Jew in the City Fights to Change Jewish Representation in Hollywood

“The absence of Jews from 'underrepresented' groupings implies that Jews are over-represented in films, which is simply untrue."
January 24, 2024
Allison Josephs

Jew in the City (JITC) has been advocating for accurate representation of the Jewish community in the media since 2007, but it’s only in January this year that it received attention in Hollywood, thanks to an open letter to the Motion Pictures Academy urging it to give Jews the same consideration as any other minority group, such as Black, LBGTQ and Asians. 

The letter read, in part: “The absence of Jews from ‘underrepresented’ groupings implies that Jews are over-represented in films, which is simply untrue. There are very few films about Jews, aside from ones about the Holocaust. Moreover, when Jewish characters are featured, they are often played by non-Jews, a rare practice for other marginalized groups. While there have always been Jews working in the industry, the industry has only accommodated a certain type of Jew: the toned-down Jew. A more flagrantly looking or observing Jew has never had a home in Hollywood. Even with today’s increased standards of inclusion and diversity, that Jew continues to not be welcome.”

260 actors, directors, writers and producers initially signed the letter (now there are 450 signatures) including Mayim Bialik, Julianna Margulies, Amy Schumer, Debra Messing, David Schwimmer, Nancy Spielberg and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jewish people are excluded from the Motion Picture Academy’s Representation and Inclusion Standards. In doing so, they are invalidating our historic and genetic identity.” – Allison Josephs

“Jewish people are excluded from the Motion Picture Academy’s Representation and Inclusion Standards,” said Allison Josephs, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization.  “In doing so, they are invalidating our historic and genetic identity. Jews must be included in these standards.”

Josephs isn’t an actress and doesn’t work in the entertainment industry. She is an Orthodox woman, living with her husband and four children on the East Coast.

This year, as well as last, she attended Sundance Film Festival, where on Jan. 21 she hosted a discussion panel about the need to debunk tropes about Jewish people and Israel in the media. 

How this religious woman found herself advocating for Jewish representation in the movies is a story in itself. In a phone interview with the Jewish Journal, Josephs said that at first her main goal for JITC was to correct Orthodox depiction in the media. She has no clue how far it’s going to go. 

“I was raised to hate Orthodox Jews, although I was a proud Jew.  There was kind of a delineation in our home which was: there are normal good Jews and then the weird extremist ones. I realize now that there’s a certain amount of internalized shame in classifying different Jews. I was raised Conservative and became observant in my teen years based on an existential crisis. When I was eight, a father in my school had a mental breakdown and killed both of his kids and himself. This launched me into seven years of panic attacks and at the end of this, I met a Modern Orthodox teacher at an after school Hebrew high who was so much more normal than anything I’d ever seen in the media in regards to Orthodox Jews. I slowly started to learn more about my heritage and the beauty of the Jewish text and became more observant.”

Josephs said that her family and friends thought she had lost her mind. She had non-stop arguments with her father about this. In the end however, he gave in to her constant requests that he learn more about Judaism. “After about a year of studying, when he was almost 50 years old, he said to me: ‘You were right and I was wrong, and it’s time to play catch up. He, my mother and both of my sisters all became Orthodox. Today, my parents have 14 Orthodox grandchildren. Twelve of them live in Israel.”

In 2005, a journalist visiting from Spain was working on a story in Brooklyn. She noticed the presence of religious Jews, a sight unfamiliar to her in her country due to historical events. “Someone who saw her Craigslist post seeking an interview with an Orthodox woman sent it to me and said: ‘Quick, answer this before some crazy person does,” recalled Josephs. “The next day, she came over, and we chatted for three hours. After she left I saw that there were so many things she misunderstood. Everything she thought about me was the exact opposite of my life and I realized that we had a major PR problem.”

As Josephs started exploring various ideas on how to approach this problem, a transformative development occurred.  She watched a show on TV called “Lonely Girl 15” delving into a life of a teenage girl. “I thought, well, maybe I could make a show about what it’s like to be an Orthodox Jew. I’m Jewish, I live in the city, I’ll become ‘Jew in the city’. This founding idea aimed to improve representation by sharing my perspective, rather than relying on external groups with their biases and judgments about my life. Thus, Jew in the City operated with a focus on Orthodoxy until 2021. Our approach involved creating original content on social media, addressing problematic content and articles and establishing relationships with reporters for positive coverage, with the ultimate goal of reaching Hollywood, even though the path was initially unclear.”

The letter to the Academy of Motion Pic-tures was only sent this year, but the seeds for it began a few years ago when she  no-ticed a shift in the way Israelis were por-trayed. “They turned from these helpful and good-hearted Mossad agents to those cruel and vicious ones. In ‘Law & Order: Orga-nized Crime,’ there’s a mobster who’s Israeli and in ‘The Lincoln Lawyer,’ the Anton Shavar character is a very vicious Israeli. In ‘Ramy’ there is horrible footage of the IDF and in ‘The Idol,’ Chaim’s character is super cruel.”

