Last week, social media once again surprised me, when I posted an article on Facebook, from Variety, entitled, Too Jewish For Hollywood: As Antisemitism Soars, Hollywood Should Address Its Enduring Hypocrisy In Hyperbolic Caricatures of Jews. The article reviews a long list of casting issues related to Jewish characters played by non-Jews, highlighting a particular problem with the casting of non-Jewish women as Jewish characters.
While I always read the entire article before I share it on social media, since I know that many people do not read past the headline, I will often pull out a quote that I find particularly meaningful from the article. In this case, I pulled out the following quote.
“In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Jewish heroine Midge is played by non-Jew Rachel Brosnahan. In “On the Basis of Sex,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the modern-day thinking Jewish woman’s pin-up for her groundbreaking contributions to constitutional law, is played by non-Jewish British actor Felicity Jones. And in Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” Jewish second-wave feminists Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem are played by Tracy Ullman, Margo Martindale and Rose Byrne — none of whom are Jewish. Julianne Moore (not Jewish), also played Steinem in Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias.” And in ABC’s long-running sitcom “The Goldbergs,” shopaholic balabusta Beverly Goldberg is played by non-Jewish comedian Wendi McLendon-Covey. Even Elsa, the adolescent “Jew in the Wall” in Taika Waititi’s Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit,” is played by non-Jewish actor Thomasin McKenzie.My current favorite: in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming Golda Meir biopic, Helen Mirren (and, yes, the Oscar-winner is an inarguably gifted actor), will play Israel’s lone female prime minister, an iron-fisted global leader who commandeered Israel to victory during the Yom Kippur War. Because nothing says Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised kibbutznik-turned-“gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people” — a political figure who embraced her “ugliness” as a political asset and whom David Ben Gurion was fond of calling “the best man in the government”—than a regal British Dame with ancestral ties to Russian nobility.As Sarah Silverman, who speaks freely of oft being considered “too Jewish” to play certain roles, noted on her podcast and on “The Howard Stern Show” last November: “Lately it’s been happening — if that role is a Jewish woman, but [if] she is courageous, or she deserves love, or has bravery, or is altruistic in any way, she’s played by a non-Jew.”If Jews controlled Hollywood, it’s fair to say this would not be happening.”
My surprise is is that what I thought was a well written, fully documented article demonstrating clear evidence of anti-semitism in Hollywood, provoked a torrent of unexpected reactions to my post, with a total of 67 comments to date. (Note: I have restricted the privacy settings so that only my Facebook friends can see it, as I do not want to invite trolls who may attack my friends). There were multiple threads of comments from both Jews and non-Jews alike, which are worth exploring further herein.
Is it really anti-semitism?
One friend reflected on Hollywood history stating:
When Hollywood studios all were headed by Jews, they insisted that Jewish actors change their names to sound WASP: Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall, etc.
…to which I responded:
Because they understood that anti-semitism would wreck their careers.
A sub-theme about whether or not casting non-Jews as Jewish characters is anti-semitism focused on an argument that if the acting is good enough, it should not matter whether or not what the background of the actor or actress is. The irony of this argument is that many of my friends who made such an argument would argue in other places (such as politics) that “representation matters” even though we should all know that having a Black man on the Supreme Court such as Clarence Thomas has not helped, and indeed, has probably hurt Black people.
One friend even asked me who I would cast as Jewish female characters instead of these non-Jewish actresses. Since I am not a casting director, I demurred. However, I did decide to see if there was a good list of Jewish actors and actresses, and found this remarkably long list demonstrating that there is no shortage of Jewish actresses.
Isn’t it a choice to be Jewish?
Another thread focused on the difference between Jewish identity-focusing solely on religion, compared to racial identity. These comments demonstrated a clear lack of understanding that while Judaism certainly is a religion and some Jews choose not to practice the Jewish religion, for a variety of reasons, unlike some other religions-particularly Christianity, being Jewish is not a choice.
There are many reasons why being Jewish is not a choice. From a Jewish perspective, it is not a choice because Jewish identity is wrapped up in many things that go beyond religious practice, including culture, peoplehood, and national identity.
Perhaps even more important is the historical reality that a long line of anti-semitic tyrants and the people who followed them do not care whether or not Jews practice their religion. The Nazis did not care whether or not Jews were religiously observant, and they did not give Jews a chance to renounce their Judaism before they were sent to the gas chambers.
In fact, contrary to the historical stereotype that the 6 million Jews who were massacred in the Holocaust were all orthodox Jews with strict religious practices, approximately half of those slaughtered Jews did not observe Jewish practices. Indeed, the Nazis adopted American Jim Crow racial laws defining who was Black when they adopted their Jewish racial codes, and just as many states forbade Black people with even one drop of Black blood from marrying white people along with many other discriminatory laws and acts, the Nazis slaughtered Jews who may have only had one drop of Jewish blood.
Does it Matter?
The issue of whether it matters had 2 sub-themes. First, some questioned whether the actual identity (Jewish or not) matters if the actor or actress is convincing enough in their role. Of course, there are multiple problems with his argument.
First, even if the actor or actress is convincing in their role, the predominance of casting non-Jewish actresses in Jewish roles, suggests employment discrimination, which in and of itself is not only problematic, but is in fact, illegal.
Second, and this is sometimes only understood by Jewish people, as I said in response to one such comment:
An actor who is Jewish has a higher likelihood than a non-Jewish actor to have certain internal memories (e.g., yiddishkeit, fear of persecution due to family members slaughtered in the Holocaust) that will make them more likely than non-Jewish actors without those memories to be able to convincingly portray themselves as Jewish.
I mentioned an example from another movie, when I told an Italian friend that I thought Cher was great in Moonstruck, and he responded that as an Italian, Cher was completely unconvincing to him that she was Italian in that movie.
Third, one of my friends, who had already commented many times in this thread, suggested, “it doesn’t matter what any of us think.”
To this I responded:
I gave up doing anything that doesn’t matter a long time ago and I gave up arguing for the sake of argument a very long time ago.
Life is too short to spend my time doing anything that doesn’t matter.
As a civil rights attorney, I only argue about things that matter.
A very long time ago, when I was in high school, a Rabbi who was teaching me, explained that time is precious and it is a sin to waste it. That lesson has stayed with me throughout my life. Time is something we cannot get back. If we waste it by doing things that do not matter, we can never get it back. That is why I told my son, when I found out that a dear friend had died suddenly of a heart attack, that we should, “Treasure Each Day.”
Of course, this does not mean that we should not relax and sit quietly from time to time. If that is what our bodies and minds need, we are doing something that matters by engaging in self-care. But purely wasting time on things that do not matter whatsoever is something I simply will not do, and when others waste my time, it makes me angry. Life is too short and too important to waste time as nobody can ever get that time back.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive effective systems change, contact me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, by visiting my website.