Joshua Malina is a proud Jew. In his latest role, he plays his polar opposite
“You can’t survive as a Jew, or an actor, if you don’t have thick skin,” Joshua Malina told me, grinning while he pulled on the fresh beard he grew for his current Broadway role in Leopoldstadt.
“I can tell,” I responded. “I’ve seen your Twitter.”
Malina laughs. When he is not performing on Broadway or on a hit television show, he is one of the most unabashedly Jewish figures online. On his Twitter account, he uses the triple parentheses “(((Jew))),” a reclamation of a technique used by neo-Nazis and other antisemites to mark Jews online. He tweets regularly about Jewish holidays, trolls antisemites, drops Talmudic nuggets, retweets calls to end the Israeli occupation (he is a board member of Americans for Peace Now), co-hosts a Jewish podcast and loudly calls out antisemitism. Malina’s most notorious call-out of a famous antisemite was his scathing (and hilarious) piece in The Atlantic titled “Cancel Mel Gibson,” where he demanded to know why Hollywood was still hiring, in his words, a raging antisemite.
Malina’s Jewish bravado and pride could not be more different from that of the character he now plays in Leopoldstadt. Hermann is the head of a large intermarried Viennese family and a proud assimilationist. In a darkly chilling moment in the first act, Hermann brags that his Jewish parents would have been proud of his decision to get baptized as a Catholic (“They were Jews, they knew a bargain when they saw it”).
When we spoke over Zoom recently, I couldn’t help feeling the cognitive dissonance between the warm and friendly mensch before me and the conservative, class-obsessed character he now plays, whose primary want at the beginning of the show is to be the first “Christian of Jewish descent” welcomed into the jockey club.
Boys and girls, you can play dress-up for a living. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s brilliant costumes for @Leopoldstadtbwy. pic.twitter.com/LfdSLJkLXR— (((Jew))) (@JoshMalina) March 7, 2023
Hermann is, at best, conflicted about his Jewish identity, having converted to Catholicism in the late 1800s for social mobility. When I asked Malina if he had ever been uncomfortable leaning into his Jewishness, Malina wholeheartedly shook his head no. “It’s certainly a part of my identity that I would never try to sublimate or tamp down in any way,” he told me. “It never occurred to me.”
I confessed to Malina that, at first read, his character Hermann was the least sympathetic to me. But after rereading the play several times, I found him the most tragic.
At the start of the play, Hermann is devoutly assimilationist, a successful textile factory owner who believes that the acute prejudice that Jews have experienced is a thing of the past. “It’s easy, I think, to think him a fool,” Malina says. “You can sit in the audience and go ‘I know where this is headed, I know my history, and this guy is foolish.’ But I think it also makes you think as you’re sitting there, having probably paid a fair amount of money to watch this piece of theater, how complacent am I feeling?”
Malina drew my attention to a Passover Seder scene in the play., During the Four Questions, Hermann joins in singing, almost under his breath. It’s a moment of connection almost in spite of himself, a link between an assimilated, Catholic-converted Jew and his ancestors.
“He knows the course of the questions,” Malina said passionately, asserting that the moment testifies to the depth of Hermann’s Jewishness, an almost unconscious and unavoidable part of himself that can never be erased, even if Hermann himself tries to.
It was then that I realized Malina was, in fact, ideally suited to play this ambivalent character. That the tension between who the real actor is and the character he plays is embodied in the play itself; a story of Jews and their equivocal relationship to the tribe that binds them.