The tropes surrounding Jewish whiteness and power often lead to people perceiving them as the ultimate oppressors who need to be taken down. Joseph remarked, “Shows like ‘Unorthodox’ and ‘My Unorthodox Life’ further contribute to the negative portrayal of Orthodox Jews,” while ‘Fauda,’ ‘Jewish Matchmaking,’ and ‘You’re So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah’ offer great representation.

Jonathan Prince, a Jewish producer and screenwriter who collaborated with JITC on a documentary about the history of Jewish depictions in media, said he hopes the JITC Hollywood bureau will help bring a change in how Jewish people are portrayed in movies and bring a wider range of Jewish identities. 

“When I was coming of age as a writer, an older Jewish writer told me: There is an old saying that says: ‘Write Yiddish, cast British,’ and it stuck with me. There is an assumption among non-Jews that somehow we’re in charge or we’re in control, and nothing could be further from the truth. We operate from the same fears of prejudice and fear of being targeted as any other minority.” 

Prince said that when writers do write about Jews, it’s often tainted by clichés. “It will be always this Jew character who is eating or cares too much about money or is worried about his health. What we are trying to do is create Jewish characters that are relatable.  When we write a Christian character, we don’t talk about Christian tropes, but we do so when we write about a Jewish character. It would be a great victory when we would be able to write about a Jew who wears a kippah or a Star of David for example, without talking about his Jewishness.”

Prince adds that when the script talks about a Jewish character, it’s important to have a Jewish writer in the room, “just like when you write about a Black character or a gay one. You can’t write those characters without having someone who really understands those characters, who is coming from their own communities.” 

In the summer of 2021, Malina Saval, then a feature editor at Variety, wrote an article on how Hollywood caricatures contribute to the rising of Jew hatred. Josephs contacted her excitedly and asked what can be done to change that. But Saval didn’t sound optimistic. She felt that despite awareness, little action would be taken in Hollywood. In passing she mentioned the name Sue Obeidi and told Josephs: “She writes great things about Muslims in Variety.”

“So I Googled her name and I couldn’t  believe it, she runs this thing called Muslim Hollywood Bureau and they have relationships with every studio and network and they’re putting proud and knowledgeable Muslim consultants and writers in the writing room. I was both in awe but also completely jealous because I can’t understand like how did they figure this out and we didn’t.  I thought we run Hollywood.  I decided to go on to Instagram to rant to our fans. As I’m trying to tag The Muslim Hollywood Bureau I accidentally tagged the Black Community Bureau, and I was like: Wait a minute, the black community has this too?”

Josephs didn’t waste much time and in March 2022, the Hollywood Bureau was opened. A few months later, Josephs arrived in L.A. and held a meeting with a group of people in the industry.

A meeting of the Hollywood Bureau of JITC

Actor Mark Feuerstein was there too. “It was in the wake of Oct. 7th and at the time the world found it challenging to support a country who just had been attacked in the worst possible way. We felt like we are not perfectly protected by our Guild, SAG, WGA. It wasn’t easy to get them to give a statement of support and the world had been silent too. So we gathered and discussed everything from our frustration to how we as Jews are represented and underrepresented in a story told. We felt we need more protection and wanted to safeguard the interest of Jews in the media.”

At that first meeting, Josephs asked participants to speak about their experiences of antisemitism within Hollywood. The letter to the Academy wasn’t even discussed. “We originally drafted it in August and only started to revisit it again in December. We saw news articles about the new motion picture diversity standards coming into play soon and when I posted an article about it on LinkedIn, a commenter said: You know that the Motion Picture Academy has opened up a portal for feedbacks? So once I saw that I thought, Okay, let’s go and write a response.”

In the letter, Josephs wrote, “While many mistakenly believe that Judaism is only a religion, Jews are actually an ethnic group … with a varied spiritual practice that not all observe. Jews are an indigenous people to the Middle East with a continuous presence there for over 3,000 years. ”She sent her letter to a trusted advisor who said “This is brilliant. If you get more signatures, I’ll sign it.”

“I thought, ‘Oh great, I’ll get more signatures’, but I never had any idea that we would get so many and from so many top people, so it really feels like a miracle. The response from Jews has been incredible. So much pride that Jewish celebrities and major executives are finally talking about this long overdue issue. One actress who signed the letter told me that a Jewish mom at school told her the letter made her emotional. The reality is that Hollywood has always had a Jewish problem and when you speak openly about a problem, you can start to correct it.”

Thus far, the feedback from WGA has been positive; however, there has been no response yet from the Academy. Despite the increasing number of signatures, there are many notable names that are missing from it and one can only wonder why. 

Thus far, the feedback from WGA has been positive; however, there has been no response yet from the Academy. Despite the increasing number of signatures, there are many notable names that are missing from it and one can only wonder why.

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