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The secret Jewish history of Meryl Streep

In a pair of classic films, the great American actor played a ‘righteous Gentile’

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published on June 22, 2021

If you visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, you will hear her voice (along with that of Itzhak Perlman) narrating the self-guided headphone tour. She has portrayed several Jewish writers in films, and early in her career, she appeared in two groundbreaking Holocaust-themed works. She has played a rabbi and a Jewish therapist, and she even long believed that her family traced its lineage back to Dutch Jews of Sephardic origin. There is an awful lot that’s Jew-ish about Meryl Streep — except that she’s not Jewish.

Streep, the most lauded actress of the past 40 years (with a record 21 Oscar nominations and 32 Golden Globe nominations), turns 72 today. When Streep appeared on Henry Louis Gates’ genealogical TV program “Faces of America” in 2010, she was surprised to have Gates dispel her lifelong belief that her father’s roots traced back to a Sephardic family in the Netherlands. The result of Gates’s genealogical research and DNA testing showed that in fact the Streeps were really the Streebs of Loffenau, Germany. Gates did discover, however, that Streep shares ancestral connections with Mike Nichols, the Jewish filmmaker with whom Streep worked extensively throughout her career. Go figure.

The greater public was first introduced to Streep in 1978 through her award-winning roles in the post-Vietnam drama “The Deer Hunter” and in the groundbreaking, four-part TV miniseries “Holocaust.” The latter program was one of the first mainstream dramatizations portraying life in Nazi Germany, including violence against Jews on the streets and in death camps. (The image that the show returned to during commercial breaks was one of Jews being locked inside a synagogue subsequently set on fire, causing immense anguish to my family, as that was precisely what happened to some of our relatives.)

Streep played a German woman married to an artist from an assimilated Jewish family. The series spanned the years 1938 to 1945, and the story of the couple’s two families delineated the outlines of the Shoah. While intended primarily for an American audience, the program proved to be a cultural watershed in Germany, where an estimated 50 percent of the population tuned in. The soap-opera-ish TV drama kickstarted a nationwide soul-searching and concerted efforts among Germans to confront their sordid historical legacy.

Just a few years later, Streep would again portray a “righteous gentile,” this time in the 1982 film adaptation of William Styron’s novel, “Sophie’s Choice.” The story flashes back and forth between her character’s life in Germany, where she wound up in Auschwitz for aiding the resistance, and New York City, where she became entangled in a relationship with a troubled lover, Nathan Landau, played by Kevin Kline.

But even before “Sophie’s Choice,” Streep followed up the watershed drama “Holocaust” with a role in another cultural breakthrough, 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the first Hollywood movie to portray the complexities of modern divorce and to explore issues surrounding fatherhood, female self-actualization, and child custody. While there was nothing ostensibly Jewish about the Kramers, the book upon which it was based was written by Jewish author Avery Corman, and Streep’s onscreen husband was played by Jewish heartthrob Dustin Hoffman. According to Vanity Fair, “[I]t was received less as a movie than as a cultural benchmark, a snapshot of the fractured American family, circa now.”

Streep’s role opposite Jack Nicholson in the 1986 move “Heartburn” was loosely based on the relationship between one of America’s best-known Jewish celebrity couples: journalist Carl Bernstein and screenwriter Nora Ephron, who penned the film. Mandy Patinkin was originally cast in the Bernstein role, but after one day of filming, everyone (including Patinkin) agreed that it was best to find someone else for the role, which is when Nicholson was brought in by Streep’s cousin-to-the-nth degree, director Mike Nichols.

Streep reunited with cousin Mike in 1990 to make “Postcards from the Edge,” in which she played the lead role of a singer/actress and recovering drug abuser. The screenplay was written by Carrie Fisher, daughter of famed Jewish singer/actor Eddie Fisher, based upon Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1987. In the process of making the film, Streep became great friends with Fisher, and she is godmother to the late Fisher’s only child, Billie Catherine Lourd.

In 1991, Streep played the love interest to writer/director Albert Brooks in his afterlife rom-com, “Defending Your Life.” The premise behind the film — that after we die we are obligated to give a judgement and accounting for our lives before G-d – closely resembles the Jewish concept of a din v’ cheshbon – literally, “a judgment and accounting.”

In the 2002 film, “Adaptation,” Streep portrayed real-life Jewish-American author Susan Orlean. Director Spike Jonze adapted the metafictional film from Orleans’s nonfiction book, “The Orchid Thief.” The next year, Streep reunited with Mike Nichols for his epic TV adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” in which she played a handful of roles, including Ethel Rosenberg and a rabbi officiating at a funeral.

In the 2005 film, “Prime,” Streep played the fictional Lisa Metzger, an Upper West Side Jewish therapist treating a 37-year-old woman (played by Uma Thurman) in love with a much younger man, who turns out to be Metzger’s own 23-year-old son. Metzger is plunged into an internal conflict – does she maintain her laissez-faire attitude over the May-December relationship as she would with any other two people, or does her inner Jewish mother override her clinical objectivity in order to protect her son and to fuss over the fact that he is dating a gentile? Never mind the fact that in real life as soon as she had made the discovery she would have (hopefully) recused herself as the woman’s therapist; the film allows Streep to indulge her performance as one of the most Jewish characters she ever played, albeit one that fell back on stereotypes of overbearing Jewish mothers.

In 2014, Streep publicly blasted film-industry legend Walt Disney as a “gender bigot,” a racist, and a “hideous anti-Semite” who formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby, thereby taking on the real-life role of “righteous gentile” that she had perfected on the screen.

And, in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 political drama, “The Post,” Streep played Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, whose family was Jewish on her father’s side.

Happy birthday, Meryl Streep, and ad me’ah v’esrim.


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