11 Best Performances by Non-Jewish Actors Playing Jews in the Movies

Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio Inspire Our List

Kafkaesque Performance: Anthony Perkins on the set of ‘The Trial’ with Jeanne Moreau and director Orson Welles.
AP Photo
Kafkaesque Performance: Anthony Perkins on the set of ‘The Trial’ with Jeanne Moreau and director Orson Welles.

By Adam Langer

Published February 20, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Observers of the convergence of Jewish and mainstream American culture will be keeping a close watch on this year’s Academy Awards in which — for the first time in movie history as far as the Forward can tell — the two leading contenders for the Best Actor award are non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters.

In “American Hustle,” Christian Bale gives an uncharacteristically sympathetic performance as Irving Rosenfeld, a schlumpy con artist who looks as if he might have been drawn by Dave Berg in a 1970s issue of Mad Magazine. Meanwhile, in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio plays what seems to be an amped-up version of, well, Leonardo DiCaprio, even if he happens to be named Jordan Belfort. For our money, DiCaprio’s is the more entertaining performance, while Bale provides the more impressive feat of acting.

Either way, this has led us to try to compile a brief and thoroughly subjective list of the best gentile actors in Jewish roles. There is, of course, a problem with definitions. What defines “Jewish,” for example?

And, while we’re on the subject, what do we mean by “best”? If we take it to mean most memorable and iconic, then we’d have to include, say, Charlton Heston as Moses. If we take “best” to mean an actually good display of acting, we’d have to lop Mr. Heston off our list.

We’ve also left off some fairly obvious contenders like, say, Sir Ben Kingsley in “Schindler’s List” — which strikes us as a fine and competent performance but not among the actor’s most memorable. We briefly considered Joe Mantegna’s turn as a detective in David Mamet’s “Homicide,” a film we liked when it first came out but one we imagine hasn’t aged very well. So, with apologies for our difficulties with definitions and our inherent prejudices, we present, in chronological order, our Top 11 Non-Jewish Actors in Jewish Roles.

1. Charlie Chaplin as the Jewish Barber in “The Great Dictator” (1940)
One of the greatest films of all time in which Chaplin plays both a version of his signature Little Tramp character and the Tomainian dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Chaplin blends comedy and pathos with — in the film’s final speech — a needed glimmer of hope. For the record, we’re discounting unproven rumors about Chaplin’s possible Jewish heritage.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.