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Let Non-Jews Play Jews

Over the last few years, we’ve seen Felicity Jones in “RBG,” Adam Driver in “BlackKkKlansman,” Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and now Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.
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October 13, 2021
Rachel Brosnahan (Amazon Studios) / Kathryn Hahn (Rich Polk/Getty Images)

This week on The Sarah Silverman Podcast, Silverman discussed an issue that has recently been circulating in Jewish discourse: Jewface. Setting aside the cringe-worthy name, “Jewface” refers to the phenomenon of non-Jews playing Jewish characters on television and in film—and yes, “phenomenon” is the correct word. Over the last few years, we’ve seen Felicity Jones in “RBG,” Adam Driver in “BlackKkKlansman,” Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and now Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein. To add insult to injury, the Leonard Bernstein estate has liscensed its music to Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein biopic, refusing another in-production Bernstein biopic starring Jake Gyllenhaal, a Jew. 

In an age where the words “representation,” “inclusion” and “equity” permeate our culture so profoundly, it’s no shock that many Jews have publicly criticized the practice of hiring gentile actors to portray iconic Jewish figures. In “Jews Don’t Count,” a commentary on the exclusion of Jews from left-wing identity politics, David Baddiel doesn’t argue that non-Jews should never play Jewish characters, just that the double standard between Jews and other minority groups in the eyes of the Hollywood elite is hypocritical. One would be naive to deny this. The Academy Awards now mandate that in order for a film to be nominated for best picture, it must meet one of three specific criteria: feature one lead actor from a marginalized group, have a cast comprised of at least 30 percent from a marginalized group, or have a main storyline centered around an “underrepresented group.” This, of course, is performative nonsense which does nothing to challenge racism, which very much exists in this country, but alas, the millionaires of the silver screen need some way to sleep at night. Baddiel merely acknowledges that the contemporary sensitivities of Hollywood oddly do not extend to us, made most clear by non-Jews constantly serving as conduits for Jewish stories. 

Yes, there is a kind of magic that can accompany a Jew playing a Jewish character. Barbra Streisand films captured the heart of our community because of her iconic Jewish look, and Beanie Feldstein’s portrayal of Fanny Brice in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” promises the same thrill. Yet still, my impulse to pursue this fight conflicts with my love of the performing arts, and with my sense of rationality. Too many Jews understand “wokeness” to be a problem for the Jewish people, but propose solutions that instead reinforce its influence rather than rebel against it.

Casting a television series based on who shares “lived experiences’’ with the character rather than who can better emulate those experiences is not just gatekeeping art, it’s a recipe for art of diminished quality. 

I grew up deeply involved in the theatre. I have performed in dozens of productions from preschool to college, each time asked to bring to life a person created on a page. As I grew older, these characters became more complex and challenging, but what else is acting if not the pursuit of mastering the art of pretending? From years of theatre classes, I know that to excel in showbusiness is to have the confidence to play a Christian man, a heterosexual man, a disabled man, a German man or a transgender man. I am none of these things, but I can look like these things, and if I can portray them successfully in front of an audience, it is a testament to talent, not an obstacle to social progress. Casting a television series based on who shares “lived experiences’’ with the character rather than who can better emulate those experiences is not just gatekeeping art, it’s a recipe for art of diminished quality. 

Timothée Chalamet is not a gay actor, but it is my strong opinion that nobody could have played the character of Elio Perlman in “Call Me By Your Name” better. Neil Patrick Harris is gay, and yet mastered the role of the handsome womanizer Barney Stinson in “How I Met Your Mother.” The idea of meritocracy in art used to be taken for granted, but this was before holding the group in higher regard than the individual became a central component of American life, dictating how movies should be made and which stories should be told. 

Of course, there are exceptions, notes and asterisks. First, one must look the part in order to play a part, hence why I am uncomfortable with the word “Jewface,” which references the outright racism of blackface performance. A white non-Jew playing a light-skinned Jew is not the same thing as a white person playing a Black person. Second, striving for more diversity in film is obviously a net positive, but not when it is mandated. Finally, a Jew should play a Jew, but he should have earned the part as a result of his acting prestige, not his Judaism or Jewish ethnicity.

Acting is the profession of stepping into another’s shoes, of living someone else’s life to better understand the human condition. If similarities between actor and character are required to create life on stage or screen, we can kiss another institution goodbye to the illiberal wrath of identity politics.


Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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