'Jewface' Faces Backlash: 'What's Offensive Is the Idea That There's Such Thing as Jewish Character Traits'

Acclaimed Israeli filmmakers Joseph Cedar and Hagai Levi respond to the uproar over 'Jewface,' the term coined by comedian Sarah Silverman for non-Jewish actors being cast as Jewish characters

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A tale of two Goldas: Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in 'Golda' and Golda Meir toasts her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, before she left her office in Jerusalem in 1974.
A tale of two Goldas: Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in 'Golda' and Golda Meir toasts her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, before she left her office in Jerusalem in 1974.Credit: Embankment Films / Bleecker Stre / AP
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

In an era in which Hollywood obsesses on matters of representation and diversity, and insists on casting women, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians for every possible role, and is in general walking on eggshells in an attempt not to rub up against any minority – it’s not surprising that, of all people, it was a Jewish woman from Israel who managed to cause the latest commotion. Golda Meir most certainly would not have imagined that over 40 years after her death, her nose would manage to get Jews all riled up and induce filmmakers to quarrel so earnestly among themselves.

Criticism over the selection of British star Helen Mirren to play the role of Golda in a new film, coming on the heels of several other complaints about the casting of Jewish characters in films and television, led the issue to snowball (or would it be more appropriate to say matzo-ball). Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman coined the term "Jewface" to refer to the phenomenon of casting non-Jews in Jewish roles, framing the issue as a moral sin of the first degree, on par with the notorious blackface of ill repute.

But when well-regarded Israeli filmmakers who have directed films abroad are asked about the issue, they clearly have no idea what all the fuss is about. As far as they’re concerned, it is a load of bull. True to form, Guy Nattiv, who directed the film “Golda,” refuses to even discuss the subject. He already made his position clear when he selected the non-Jewish Mirren to don the famous Golda’s shoes. Joseph Cedar, who cast Richard Gere to play the Jewish New Yorker big-wig in the film “Norman,” told Haaretz that the whole debate makes him laugh. “I want to see someone claim that Gere’s being cast in this role commits some terrible sin against the essence of this particular Jewish role.”

Sarah Silverman. The American comedian and writer coined the term 'Jewface.'Credit: Willy Sanjuan/AP

Meanwhile, Hagai Levi, who cast the American star Oscar Isaac to play the Jewish protagonist in his adaptation of “Scenes from a Marriage,” has a hard time understanding the logic behind the term “Jewface.” “In my opinion, it is one of the most ridiculous extremes of representation culture,” he says.

First, a little bit of background. It took someone famous, someone popular, with abundant copywriting talent like Silverman, to push the subject onto the agenda. That happened immediately after it became known that the non-Jewish actress Kathryn Hahn had been cast to play the late Jewish comedian Joan Rivers in a new series. Silverman’s fuse blew. She made it clear in her podcast that the casting was merely another link in a chain of problematic castings, and she coined the term Jewface to describe instances in which non-Jews are sent to play roles in which Jewishness is a primary and significant element of their identity.

Actress Kathryn Hahn. Sarah Silverman blew a fuse when Hahn was cast as Joan Rivers.Credit: Chris Pizzello/ Invision / AP

“And in a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so front and center, why does ours constantly get breached even today in the thick of it?” Silverman fired. She noted that on more than one occasion the entry of the non-Jew into the shoes of the Jewish character meant a great deal of makeup, in an effort to highlight physical attributes that are considered Jewish, such as a prominent nose, and that it at times also comes with the stereotypical adoption of a New York-Yiddish pronunciation. One example of overt Jewface casting that she cited was Felicity Jones, who portrayed Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the film “On the Basis of Sex,” and Tracy Ullman, who played Betty Friedan in the film “Mrs. America.” It isn’t that these actresses did something bad, says Silverman, but that this casting method is screwed up. “Right now, representation fucking matters,” Silverman added. “It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”

The “Golda” shoot took place shortly afterward in London. The photos released to the press from the set showed Mirren wearing particularly heavy makeup, meant to transform her face to closely resemble that of Israel’s fourth prime minister. Among other things, the makeup crew invested a great deal of effort in turning Mirren’s compact nose into Golda’s tuber-like proboscis.

Genitals and gentiles

The Jewish-British actress Maureen Lipman (“The Piano”) declared this to be yet another case of Jewface. It was wrong to send the non-Jewish Mirren to play Meir “because the Jewishness of this character is so integral,” Lipman explained a few weeks ago in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle. Although she complimented Mirren, saying that she would certainly be marvelous in the role, she nevertheless said that a Jewish actress should have been cast here. “It would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.” (Although it’s worth recalling that Kingsley did play Mahatma Gandhi, even winning an Oscar for his portrayal).

