Medical experts are calling on the federal government to introduce universal access to self-collection for cervical screening, a move they say would cement Australia’s position…
Several years ago, a non-Jewish film producer turned to me and announced, casually and with an air of arrogance and ignorance reserved particularly for bigots, “Jews control Hollywood.”
He assured me this was a compliment, as many antisemites are wont, trotting out Neal Gabler’s seminal text on the subject, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” as evidence. But it was clear that said producer had either never read Gabler’s book, or missed one of its key points entirely: the founding producers of the film biz were Jewish, most of them Eastern European immigrants, excluded and ostracized from virtually every other industry in America.
William Fox, Carle Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer — they created Hollywood out of collective necessity, a decidedly human desire to realize the American Dream. They were not wanted anywhere else. But if these pioneering studio heads were Jewish, the majority of directors, writers and actors were not. Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawkes — these were the artists largely shaping early 20th century cinema in the U.S.
In short, there is a core etymological difference between invent and control.
This was not, of course, the first time I’d heard uttered the weary and delusional trope that Jews, who comprise roughly 0.2 % of the world’s total population, are somehow at the totalitarian helm of an industry that, per the U.S. Dept. of Labor, supports some 2.6 million jobs. Growing up Jewish in post-Holocaust America, I’ve experienced antisemitism in all its various nefarious forms, from violent physical assaults to passive microaggressions shrouded in the guise of woke intellectualism.
But, for whatever reason — aside from the well-documented epigenetic trauma, antisemitism can breed introspection in its objects of hatred — said producer’s assertion that Jews dominate decision-making in Hollywood prompted me to examine the years working in the film industry in which I, a Jew, had zero decision-making power.
In 1997, after graduating from USC with an MFA in screenwriting, I spent that summer penning a semi-autobiographical script that would ultimately land me a deal at a major motion picture studio. Before sending it out, however, my then-agent advised me to make the storyline “less Jewish.” Could we change the Jewish characters to Irish-Catholic ones? she asked. We could, so I did. Because I was new to the biz and assumed that is what one needed to do in order to work as a screenwriter.
In truth, it wasn’t difficult. I grew up in Boston, a city with the highest percentage of Irish ancestry in the United States. I wore green on St. Patrick’s Day and sat through annual elementary school screenings of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” So, I changed the bat mitzvah scene in my script to a First Communion and switched the Cohen family to the McConnells. The essence of the script felt lost, but at least I’d scored a job.
From that moment on, the message was clear: you can be Jewish in Hollywood, but not too Jewish.
For decades the watering-down of Jewish representation in TV and film, namely in terms of casting, struck me as an annoying but not necessarily harmful casualty of Jewish life in America, one in which assimilation — not just for Jews, but for every ethnic group — has always come at the expense of subverting one’s cultural identity. But amidst a surge of antisemitism in the United States — per the FBI, 63% of all reported religion-based hate crimes in 2019 were directed at Jews, making it the single-largest category — and the fact that scant few individuals are speaking out against these crimes, it bears reminding those in the industry that, as with any other ethnic minority (Asians, Blacks, Indigenous peoples), the perception of Jews onscreen does matter. In a day and age in which a focus on diversity and inclusion is front and center, it’s a hypocrisy to affirm it doesn’t.
Are there Jewish characters on screen? Of course. From Jerry Seinfeld to Fran Drescher’s nanny and Debra Messing’s “Grace,” there are Jewish protagonists that are writ large in the American pop cultural canon. But for every Larry David, there’s a Cheryl Hines, a non-Jewish spouse, friend — foil, if you will — to offset the Jewishness. To make it more “accessible” for American society at large. (Unless the storyline is about the Holocaust; then Hollywood seems to be OK with an entire family being Jewish, especially if they die at the end.) When there is a Jewish actor playing a Jew, Hollywood effectively demands said actor to express at least slight moral disdain and psychological discomfort with one’s Jewishness. The edgy, neurotic misfit Jew has become synonymous with Jews in film and TV, from Woody Allen in every movie he’s made to every actor playing Woody Allen’s surrogate to Seth Rogen’s nebbish-y pothead slacker in “Knocked Up.”
Because, God forbid, Jews like being Jewish. Far more fashionable to be a little self-hating.
