road.” The prolific actor Marsan commented, “All I did was play a Jew, I dread to think what would’ve happened if I was actually Jewish.”  Meanwhile, Dame Helen Mirren, who also isn’t Jewish, has been branded “racist” and an “Israel worshipper” for playing Golda Meir in an upcoming film.  

Recently I went to the American Embassy in London for my U.S. visa appointment and saw a man I thought I recognized from shul. He had an English accent, and I was sure it was from a synagogue in either Los Angeles or London but I couldn’t quite place him. He was telling stories and making the group around him laugh. Then I twigged, “Oh my God, that’s Sir Simon Russell Beale!”—one of the UK’s most famous theatrical knights whom I’d seen on stage many times. I was doubly-stunned when I saw Adrian Lester, another fantastic actor, next to him, and I went and sat with them awaiting our interviews. They were requesting visas for the Broadway transfer of the hit play “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed by Sam Mendes. “What do you do?” they asked. “I’m an actor.” “What are you going to LA for?” I nearly said, “Dinner at Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory on Pico Boulevard.”  

The Jewface letter also cited “The Lehman Trilogy” since the original cast had an entirely non-Jewish cast playing Jewish characters, as does the Broadway version. The letter questioned “the authenticity of apparent Jewish performances,” but surely the very definition of an actor is to create authenticity, and Beale and Lester are two of Britain’s finest actors. I am torn on this ar-gument, since they are such good actors. The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner, a Jewish New Yorker, said that “acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” In this case, imagine you are Jewish, live truthfully, and do it well. 

The American edition of “Jews Don’t Count” has just been released, a polemic on the unspoken cover-up of contemporary antisemitism by English comedian-writer David Baddiel. He highlights how leftist calls for diversity and minority representation never include Jews, who represent a tiny percentage of the population and are a minority, and also writes about the Jewface conversation.

Baddiel’s polemic explores the high-low bipolar racism against Jews, where we are simultaneously presented the same as other minorities, “as lying, thieving, dirty vile, stinking—but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.”

Baddiel’s polemic explores the high-low bipolar racism against Jews, where we are simultaneously presented the same as other minorities, “as lying, thieving, dirty vile, stinking—but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.” On the question of casting non-Jewish actors to play Jews, he argues that there is a subtle tone of racism, at least in the case of “Falsettos” where “they’re not really playing Jews as individuals. They’re playing Jews as a stereotype. They’re at some level making fun of Jews.” With regards to Al Pacino’s characterization of a Jewish character in “Hunters,” Baddiel points out that Pacino doesn’t take on a Jewish look, but instead he “chose to play the character really f**king Jewishly. His performative mannerisms are full of shrugs and schlemiel-faced tics, his intonation pitted with melancholic question marks. That’s what Jewface is.”

But what about some of the great performances of Jewish characters? Rachel Brosnahan is terrific in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but isn’t Jewish. While there must have been an alternative casting choice with a Jewish actress who has the “lived experience,” it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Maisel as anyone other than Brosnahan. The late Laurence Olivier delivered a brilliant performance as Cantor Rabinovitch, Neil Diamond’s character’s father in “The Jazz Singer,” and was convincing as an Eastern European immigrant. What about non-Jewish Sir Ian McKellen playing the X-Man baddie Magneto who is a Jewish Holocaust survivor? Sir Ian is one of the world’s best living actors. There are many times when talent has to overcome tokenism.

I was especially moved by a performance in the movie “Disobedience,” set in a religious community within London. It was surprising that they managed to find a religious English actor in North London to play the male lead. He was culturally specific, understated and convincing. It turns out that the actor Alessandro Nivola isn’t Jewish, but made friends with Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, NY, attended Shabbat dinners for nine months, and even learned lesser-known customs like negilvasser, the Kabbalistic ritual of rinsing your fingernails upon rising from bed so as to dispel any negative energies that may have entered there during nighttime. Although Alessandro Nivola is neither English nor Jewish, he was the best actor for the job. The two female leads were Rachel McAdam and Rachel Weisz, but the latter is the only Jewish one of the three principals. Weisz is married to the non-Jewish current James Bond actor Daniel Craig, which makes the outgoing 007’s children 100% Jewish. Meanwhile, when it comes to the day before Yom Kippur, who doesn’t like hearing a bit of Neil Diamond’s “Kol Nidrei” from “The Jazz Singer”? It’s easy to forget that his Yiddish-accented father Cantor Rabinovitch was played by the English acting giant Laurence Olivier. Again, not so Jewish. 