Joseph Cedar. 'I want to see someone claim that Richard Gere’s being cast in ['Norman'] commits some terrible sin against the essence of this particular Jewish role.'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

It is now clear to all (except for the creators of satire programs in Israel) that blackface is an unpardonable sin, and that the appearance of Al Jolson in blackface in “The Jazz Singer” was a racist and offensive act. But because the official guidebook has not yet been written to determine which roles are open to which actors and how one can avoid politically problematic casting, actors in Hollywood are compelled to be hit over and over again with criticism for insensitive casting. Eddie Redmayne portrayed a transgender character in the film “The Danish Girl,” but later admitted that “it was a mistake.” Scarlett Johansson was supposed to play a trans man in the film “Rub & Tug,” but withdrew as a result of the criticism that the casting drew. Both she and Tilda Swinton were accused of whitewashing after the two played roles of Asian characters (in “The Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” respectively). Even Gal Gadot was put through the wringer when it was announced that she, Jewish Israeli that she is, was about to play Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen.

So everyone by now understands that stealing cinematic roles of minorities in society − and casting white and cis-gender stars to play these roles instead of actors who belong to these minority groups − is a problematic matter. But what about Jewface? Is there really something offensive in a non-Jew playing a Jew? Is there really a need in Hollywood, the film industry that was built by Jewish immigrants, to bolster the status of members of the Mosaic faith? And are Israeli directors − like Nattiv, Cedar and Levi, who are casting non-Jews to play Jewish characters − perhaps unconsciously harming the characters that they themselves created and dealing a blow to global Jewish dignity in general?

‘Who is a Jew’?

“In the round of media appearances we did after the film came out, there were a few interviewers who asked why we had not cast a Jew to play Norman, who is a Jewish New Yorker, as well as the character of the New York rabbi played by Steve Buscemi,” says Cedar. “I couldn’t even understand the question, where it was coming from, because as far as I’m concerned if there is anything offensive or insulting, it is the idea that there is such a thing as Jewish character traits that an actor cannot take on, like skin color. After all, insofar as the question of whether Judaism is religion or race, the only ones claiming that it is a race are the Nazis. And if you have to take up the question here of ‘Who is a Jew,’ the casting agents will end up having to undergo training at the Rabbinate.”

Hagai Levi. 'In my opinion, [JewFace] is one of the most ridiculous extremes of representation culture.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Cedar, who has had two of his films nominated for an Oscar (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”), explains that two types of political considerations can influence the casting: those related to representation − “when you take a white actor and paint his face black so that he can play a Black role, which is offensive to representation of the Black individual” − and those that relate to opportunities. “There are people whose skin color or ethnic group to which they belong greatly limit their employment opportunities. So anyone whose appearance limits his work possibilities can come to the casting institution with charges about an attempt to send in someone who is white and popular at the box office, out of financial considerations, to play a role that could have gone to them,” he says. “But what does this have to do with the issue of representation of Jews? Nothing. When I cast Buscemi to play a rabbi, what injustice is being done to Jewish representation on the screen? On the other hand, do I really want to restrict things, so that Jews play only Jews? The result would be the opposite of equal opportunity. Think about it: The biggest parts played by the greatest Jewish actors were roles of non-Jews. So whose interest would be served here?”

The argument is that when you are talking about roles in which Jewishness is an inherent and substantive component, Jewish actors have more tools to connect to those roles.

“A stereotype exists on the screen only if the screenplay and the filmmakers create it,” says Cedar. “If I, as a creator for whom Jewish identity is very significant in [my] life, wrote a story that accurately depicts the Jewish identity of its protagonist, I can also cast in that role an Indian actor if I see fit. If I decide that this Indian is doing it the best – that is my right. That is my artistic freedom. I want to see someone claim that the casting of Gere in a Jewish New Yorker role transgresses the essence of this character. Does anyone else understand this character more than I do? That is my choice. The thought that an actor can only portray someone from the realm into which he was born very much reduces the artistry of acting.

Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 'On the Basis of Sex.'Credit: Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features /

“In general, the idea of Jewface is in my opinion offensive toward the significance of blackface in American history. Because blackface is a symbol of white exploitation of black entertainment. The history there is truly offensive. And therefore by borrowing this term for the sake of Jews, who do not have any external mark or sign that identifies them, is a cheapening of the offensive idea that stood at the basis of blackface,” says Cedar.

