Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

The erasure of Jewish representation in the film industry

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in HBO's 'Golda.' (Jasper Wolf, via The Times of Israel)

Two recent articles about Jews in the film industry acting strike me as worth pairing together – both for what they are talking about and for the reason that they each appear in mainstream publications, and not just the Jewish press, where their stories have already been covered. (Do click through to read them.)

In the first, “Jews Don’t Count? Helen Mirren ‘Jewface’ Row Over Golda Meir Portrayal Divides U.K. Entertainment Industry,” Variety magazine focuses on the pushback on casting someone who isn’t Jewish in a decidedly Jewish role.

Whether or not Helen Mirren is well cast seems only a shadow in a larger trend. This same Variety article notes, “Because, as well as Mirren playing Meir, in the last five years alone Kathryn Hahn has been cast as Joan Rivers, Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oscar Isaac in the recent HBO re-make ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ (Isaac also previously played a Mossad agent in 2018 film ‘Operation Finale’), Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel, Rachel McAdams in ‘Disobedience,’ James Norton in ‘McMafia,’ Tom Hardy in ‘Peaky Blinders,’ Rachel Sennott in ‘Shiva Baby,’ Tamsin Grieg in ‘Friday Night Dinner,’ Kelly McDonald in ‘Giri/Haji,’ Will Ferrell in ‘The Shrink Next Door’ and, currently in production, Eddie Marsan and Emily Watson as Brian Epstein’s parents in the upcoming biopic ‘Midas Man.’” I for one cannot believe there are no good Jewish actors to be found for any of these roles.

Some may argue that actors ought to be able to act in anything, and that is true. But the article also points out the uproar when this kind of deliberate miscasting is carried out with other minorities; this public indignation is absent when it comes to Jews. People get upset and for very good reason when roles are miscast. But isn’t there then a double standard when it comes to Jewish casting? (And then there is the issue of  Jews being told they are too ethnic looking for other unspecified roles as well.)

The second article that jumped out at me comes from Rolling Stone magazine: “‘Where Are the Jews?’: Scandal Erupts at the Academy Museum.” The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures wanted to favor underrepresented groups and while that is admirable, the museum chose to achieve that while simultaneously ignoring the story of how and by whom Hollywood and the movie industry was founded. Why? Why not both? Why did this have to be an either/or situation? How can you omit the stories of the people who overcame discrimination themselves and yet built Hollywood?

Back in 1988, Neal Gabler wrote a book called An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.  In this review of the book in the LA Times, Charles Champlin pointed out that the immigrants who founded the industry embraced the opportunity to reinvent themselves vis-à-vis assimilating the ideals of America into their movies. At the same time, this was an industry, unlike many others, that actually allowed them in. How can these conditions be ignored when creating a museum dedicated to how the industry came to be? (The book was made into a documentary, by the way, which can be viewed online.) The museum’s deliberate decision to omit any mention of the historic place Jews had in Hollywood has upset donors, and so now, there are plans to create a permanent exhibit – which was originally going to be only temporary.

If our presence is avoided on the screen today and our past contribution to the industry is denied, is that not marginalization? More to the point, why are we the only ones bothered? That both Variety and Rolling Stone – and not only the Jewish press – have picked up on these stories is, I think, meaningful. At the same time, I have to ask: Will this erasure of Jews upset others who take up the cause of others? Or will they brush it off?

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture. Since returning to the U.S. in 2003; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, MIL to a French Mizrahi DIL and an Israeli DIL whose parents are also an interesting mix, and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hopes this comes out in her blogs. While working in Jewish and Zionist education and advocacy, Wendy's interests also have her digging deep into genealogy and bringing distant family together. All of this is to say, Wendy's life has brought her to the widened framework she uses for her blogs: there are many ways to see and understand.
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