Time Magazine ran a piece titled “Why Hollywood’s Jewish women are rarely played by Jewish actors” suggesting subtle racism and subconscious bias from the casting departments. My friend Christine Sheaks, a Hollywood casting director, spoke out against it. Christine now goes by the name of Chaya Shira and spent several years converting to become an Orthodox Jew in Los Angeles. Her many movie credits included casting “Boogie Nights” and resurrecting Burt Reynold’s career in the process by casting him even when fellow peers in the film industry suggested he was past it (Reynolds got an Oscar nomination for the film). 

Sheaks defends the casting choices that led to the culture of non-Jews representing Jews. “I was a casting director for thirty years and I didn’t make choices ‘unconsciously,’ hence flattening out the character’s ethnicity or trying to erase or disregard ethnicity in general by the actor I chose. Rachel McAdams got the role in ‘Disobedience’ because she is a star, she’s a good actress, she’s likeable in controversial material AND the film has a better chance of making its money back with a bankable star. If you can’t get a bankable star, you get the person who you think is most right for the role given the budgetary parameters,” she said.

One possible answer to the Jewface dilemma is to create more film and stage content that has positive representations of Jews and Jewish content. Twenty years ago the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks responded to my question in a public lecture, saying that “Judaism is drama. But it is not drama on the stage. But now we are in a culture where we have to use that instrumentality and I am in favor of using all cultural instrumentalities. What I think Judaism misses most right now is a first-rate religious film director.“

I last met up with Rabbi Sacks for tea in January 2020 at the Beverly Hilton during one of his whistle-stop tours to Los Angeles. If he could visit one more time it would be great to pick up that interaction from 2001 and introduce him to some of Los Angeles’ first-rate entertainment industry professionals who are religiously observant. They include David Sacks (Emmy-winner for “The Simpsons”), David N. Weiss (co-writer of “Shrek 2”) and Jeremy Kagan (director of “The Chosen,” “Golda’s Balcony,” “The West Wing,” and Emmy-winner for “Chicago Hope”). Then there is Jeffrey Schechter (writer of “Beethoven’s 3rd” and), Michael Glouberman (writer of “Malcolm in the Middle”), Jeff Astrof (writer of “Friends”), Michael Borkow (writer of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Friends”) and Ben Winston (Emmy-winning executive producer of “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and “The Grammys”). Their fellow Shabbat-observant col-leagues also include Etan Cohen (writer of “Men in Black 3,” “Idiocracy” and writer-director of “Get Hard”), Saul Blinkoff (Disney Animator/Director on “Pocahontas” and Mulan”), and of course Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Call Me Kat,” “Jeopardy!” and “Blossom”).

While studying theatre at university, we performed the play “God of Vengeance” that was written as a Yiddish-language piece in 1918 by Scholem Ash and caused massive controversy when translated into English, as it included the first ever lesbian kiss seen on Broadway. It’s set in a Polish town where a Jewish couple run a brothel from the basement of their house but want to find a good match for their daughter Rivkele who lives upstairs, so they buy her a Sefer Torah to keep her safer from a Torah perspective. Unsurprisingly it all goes wrong and Rivkele goes downstairs to hook up with one of the working women. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there.

The author in “God of Vengeance”

I was the only Jewish person in our cast and crew, playing the old Rabbi at the age of 19, and became de facto Jewish advisor for the production. It was fun. My classmates willingly learned some highlights from the Shabbat service, and I worked with the props department so they could make Sefer Torahs and a few pairs of tefillin. A good time was enjoyed by all, friends from the local Jewish community loved it, and our Drama Department had its 15 minutes of living la vida kosher. 

