A few weeks ago, Tablet Magazine published a short piece by Zoe Miller titled: “Chris Evans to Star in Film About the Mossad’s Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. Does it matter that he’s not Jewish?” I read the article, (more like an announcement of the upcoming film) with great interest; after all, I remember when all of this had initially unfolded. I was in my late teens, in the middle of my army service, and I happened to know some of the people involved in this covert operation that became known as Operation Moses. The mention of this rescue mission also evoked a few pleasant exchanges that took place between a group of Ethiopian girls and me many years ago during a stroll on the beach. They asked me something so typically Israeli: “So what are you?” They wanted to know whether I was Ashkenazic or Sephardic etc. For me that was an indication that they had already blended into the fabric of Israeli society. I remembered the excitement that I felt when I saw an Ethiopian Jew in an IDF uniform for the first time.
So many other thoughts crossed my mind that the bit about casting a non-Jew or the possibility of inviting criticism from those who may argue that his role perpetuates a “white savior complex,” didn’t resonate with me at all. And why should it when I have not yet seen the film under its title “Red Sea Diving Resort,” and I don’t know whether or not there will be a whitewashing of the actual people involved in this operation. I happen to know that the Mossad agent that Chris portrays, Ari Kidron, is an Ashkenazi Jew so casting Chris is not such a stretch. Mr. Zimna Berhani, an Ethiopian Jew, had initially spearheaded the rescue of his countrymen, but who says that we will not learn of him in the movie as well?
I viewed the author’s query as trivial, so I clicked out of the article, which appeared on my Facebook feed, and at a glance I also noticed a comment from a reader who thought that casting a non-Jew for this part doesn’t really honor Jews. What? I was completely baffled by the comment and didn’t think twice before writing the following response: “What matters is that many around the world will be exposed to the story. I can’t believe that people are actually commenting on a non-Jewish actor playing a Jew. Newsflash: it’s a movie, and he’s an actor.” And by doing so I opened the floodgates.
Some of the people involved in this ebullient exchange wrote that other groups of people have always expressed anger and frustration when actors of different ethnic backgrounds have been cast for particular roles that have nothing to do with their own ancestry, so why shouldn’t Jews be just as insulted? Others on the thread claimed that Jews have been “perennially sanitized in film and TV, having our ethnicity bleached and polished to fit into a very white, middle America-type image.” “Jewish portrayal to the world becomes compromised in an important way when we’re represented as gentiles. And that is a key issue non-Jews have with us—we don’t fit in.”
But wait a sec, on the one hand Jews have fought against the stigma of being “too Jewish,” and now I’m learning that we are not represented as Jewish enough?
How should a Jew behave in the first place? Are we so different from anyone else around us that our heritage should be instantly recognized when it’s not the main focus of a conversation or the theme in a film? Sometimes Jewishness is what drives a character in film, yet this could be interpreted in so many ways, depending on the genre. Jewish pathos and irony that have always been associated with our culture should not automatically define a character. Not these days. We are a diverse people and apart from sharing a common religion and cultural traditions that are not necessarily followed by every Jew, we can’t be placed in one homogeneous group for any other reason. Once upon a time most Jews in America shared a common language too, and Yiddish was a big part of Jewish humor and in a way their new Jewish identity in this country. But how many people have Yiddish-speaking parents these days? There’s no linguistic tradition as such any more, and nobody speaks Hebrew unless they are praying at temple during the High Holy Days. Of course observant Jews are a different story altogether.
So naturally, those other characteristics, albeit traditionally associated with Jews, are not always going to be present in a Jewish character in film either. Celebrating our traditions and exposing other aspects of our religion and culture, well, that’s another issue and I welcome it with open arms.
The Jerry Seinfeld show is a prime example of Jewishness being only incidental to the main character. We know Jerry is Jewish, but other than a few episodes that directly dealt with his religious background, such as that infamous Schindler’s List episode, or the ones revolving around his parents in Florida and the cascade of Jewish neighbors whose Jewishness was part and parcel of their character, seldom did his religion play a vital role in the sitcom. In the film This is Where I Leave You or in the critically acclaimed Amazon series Transparent, not all the characters are inherently Jewish. However, both productions show a diverse group of Jews, and expose many other facets of our culture.
More from my critics: “It’s a question of self-representation and a people’s right to tell their own story.” And this: “Oh for the love of god, can we ever have a Jewish actor play a character like this?” Come on, Seriously? And before I respond there’s this one: “Sometimes when non-Jews play Jewish roles, negative stereotypes get reinforced because the actors and directors have unconscious stereotypes biases in their heads and biases that reveal themselves subtly in those portrayals.”
Hmm, unconscious stereotype bias, I believe, is something that I’m personally experiencing at the moment in my attempts to get a play that I wrote noticed by artistic directors in various Jewish theaters across the country. I fear that my protagonist is not your typical Jewish woman, probably not Jewish enough for their taste. She does not possess a Jewish speech pattern; no Yiddishisms injected into her conversations, but when she learns how to speak Hebrew there are a few comedic moments. Her hobbies are different too, but a narrow perception of what Jews like to do in their spare time would deem her an anomaly, and thus of no interest to anyone so far. So disappointing and such a pity.
It was quite ironic to find myself in the middle of this argument when I was dealing with the reality of Jewish directors who were not particularly swayed by the Jewishness of my Jewish play. I was bombarded from every angle it seemed, but I still thought there was a mix of issues to address, albeit I saw evidence of Jewish faith-identity-crisis at play. Let me take care of the easy part: there have been plenty of Jewish actors who have gained critical acclaim for portraying non-Jews. Is anyone complaining about Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? Does her Jewishness intervene in her ability to portray a non-Jewish super human? How about Andrew Garfield as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? Or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter? The list goes on and on, and do these Jewish actors bring negative stereotypes to their roles because they are Jewish? It’s only fair to direct this question towards Jewish actors as well.
