Daniel Wolpe

On Jewish Actresses and Jewish Female Characters

In 2002, Brad Garrett won his first Emmy award. As he held the statue in his hand, he said, “I just hope this award breaks down the walls for Jewish kids trying to break into show business!” The line naturally elicited a lot of laughter and applause. Obviously, throughout the history of Hollywood, Jews have done quite well. Jewish producers, actors, writers and directors abound in Hollywood. In fact, Jews have arguably done better in the entertainment industry than any other minority group. 

And it’s not just Jewish men. From Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, to Scarlett Johansson and Mila Kunis, Jewish women have made their mark on the silver screen. So, there is not much to complain about, is there?

There is a rather bizarre phenomenon that is beginning to get a lot of attention, and which we will explore in this article. Yes, there are many successful actresses who are Jewish, but rarely are Jewish women played by Jews. 

Jewish male characters are almost exclusively played by Jews. It is rare to have a Jewish male character who is played by a non-Jew. But it is even rarer to have a Jewish female character that is played by a Jew. Whether it’s Ingrid Bergman playing Golda Meir, Rachel Brosnahan playing the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Kathryn Hahn playing Rabbi Raquel Fein, there seems to be a huge aversion to having Jewish women play Jewish women. As comedian Sarah Silverman wrote:

There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being. One could argue, for instance, that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface.’ If the Jewish female character is courageous, she is never played by a Jew. Ever!”

Is this a conscious choice? Maybe, maybe not. However, as I note in my one-man show, Forever Intertwined, historically cinema has had only six archetypes of Jewish males, and only one of Jewish females. The Jewish female is often shown as shrewish, demanding, devoid of compassion and empathy, and basically soulless—unless she’s portrayed by a non-Jew. But on the rare occasions that Jewish women play Jewish characters, they play negative stereotypes and make Jewish women look terrible. 

Are the people writing these offensive stereotypes anti-semites? Sadly, they are often written by Jews. This inner prejudice against Jewish women was so pervasive at one point, that there used to be a phrase in the industry describing a certain type of series or movie—“boy meets goy.” These were movies or TV shows—exemplified by such series as Northern Exposure or Mad About You—where the Jewish male hero found himself in love with a compassionate, caring, non-Jewish woman, and where any Jewish woman who showed up was depicted as the aforementioned stereotypes. 

Actor/filmmaker Shara Zeiger, who runs JAM (Jews In The Arts&Media) points out that Hollywood was started by Jewish men who had been rejected by other industries and were accepted in the movie industry because few people thought there was any money in film: 

“Personally, I think it has a lot to do with assimilation. Jews who assimilate find safety. Remember that the Holocaust was far from our 100th rodeo…so being like our Anglo white friends makes a lot of light skinned Jewish men feel like ‘oh, we’re just like you.’ Yet, every time I go to the OBGYN I’m reminded that yes, Jews are our own ethnicity as they’re interested in what genetic diseases I may carry. So, for a ton of Jewish men it’s this deep-routed thing where if they cast a non-Jew to play a Jewish woman, it’s projecting the idea of ‘we’re just like you,’ It’s usually Jewish men who I often get into spats with about this. The reality is if Jane from Kansas doesn’t know any Jewish women and never sees a Jewish woman play a Jewish woman, she doesn’t know who we are, and it makes it much easier to hate us. Unfortunately, we have an internal problem.”

A phrase we hear over and over again is “Representation matters.” It’s true, and if we want Jewish women to be honored, they should be played by women who have lived the Jewish experience. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dan Wolpe is the rabbi of the Flushing Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, a noted educator, and a produced and published playwright. In addition to having served as a rabbi for 25 years, Wolpe has had plays of his produced in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Latham and Westhampton Beach,. Wolpe is a proud member of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the Dramatist's Guild.
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