The recent Broadway hit “Indecent” is a play-about-a-play, an ingenious telling of the story around “God of Vengeance.” The production recently opened in London with a British cast, and several of the actors aren’t Jewish. This makes no difference to the production. The staging is electric and has superb performances of Yiddish musical numbers that bring to life the thrill of Yiddish theatre. The production includes standout performances from Molly Osborne and Peter Polycarpou, and with their high level of acting ability it is imperceptible that they aren’t Jewish. In this case it is a blended cast, and both the writer and director are very Jewish, and very talented.

In 2008 Los Angeles Times writer Joel Stein wrote a satire on trying to convince the public that Jews run Hollywood, stating the disappointing results of an ADL poll, to which he responded, “I have never been so upset by a poll in my life. Only 22% of Americans now believe ‘the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews,’ down from nearly 50% in 1964.” He was clearly ahead of the curve and might perhaps feel better if he took a fresh poll among our antisemitic friends who run BDS and other similar operations. Hallelujah.

How will the Jewface controversy affect future casting on stage and screen? It won’t, because it never made it close to the level of becoming a controversy. This is the nature of the diaspora Jew, the majority of whom work hard to either hide their Jewishness, present a watered-down identity that does not raise too much attention, or an entirely assimilated version that proves how we blend in and look as non-Jewish as possible—like Israel Beilin, who later became Irving Berlin and wrote “White Christmas.” 

Cultural appropriation is a real issue when there is an entirely non-Jewish cast portraying Jews, but if it is done with respect and sensitivity—and perhaps most importantly done well—then the quality of the art is far more important than the diversity of the casting. The joke about Louis B. Mayer’s studio MGM was that instead of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the initials really stood for Mayer’s Gantze Mishpocha (Mayer’s whole family). Their motto is ars gratia artis, which means “art for art’s sake,” but a huge danger in today’s climate is tokenistic casting where it is more important to represent different ethnic groups rather than hire the best possible actors for the job. 

As if the question of Jewish underrepresentation playing Jewish characters isn’t complex enough, today there is a bigger question facing the community as to who is a Jew. Orthodoxy holds that Judaism can only be passed on through one’s mother, whereas the Reform and Conservative movements accept that it is enough if someone’s father is Jewish. So if an actor is cast as Tevye but only their father is Jewish, or they have had a Reform conversion, from an Ortho-dox perspective they aren’t Jewish. The obvious solution in the case of theater is just to go with someone’s cultural affiliation, whether they are considered Jewish or Jew-ish. If however you are still concerned, you could stand by the stage door after the performance and demand to see the Tevye-actor’s circumcision. 

While certainly there are real issues with cultural appropriation, Jewface is in a different cate-gory from Blackface, Brownface or Yellowface. Like the old Facebook relationship status used to say, “It’s Complicated.” 

The 2015 Academy Awards sparked discord when every one of the 20 acting nominations were given to white actors for the second time in two years. It led to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and prompted diversity requirements so that films could qualify for the Best Picture category. One was that films should include a lead or significant supporting actor who is represented by an “underrated racial or ethnic group.” This was an important change for non-white actors of various ethnicities. Might forced racial representation damage freedom of casting, changing “art for art’s sake” to “art for representation’s sake”? Possibly, and possibly not. One solution is to encourage more movies from minority and underrepresented groups rather than imposing priorities upon the casting process. But is it ironic that the Academy website includes every minority group except Jews? Not really. In “Jews Don’t Count” Baddiel suggests that Jews are not white when it comes to minority persecution and exclusion. I agree. The Jewish people are not limited to any one color or ethnicity. But when it comes to demanding that Jewish roles are only played by Jews, the jury is still out.

A good strategy is to take the lead from Rabbi Sacks’ suggestion and keep developing more religious Jews to create first-rate entertainment content with Jewish themes. We are the people of the book, we have been telling stories for 3000 years, and there is now more demand for streaming content than ever before. Let’s keep writing.

Marcus J Freed is an actor, writer and filmmaker. www.marcusjfreed.com

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