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The Schmooze

Is It Kosher For Non-Jewish Actors To Play Jewish Characters?

Felicity Jones will star in “On The Basis Of Sex” as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a role that initially went to Natalie Portman. Ginsburg and Portman are Jewish. Jones is not.

The arrival of the glossy biopic will be a welcome distraction for those who have already binged their way through the second season of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” starring Rachel Brosnahan as the madcap Jewish comedian. Brosnahan isn’t Jewish, but says she’s been to a lot of bar mitzvahs. The candy-colored Judaism of “Maisel” was a pleasant break from the Jewy dysfunction on “Transparent,” where the problematic Pfefferman family depended on the moral guidance of Rabbi Raquel, portrayed by the Roman Catholic Kathryn Hahn.

Don’t forget the non-Jew who hunted Nazis this year — Oscar Isaac as an Eichmann captor in “Operation Finale.” Not to mention the non-Jew who played a Jew hunting KKK members — Adam Driver in “BlackKklansman.”

Is it kosher for non-Jewish actors to be play Jews? Does it deserve the outcry met by Scarlett Johansson being cast as a transgender character, or Scarlett Johansson being cast as an Asian character? (What are you doing, Scarlett Johansson?) Or is it just…acting? We asked writers and experts to weigh in.

The question isn’t Can Felicity Jones play a Jew, the question is can she play this Jew? And as somebody who’s known Ruth Bader Ginsburg my entire life, her portrayal is uncanny. And, all due respect to Natalie, I will tell you exactly what Ruth said when she watched the film: “I’m so glad it’s Felicity, nobody else could do it.” There is a very particular alchemy to my Aunt Ruth — the steely public persona, and the joy and humor underneath. Felicity captures that with such incredible detail.

And then there’s the mimicry aspect of the role — sitting on set and watching the way Felicity squints her eyes and purses her lips and holds her body, the way she walks — she captured the essence of my aunt with such incredible detail. [On set] we talked a lot about how Ruth faced discrimination as a woman and as a Jew, but she also faced discrimination because she was from Brooklyn — she was lower class. Felicity would listen to tapes of Ruth from the 70’s [in which] Ruth would cover up her accent, trying to be more appealing to the judges. And I knew that. But what Felicity taught me is, when she would get emotional, she would go all Brooklyn! Felicity uses that as a way of giving you a glimpse into her. I cannot overstate how happy I am that Felicity Jones is Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this movie. There’s nobody else who could have compared.

Daniel Stiepleman, writer of “On The Basis Of Sex” (in theaters December 25)

Acting is a profession and our goal and job as casting directors is to hire the most qualified actor for the role. Kathryn Hahn is wonderful as Rabbi Raquel in Amazon’s “Transparent” and my close friend Grant Shaud is hilarious as Miles Silverberg on “Murphy Brown.” Neither are Jewish but both gave fantastic performances of characters who are Jewish. At the end of her career, Ingrid Bergman played Golda Meir and was incredible! She got the role because she was a great actress. If we are only casting Jewish actors for Jewish roles, it feeds into a racist or religious stereotype that Jews all look a certain way and then we are not open-minded in our casting searches.

Jen Rudin, award-winning casting director and author of “Confessions of a Casting Director” from Harper Collins

(From left) Kathryn Hahn of ‘Transparent,’ Adam Driver of ‘Blackkklansman,’ Rachel Brosnahan of ‘Maisel,’ Oscar Isaac of ‘Operation Finale’ Image by Getty/Forward Montage

To me, when you get a non-Jewish actress playing a Jewish character, essentially what the casting director is saying is that he’s stripped Judaism for all its sexiest parts, and taken the most palatable traits and given them to some more conventionally Eurocentric-looking actress to play on screen.

Its saying that as a culture we want our Jewishness filtered through someone who isn’t Jewish. That Jewishness is more publicly acceptable when it’s done by someone who isn’t Jewish. That being Jewish is just having curly hair (but not too curly!) and wisecracking.

So should non-Jews play Jews? Well, should white people play black characters? Should Asian people play Latinx characters? Is being Jewish a race or an ethnicity or an ethno-religion, whatever the heck that is? In true Jewish form, I’m answering a question with another question, because I don’t have the answers and nobody does. But my gut is telling me no, and when I’m smart, I listen to her.

Shira Feder, writer

Non-Jews should play Jews. Blacks should play whites. Muslims should play Anglicans. Women should play men. Young people should play old people.

The essence of theatre and of fiction is to portray the untrue, to put oneself into other people’s shoes. In fact, Hillel’s teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves could be taken to mean that our quintessential ethical task is in fact to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas comes near that conclusion in some of his writing.

There is a practical, not philosophical, problem with casting, in that external structures skew the casting along the lines of wider social inequities. There are fewer parts for women and other less-powerful communities. So we need to address that, but not by settling into essentialist theater where only 55-year-old straight white-passing Jewish men can play the roles of 55-year-old straight white-passing Jewish men.

That way madness lies, oh, and also the death of acting.

Dan Friedman, executive editor at the Forward

This question has come up a lot in the production process of my show, but from the beginning I just wanted whomever was best for the role. Our cast is comprised of different kinds of Jews, some Orthodox Jews, and people who aren’t affiliated at all or have a different religious background, all playing Jewish characters. I find it beautiful and it doesn’t bother me when non-Jewish actors play Jewish characters. People often tell us that even though some of the roles are played by non-Jewish actors, they look very Jewish. But what does that even mean? I try to avoid sticking to what people think is a “Jewish look” – Jewish people can look like anyone. I think it’s a lot more important for the writers to have a Jewish background in order for the characters to feel authentic.

Leah Gottfried, creator, director, and actor on the hit web series about Orthodox singles, “Soon By You,” on YouTube.