Actors ignoring or nonchalantly brushing off antisemitic comments — statements further perpetuating the damaging mythical assertion that Jews imagine the hatred directed their way —can be cast as Jews. And they are. Hollywood has no issue with this at all. Take “Mank,” for example, David Fincher’s biopic about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman, who netted an Oscar nom for his portrayal of Mank, told Playboy magazine in 2014 that people should “get over” Mel Gibson’s infamous 2006 antisemitic rant. And they did, of course. Despite Gibson’s antisemitic (and misogynistic and racist) slurs, he’s continued to work as a director and actor. His status in the biz has thrived; in 2017, Gibson earned an Oscar nom for directing “Hacksaw Ridge.”
The messaging here, too, is clear: You can say and do things that are antisemitic, and still go on to have a flourishing career.
With rare exception in the way of Barbra Streisand — perhaps the singular Jewish superstar whose cultural identity, not to mention her unrelenting support of Israel, is allowed free rein across music, television and film —Hollywood seems to find an almost obsessive, near-pathological need to dilute female Jewish characters. Or erase.
The examples are vast, and they are also maddening. In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Jewish heroine Midge is played by non-Jew Rachel Brosnahan. In “On the Basis of Sex,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the modern-day thinking Jewish woman’s pin-up for her groundbreaking contributions to constitutional law, is played by non-Jewish British actor Felicity Jones. And in Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” Jewish second-wave feminists Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem are played by Tracy Ullman, Margo Martindale and Rose Byrne — none of whom are Jewish. Julianne Moore (not Jewish), also played Steinem in Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias.” And in ABC’s long-running sitcom “The Goldbergs,” shopaholic balabusta Beverly Goldberg is played by non-Jewish comedian Wendy McClendon-Covey. Even Elsa, the adolescent “Jew in the Wall” in Taika Waititi’s Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit,” is played by non-Jewish actor Thomasin McKenzie.
My current favorite: in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming Golda Meir biopic, Helen Mirren (and, yes, the Oscar-winner is an inarguably gifted actor), will play Israel’s lone female prime minister, an iron-fisted global leader who commandeered Israel to victory during the Six-Day War. Because nothing says Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised kibbutznik-turned-“gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people” — a political figure who embraced her “ugliness” as a political asset and whom David Ben Gurion was fond of calling “the best man in the government”—than a regal British Dame with ancestral ties to Russian nobility.
As Sarah Silverman, who speaks freely of oft being considered “too Jewish” to play certain roles, noted on her podcast and on “The Howard Stern Show” last November: “Lately it’s been happening — if that role is a Jewish woman, but [if] she is courageous, or she deserves love, or has bravery, or is altruistic in any way, she’s played by a non-Jew.”
If Jews controlled Hollywood, it’s fair to say this would not be happening.
There are anomalies, and those, too, deserve mention. Israeli actor Shira Haas, who earned an Emmy nom for her role in “Unorthodox,” will play Golda Meir in the upcoming small-screen drama “Lioness,” which Streisand is set to executive produce. And then, there is “Shtisel,” the Israeli TV series so meticulous in its nuanced, understated, realistic portrayal of Jewish life — that it revolves around a Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood detracts none from its universality; it’s a commercial hit in places ranging from Stockholm to Paris — it’s of near-miraculous proportions. Why? Because “Shtisel” never panders to Jewish stereotypes. Its characters are Jewish, they are played by Jews (albeit secular ones, which goes even further to prove my point) and its plotlines unfold in ways that, while adhering to the laws and traditions of ultra-Orthodox Jewry, never once undercut the impenetrable humanity of its protagonists. They are Jews, but they are people.
The Jews just are.
Hollywood has a social responsibility to reflect with unflinching accuracy the experience of being an ethnic minority in America, whether Asian or Black or Muslim or Indigenous, and that same social imperative holds true for the Jewish community. Because being Jewish is not about a wig or an accent or talking really loud. It’s not about bagels. Being Jewish is about a shared history, a soul, a spirit — in Hebrew we call it a neshama. Amidst the terrifying rise of antisemitism, Jews in America do not feel safe. And in truth, we never have. The ways in which we are portrayed on screen yields significant real-life consequences—some positive, but far too many dangerous. The last thing the Jewish community needs right now is hyperbolic misrepresentation of who we actually are.
The simple, boring truth:
Jews are human.
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