When a choice is unsuitable

The British comic David Baddiel, author of the book “Jews Don’t Count,” takes the opposite position. In an interview with Variety in mid-January he explained that the question of whether Mirren can play the Golda Meir role or not, is not especially important. What is more important is that the casting did not spark any protest as did other “inauthentic” castings, and cited, as an example, that of Scarlett Johansson for a transgender role. “The point is the unsuitability,” he explained. “If the same criticism is also valid for other minorities – and if in so doing we are attempting to make the world a more just place, one that offers a more egalitarian platform to minorities – then why shouldn’t it also be valid for Jews? And what does that say about Jews?”

Richard Gere in 'Norman.'Credit: YES

Baddiel dismisses the position according to which Jews are not worthy of a similar attitude as that given to other minorities, because they enjoy over-representation in the entertainment world and because Jews are those who established Hollywood. “It is antisemitic to say that ‘Jews control the entertainment business’ or that they ‘are found everywhere in the entertainment business,’” he says. Another interviewee in the same Variety article, Professor Nathan Abrams of Bangor University in Wales, argues that Jewish actors, like other minorities, suffer from under-representation on the screen. “Clear discrimination exists in the casting of Jews for major roles,” he says, adding that this apparently stems from an “unconscious bias” of casting agents.

Oscar Isaac plays a Jewish character alongside Jessica Chastain in Hagai Levi's miniseries, 'Scenes from a Marriage.'Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO / yes

In the Jewish state, conversely, this argument seems like something belonging to some faraway province. In Israel, Jews do not feel like they are in a minority, and Jewish actors do not have to fight to be offered Jewish roles. In Israel, Jewface sounds more like the face of the neighbor. That may be the reason why when Hagai Levi set out to cast his American miniseries “Scenes from a Marriage,” he did not stop for even a moment to consider the religious affiliation of the actors that he auditioned. The hero in the series is not merely Jewish, but has a religious past, for whom his Judaism is a significant part of the story – which, according to the Silverman logic, holds great potential for Jewface. “But at no moment did this even cross my mind,” Levi clarifies.

“In my opinion, Jewface is one of the most ridiculous extremes of representation culture,” he says. “It’s like Penelope Cruz, being accused in the film ‘The 355’ that she played a Hispanic character, even though she is only Spanish. It’s ridiculous. In order to demand this thing you have to be a repressed minority, so if you are Black or transgender you really are a minority that is being repressed, there is discrimination, you are under attack. But Jews? With all due respect, that isn’t the situation. Look, part of the rationale of this story in America has to do with the employment issue: All of these representation formulas are perhaps idiotic, but at the end of the day they bring about a situation in which more Blacks and Hispanics are working, so it’s a good thing. But Jews? I don’t think they have a problem in this matter. It doesn’t seem to me that they are suffering from discrimination in this industry.”

Eddie Redmayne in 'The Danish Girl.' He said that playing a transgender character had been a mistake. Credit: AP

It may be that the Jews living abroad are more familiar with antisemitism up close, feel it intimately, come up against it in the street, and therefore more easily identify with the persecuted minority mindset in whose name all the Jewface talk was conceived. “However that does not justify this madness,” Levi insists. “It may be that I would feel uncomfortable in a case in which the writer is a non-Jew and the director is a non-Jew and everyone is non-Jews, and there is someone portraying a Jew and he is a non-Jew as well. In such a production, perhaps you do have to take a Jewish actor. But that’s because if you are creating some world, you had better be familiar with it. It’s as if I wouldn’t make a movie whose heroes are Blacks because I am not familiar enough with that world. And when I want to make a Palestinian story I would bring in a Palestinian actor, because he knows that world better than I do, he understands it better.” Indeed, a few years ago when Cedar and Levi created the series “Our Boys” with Tawfik Abu Wael, Palestinians portrayed Palestinians, and Israeli Jews portrayed Israelis.

Perhaps it is easier to understand the Jewface storm if you stop for a minute and look around here. Levi raises a local dilemma that might resonate in certain respects with the issue. “Is it possible for a Palestinian to play an Israeli Jew in Israel? Yes, of course. But the opposite is problematic,” he says. “Because there is a minority that is repressed, and there is a majority that is privileged, and I assume that we would feel uncomfortable if a Jew would come in today and portray an Arab. But when an Arab actor comes and plays a Jew, who cares?”

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