A Jewish woman’s boxing ring. In the left corner, Maureen Lipman. In the right corner, Esther Rantzen. Two unlikely opponents. Two great Jewish women publicly tussling, ideological fists at the ready. Central to their combat is whether it’s offensive, even antisemitic, for actors who aren’t Jewish to take on Jewish roles. And by extension, whether any actor or author should act or write as another ethnicity or gender or colour.
In one corner are those, like Rantzen, who are fearful of the ramifications of this kind of gatekeeping depleting people’s right to creativity and denying our capacity to learn and enjoy the best actors. In the other corner stand those, like Lipman, who are concerned that while this may be called artistic creativity it may in reality be something more sinister – cultural appropriation leading to belittling and retrograde stereotypes of Jews. This could read easily instead as Muslims or people of colour and is no distant, philosophical argument. Many marginalised authors and actors don’t get the same opportunities as the majority; it could be a slap in the face that even when telling their own stories, minority voices are still pushed to the sidelines.
As a rabbi, I recognise both fears. I’ve seen incredible performances of Jewish characters by non-Jews, but also countless gentile Fagins and Levys mincing around onstage impersonating ‘Jewish dancing’ or cringey, over-the-top Yiddish accents.
Not all identities are equal in this boxing ring. What might apply to religious or ethnic identities doesn’t apply in all areas of identity. This situation is radically different from the debate over cisgender people – whose identities align with gender assigned at birth – portraying a trans character. Here the danger is of validating assertions that transpeople are ‘fake’ by inappropriately transferring cisness onto trans people. This is transphobia. Contrasting this are debates around acting as a Jew, since no-one is claiming that Jews are fake, that ‘it’s a phase’ we need to ‘grow out of’.
Many robust remedies could enable our feisty fighters to step back from this fray.
Let’s start by looking at who writes a script or book. When Jewish characters are written by Jews, it’s easier for gentile actors to portray them respectfully because the writing tends towards nuance. Take Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner – the quintessential Jewish Mother played by Tamsin Greig, a non-Jew, was recognisable as an authentic, relatable figure to many Jewish viewers. Compare this to Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show Never Have I Ever – the Jewish characters, although played by Jews, were sloppily regurgitated caricatures.
It’s crucial to be careful as an author or actor using real-life horrors, such as the Holocaust, as plot devices which can come across as ‘dipping your pen in someone else’s blood’. John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamascreates a sympathetic, humanising view of a Nazi family. Everyone except the father is supposedly unaware of what’s happening at Auschwitz, which turns my stomach as there’s no way they wouldn’t know. The story as told is impossible. The idea that prisoners in Auschwitz could escape work and spend their days peacefully forming friendships with gentiles through an unguarded electric fence is preposterous, lessening the horror of the camps. Boyne’s non-Jewishness isn’t the inherent issue. Boyne, however, proudly suggests he wrote the book in two days without stopping ‘to think about it much’, begging the question of how much care he took over the research.
We shouldn’t avoid acting or writing other people’s stories altogether, but the time taken to research and listen to others, and their critiques of our work, should be proportional to their lived experiences. The further we are from their experiences, the more time we should dedicate to learning. The key question is not can actors or authors do this, but why they think they are the most appropriate person to do it. Just because anyone can write or act anything they want doesn’t mean they should. Yet if we can never understand what it’s like to be part of a different group, any aspiration for understanding the ‘other’, the skill of empathy that underpins diversity and social cohesion, is rendered defunct. A bleak prospect.
I believe that people who are not Jewish can and should be welcomed in writing and acting about Jews and Judaism. It’s counterproductive ideological purism to state that ‘you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be from X group, therefore don’t write about them’, as it suggests that the human capacity for empathy is inherently limited. The more allies the better.