Jewish actresses (from left) Natalie Portman, Carrie Fisher, Gal Gadot, and Scarlett Johansson Image by Getty/Forward Montage

The question is silly, really. It forces us to debate the meaning of a word that has a straightforward definition. Actors act. The task for which they are paid, for which we heap fame on them, is to portray people who are not themselves. Earlier this year, I got into some hot water for defending Scarlett Johansson after she accepted a role as a transgender person. Johansson was ultimately pressured into pulling out of the project, which I believe is a real shame. I argued then, and still believe now, that acting demands impersonation. The idea that Jews would be upset because a non-Jewish actor portrayed a Jewish character in a film or series is abundantly silly. The only question we should ask ourselves when debating who should play what part is: who will do the role justice?

As a people, we have grappled with some very real, very terrifying life and death issues. It wasn’t long ago that millions of our brethren were massacred because they committed the sin of being Jewish. We’re lucky to live in a country where we are free to worship whomever we choose, and where Jews are treated as equals under the law. That said, anti-Semitism is still a pervasive and pernicious force. And aside from our own woes, people around the world are starving, and fighting for simple rights that we take for granted in this country. Those who have the time and energy to get upset about non Jewish actors portraying Jewish characters should channel that righteous indignation towards the world’s real problems.

Daniela Greenbaum, writer

Producing “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish brought out more actors wanting to audition than many other shows at the theater. The universal themes of family, of ethnic persecution are so prevalent today. For our production we were faced with multi-layered needs — we needed strong actors, singers, dancers ( or actors who moved well) and either Yiddish speakers- or people who after coaching could learn the Yiddish. We had 700 applicants for 26 positions, and I would say we ended up with about 200 people who could satisfy all those qualifications. Whether or not they were Jewish wasn’t important. In fact, of the 26 in our company, its about 50% are not Jewish.

Zalman Mlotek, artistic director, National Yiddish Theatre of Folksbiene

There is, of course, no Biblical sin in having non-Jews portray Jewish characters. Some truly talented gentiles have done very well by such roles, including Peter Finch as Yitzhak Rabin and Charlie Chaplin as the Jewish barber in “The Great Dictator.” However, it has too often been the case that non-Jews were unable to capture the gist of the Jewish experience in their portrayals (not to mention their being unable to put their tongues around Hebrew words.) Blythe Danner as a Jewish mother in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” didn’t quite cut it. Many Jewish roles require an innate Jewish sensibility, and it takes Jews who have been enveloped in a Jewish environment to fully embody them.

Thus, Zero Mostel — not a devoutly religious Jew but one steeped in Yiddish culture — could find the essence of Tevye’s soul in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Likewise, when Carol Burnett was asked to play the Jewish performer Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” she turned it down, recognizing that it required a Jewish girl to truly fill the role. So when the need arises for someone to play a full-dimensional Jewish character, I hope producers will not turn to gentile stars whose ability to identify with the role will be limited. Would they turn to Sean Penn to portray Malcolm X? Of course not!

If you want someone who will bring out all the shadings of a Jewish character, cast a Jew.

Rabbi Eliezer Gevirtz, actor in “How I Met Your Mother” and “Friends With Benefits”

The great casualties of non-Jews-as-Jews casting are roles that could break nebbish-y stereotypes. From the postwar period on there has been no shortage of films about real-life Jewish machers involved in a resistance, Mossad or the NYPD. Time after time the roles have gone to goys like Daniel Craig (twice), Eric Bana and Russell Crowe. Jews have been playing hardscrabble Italians (James Caan, Harvey Keitel), gunslingers (Paul Newman) and even Han Solo (Harrison Ford and Alden Ehrenreich) for years. Jewish women kick copious tuchus as Amazon and space-warrior royalty (Gal Gadot, Carrie Fisher and Natalie Portman) and superhero super assassins (the inimitable ScarJo). So would it have killed Hollywood to take a pass on Oscar Isaac and let Jake Gyllenhaal lead the capture of Eichmann in “Operation Finale?”

PJ Grisar, Forward culture intern

My feeling is that it’s ok for actors to play roles outside their own identities, so long as the ability to cross over in that way is equal-opportunity. So it’s fine for a non-Jewish actor to play a Jewish character, as long as Jewish actors have equal opportunities to play non-Jewish characters, which I think is generally the case. But it’s not fine for an able-bodied actor to play a character with a disability, because actors with disabilities rarely have the opportunity to play characters that don’t explicitly have disabilities. Still, I would be alarmed if non-Jewish actors began to be overwhelmingly cast as Jewish characters. That would seem to suggest that there is something lacking in Jewishness that needs a mask to make it palatable audiences. And that would be uncool.

Talya Zax, Forward culture deputy editor

Richard Gere should get unlimited passes to play old Jewish men on the merit of his brutal performance as Norman, in the 2016 film “Norman.” Director Yossef Cedar’s played a sly “conceptual joke” in the film by casting non-Jewish actors as Jews, e.g., Steve Buscemi as Rabbi Blumenthal. Non-Jews play Jews. Jews play non-Jews. All’s fair. Except it’s not, because it’s only because of the Ashkenazi characters’ white skin that they can be played by Protestants and Italians. Get the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast to play the “Norman” ensemble — now that’s a concept.

That Jews with white skin would complain about Jewish characters being portrayed by white actors (and expect the world to share this outrage) is a good example of white privilege. White ethnicities are now more or less sufficiently stewed together that culture-specific movies no longer need the casting quotas of “The Godfather” (about 90% Italian) or “Yentl” (100% Jewish). Just don’t do us dirty: I love Buscemi-as-Blumenthal, but I’m still mad that Angelina Jolie is suddenly Jewish — for one line! — in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Ari Feldman, Staff writer

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