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The casting of non-Jewish actors as Jewish characters is causing controversy

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A number of recent shows based on Jewish characters, like the ones in "The Shrink Next Door," don't actually have Jewish actors, and that has sparked offscreen debates. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Pretty much everyone loves the show "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," even though its star is not Jewish nor is the actor who plays her dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL")

TONY SHALHOUB: (As Noah Weissman) When I agreed to send you to that fancy goyishe college, what was the one thing I told you?

RACHEL BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) They'll have terrible deli.

ULABY: Neither were the actors who played the entitled Pfefferman siblings on the TV show "Transparent."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

GABY HOFFMANN: (As Ali Pfefferman) I don't need Judaism. Who wants to be Jewish?

ULABY: Nor were any of the actresses playing famous Jewish Americans, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the recent film "On The Basis Of Sex" or both Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug in 2018's "Mrs. America."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Does it bother you that no one calls you a radical anymore?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're mainstream. That's a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PODCAST")

SARAH SILVERMAN: I think acting is acting, and I get that all this identity politics is annoying.

ULABY: Still, comedian Sarah Silverman remains irked by what she called Jew face on her podcast a few months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PODCAST")

SILVERMAN: Watching a gentile actor portraying, like, a Jew-y (ph) Jew is just - agh (ph) - feels, like, embarrassing and cringey.

ULABY: Historically, there has been much to cringe about, says Henry Bial, a theater professor at the University of Kansas. He wrote a book called "Acting Jewish." He says Jewish representation in Hollywood has been different from that of Black or Latinx people.

HENRY BIAL: Because there are so many Jewish performers who have made a living playing roles that aren't particularly Jewish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: So many, including actor Leonard Nimoy...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEONARD NIMOY: (As character) Apaches (ph) are bad Indians.

ULABY: ...Who for years played so-called ethnic roles, like Native Americans in Westerns. Things have obviously changed, but Hollywood and the theater used to be marginal places where marginalized European Jews could flourish and create. But the same widespread anti-Semitism that limited their options also distorted centuries of Jewish representation onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERCHANT OF VENICE")

AL PACINO: (As Shylock) I am a Jew.

ULABY: Think Shylock, says Henry Bial, in "The Merchant of Venice."

BIAL: Particularly when you start adding in makeup, the sort of history of the false nose and the stage Jew.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERCHANT OF VENICE")

PACINO: (As Shylock) Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?

BIAL: You can go back to when Jewish characters had to wear red wigs on the early modern stage so that we would all understand that Jews are associated with the devil.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MERCHANT OF VENICE")

PACINO: (As Shylock) If you prick us, do we not bleed?

BIAL: That's Al Pacino as Shylock in a 2004 film.

ULABY: And Al Pacino's "Merchant Of Venice" does veer very close to that kind of Jew face stereotype, I think. These stereotypes persist. People in writers rooms still joke about writing Yiddish and casting British. And when you go back, some of the most iconic Jewish roles in movie history were played by non-Jews...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS")

CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) Let my people go.

ULABY: ...Like Charlton Heston as Moses or the non-Jewish actress cast as Anne Frank in the 1959 film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK")

MILLIE PERKINS: (As Anne Frank, singing) Oh, Hanukkah, oh, Hanukkah...

ULABY: Even one of the first Jewish characters to anchor a TV sitcom was not Jewish in real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

VALERIE HARPER: (As Rhoda Morgenstern) Ma, a man cannot hire an employee because they know the price of corned beef.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PODCAST")

SILVERMAN: I loved Valerie Harper as Rhoda. You can't take that away from me.

ULABY: Even comedian Sarah Silverman, who's pointing out this problem, admits to her own argument's inconsistencies. She supported a non-Jew playing her own mother in an upcoming musical based on her life. Kim Williams runs the Casting Society of America.

KIM WILLIAMS: There's that fine line of wanting to be as authentic as we can but also wanting to be open to the creativity that we can bring to a project.

ULABY: Which is why professor Henry Bial says certain great actors get cast repeatedly in these kinds of roles.

BIAL: So John Turturro works with the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers like to make movies about Jews. Suddenly, John Turturro is playing a lot of Jewish characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARTON FINK")

SHALHOUB: (As Ben Geisler) Think about it, Fink. Writers come and go. We always need Indians.

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Barton Fink) I'm a writer.

ULABY: For a long time, Henry Bial has thought about who plays Jews, and he's come to a conclusion.

BIAL: This conversation is the most Jewish part of the whole thing. Arguments about who's Jewish and are they Jewish enough go way back.

ULABY: Maybe even back 4,000 years of Judaism.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.