Judicial reform. Israelis taking to the streets. Bibi, Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and the rise of anti-democratic forces in Israel. The specter of Iran. Antisemitic attacks in the United States. The ongoing scourge of terror attacks in Israel.
Is this a case for the ADL? Will the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations be issuing a statement? Will this show up in rabbis’ sermons for the High Holy Days?
Let’s hope not.
But, perhaps, we should unpack this together.
Is it acceptable for gentiles to play Jewish roles?
The short answer: Totally.
The Jews are a people/nation with a religion, culture, and ethos. At different times in Jewish history, different elements of this complex definition have been more prominent than others. For different Jews at different times in their lives, different elements of this complex definition have been more prominent than others. That complexity is an important feature of Jewish identity. It is what makes the Jews the Jews.
But, there is one thing that is not on that list — and that is race and physical characteristics.
True, there was a time when Jews called themselves a race, and there have certainly been times when antisemites have called the Jews a race.
But, that’s the thing. Any definition of what it means to “look” Jewish is rooted in racial ideas that have a way of morphing into bigotry and/or self-loathing and the desire for self-erasure.
And, when we consider the huge numbers of gentiles who have joined the Jewish people through conversion — this should have totally blown the “looking Jewish” thing out of the mikveh water.
So, yes: that means that gentiles can play Jews. Let me remind you of the countless gentiles who have played Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Many actors who have played Shylock — including Junius Brutus Booth, his son Edwin Booth, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham — have been gentiles.
Yes, of course, Jewish actors have also played Shylock: famously, Jacob Adler and Dustin Hoffman. But, you get the idea.
So, too, on the small screen. Kathryn Hahn played Rabbi Raquel Fein on HBO’s “Transparent” (and was quite believable. I was sure that I had attended rabbinical conventions with her. She nailed it). Rachel Brosnahan played Midge in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Her father was played by Tony Shalhoub, an actor of Lebanese ancestry.
And, while we are at it, Helen Mirren is now portraying Israel’s only female prime minister, Golda Meir, in “Golda.”
So, too, it goes the other way — Jews playing gentiles. James Caan played Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” Mark Margolis, who died recently, played Hector Salamanca in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul;” Antonio Nappa in “Oz,” and Carmine Conti in “Your Honor.” (Why are these guys all playing gangsters? Let’s discuss…)
So, this should end the discussion about whether you have to be Jewish to play a Jew. Or, whether a Jew can play a gentile.
If you had to stay in your own ethnic/cultural lane in order to be an actor, you would have a very impoverished world of theater. It’s called acting. That is what actors do.
“What about race?” That’s different. White people playing Black people, Black people playing Asian people — not so fast. It is not because they shouldn’t, in a theatrical sense. It is that they shouldn’t, in a moral and historical sense.
Well, OK. But, do those actors need to wear prosthetic noses?
It’s about looking the part. Leonard Bernstein had a prominent nose. So did Golda Meir. Remember Nicole Kidman in “The Hours?” Also, a prosthetic nose — and she wasn’t even playing a Jewish character.
Shall we list all the actors who gained weight or lost weight in order to play their roles? Are we really saying that people should only look like the characters they are portraying, or that characters should only be played by people who look like them? That roar you’re hearing in the background is the combined voice of makeup artists in Hollywood.
But, it’s a nose. Yes, I get it. The nose and the Jews — that’s a loaded subject. Over the centuries, the prominent nose has been a Jewish signifier. It has been a prominent feature of antisemitic imagery — from the Middle Ages, to the Nazi propaganda newspaper “Der Sturmer,” to modern Jew-haters. Decades ago, I attended a program on Israel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Some of my fellow attendees noted my ethnicity, by pantomiming a large nose and referring to me as Yahud — the Jew. I got it.
The idea of the Jewish nose has also been a prominent part of the way that some Jews have told their Jewish story. In “The Jew’s Body,” Sander Gilman chronicles the history of the Jewish obsession with the nose — which, a generation ago, resulted in the “nose job” being a rite of passage for Jewish girls who wanted to look “less Jewish” — whatever that means.
So, yes — I get it. The nose comes with a lot of Jewish baggage.
But, here’s the thing. Sometimes, a nose is just a nose.
This isn’t antisemitism. It’s acting.
In fact, the Bernstein family themselves made that very clear, in this statement.
Bradley Cooper included the three of us along every step of his
amazing journey as he made his film about our father. We were
touched to the core to witness the depth of his commitment, his
loving embrace of our father’s music, and the sheer open-hearted
joy he brought to his exploration. It breaks our hearts to see any
misrepresentations or misunderstandings of his efforts. It happens
to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. Bradley
chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re
perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have
been fine with it as well… Jamie, Alexander, & Nina Bernstein
But, finally, let’s unpack this controversy just a little bit more.
A little empathy, here, for the Jews. The collective Jewish psyche is raw, for all the reasons that I listed in the opening paragraph — and more.
So, yes — in this fraught environment, it is easy to see how the subject of a nose on a Jewish character is not just an organ for breathing. It signifies. It symbolizes — and that counts. A lot.
Let me say one last thing about gentiles playing prominent figures from Jewish history.
I sense that when gentiles portray historic Jewish figures, that creates its own sense of empathy — not only for those characters and their stories, but for the larger Jewish story.
That is how it worked for Ben Kingsley, when he played Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List.”
This is what Helen Mirren said about portraying Golda Meir:
Golda is one of the most extraordinary characters I’ve ever played. Her history, her commitment to her country, her character in general… she had utter dedication to her country. Her commitment to her country was over everything — over family, over personal contentment, over personal ambition…all I want to do is play great women — and Golda was one of the greatest.
As our parents and grandparents once said: This is good for the Jews.