Similarly, there’s a very long list of Jews who’ve portrayed Jewish characters in film. I’m not sure how many of those actors were even raised with a strong connection to their faith or culture, which ultimately exposes the weak nature of the argument put before me.
Jews, like other immigrant groups had striven for an absolute American identity, but once fully integrated into American society their problem morphed into something else. It became a matter of retaining their identity and celebrating ethnic distinctiveness. Who hasn’t been to Hebrew Sunday school?
There’s a need for emotional nourishment that we have seen in every single group of immigrants throughout the years. One such example is the way immigrants had translated their traditions and holiday celebrations. The way in which Irish Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in no way resembles the traditions in Ireland. Every immigrant group has expressed the need to exaggerate traditions of a triumphant ancestry–anything to give them a sense of pride and importance. In terms of the aforementioned Facebook responses to my comment, they all echo the same need more or less—their desire to celebrate the Jews’ exceptional ancestry.
It’s also interesting to view this topic through the evolution of entertainment, specifically comedy. How can anyone complain about the whitewashing of Jewish characters when Jewish comedians have had a profound influence on American society even at a time when Jews were not so loved and appreciated—when prejudice thrived. Their talent was unique, and the reason Jewish comedy had flourished from the start. Just think of the very long list of Jewish comedians who made a name for themselves in Vaudeville and later on in the Borscht Belt. At first they would primarily cater to Jewish audiences who could easily identify with their material—Jewish motifs and language were entrenched in this form of entertainment. These comics expressed their day-to-day anxieties by drawing on their heritage; they used self-mockery as a way to overcome an amalgam of emotions. And there was no better language to evoke those types of feelings other than Yiddish.
Jewish humor became a distinguished brand of comedy that somehow permeated all social classes in America and ethnicity. At a time of war, conflict and economic strife, when all Americans were affected, it didn’t take long before the general public sought these acts as well. Jews were the experts in terms of diffusing stressful situations with comedy, and to date, Yiddish words have become part and parcel of everyday American expressions as well. They managed to carve out a genre of comedy that has since been linked to Jewish culture and mainstream comedy.
Once Jews had begun to acculturate, there was much more diversity to Jewish character in entertainment as well, less about their personal experiences, or their parents’ experiences and there began a retreat from humor fraught with sadness, and more about the general American experience.
But there was also Tin Pan Alley where many Jewish composers and musicians produced some of the most memorable music. Some of the most famous musicals have always involved an element of Jewish music in them, because many of the composers hired to work on a picture were Jewish, and they tended to infuse every musical piece with Jewish music—the music they had grown up with. In that respect when it comes to the arts, I’ve never felt that we were not represented enough, and in serious films the Jewish archetype is not an issue anymore.
The history of British Jews in entertainment was completely different; the way Jews have been depicted in literature and other art forms has always paralleled the way in which the establishment had treated them. And even though during Victorian England some strands of anti-Semitism began decreasing and Jews were tolerated for their entrepreneurial inventiveness, Jews were still treated like the enemy. In his book titled Hidden in Plain Sight: Jews and Jewishness in British Film, Television, and Popular Culture, Nathan Abrams writes that the first representation of Jews in British-made films was terribly crude. They were always bald-headed, hooked-nosed, with a hunched-back, protruding belly and oversized feet—always the greedy capitalist or violent anti-capitalist . . .
This could be seen in many early films, but one of particular interest to me is A bad Day for Levinsky (1909)–a film that I have yet to see. In the movies, a place of escape and artistic expression, the most vile characteristics were still attached to Jews. The word “Jew” would appear in the actual titles of some of these early films as well as in the marquee above the cinema. During the 30s my British-born grandmother Gertrude had to fight the stigma of having a German-sounding last name, Schragger, and also the usual brand of anti-Jewish rhetoric. Jews were not considered British for a long time, the old protectionist sentiment suppressed their acceptance.
However, we can also see a slow departure from these horrible, early depictions of Jews in film and theater, and the author attributes this change to a need to respond to anti-Semitism when more and more Jews became involved in the film industry. This occurred as a direct result of Jewish Americans arriving at the shores of England because of the great Depression, and Jewish- German producers and actors fleeing Germany at that period of time and also finding refuge in England.
Years later, even after the Holocaust, British Jews would continue to keep a low profile. In the back of everyone’s mind was the old Aliens Act of 1905 directed towards Jews mainly. So even though many Jews were involved in show business in front of the camera and behind the scenes, the BBC’s tendency was to only present the “white and gentile,” says Abrams. Precisely what a bevy of critics have said to me too.
But that was then and today things are different, very different.
I understand the arguments, all of them, but they are a stretch from our reality today. It’s my understanding that actors spend a lot of time researching the role they are about to portray, and the good ones get it right.
Ben Cross played in Chariots of Fire the part of Jewish Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams, and he once said that every September Jews would wish him a Happy New Year. He fooled many! When he researched the role, he concluded that Abrahams was motivated by a combination of prejudice and paranoia, so he played him as a man whose pilot light was always lit. “There was this quiet defensive anger and occasionally the boiler would light up.” I don’t think that Cross would have reached this depth of understanding without researching anti-Semitism and how it affected the Olympian.
I bet Chris Evans had an easier time researching Ari Kidron, rather than the character of a made-up super hero. I trust that our Captain America will come to the rescue and give us a stellar performance of an Israeli Mossad agent, and the conversation after the movie will center on the awe-inspiring rescue operation and the beauty and courage of Ethiopian Jews.