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Sarah Silverman Calls Out Hollywood for Casting Non-Jewish Actors in Jewish Roles

Representation continues to be a pivotal issue in Hollywood (and the discourse). It comes up in everything from big budget films like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Billy Eichner’s upcoming romcom Bros, which features an all-LGBTQ principal cast, some of whom are playing straight roles. And while discussions of representation frequently focus on race, sexuality, and gender, those aren’t the only marginalized groups who long to see themselves reflected back onscreen.

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Last week on her podcast, Sarah Silverman discussed the phenomenon of non-Jewish women being cast to play Jewish roles: a practice she refers to as “Jewface.” Silverman references an article in Time Magazine titled, “First Mrs. Maisel, Now Joan Rivers. Why Hollywood’s Jewish Women Are Rarely Played by Jewish Actors” which unpacks the issue.

In Sarah Seltzer’s article, she quotes Silverman, who discussed the issue last year on Howard Stern’s show, saying, “Is it the biggest injustice in the world? No, but I’m noticing it.”

Silverman went on:

“On the one hand, acting is acting—it shouldn’t require perfect alignment with the character you’re playing. On the other hand, the fact that it keeps happening when Hollywood doesn’t exactly suffer from a lack of Jewish actors shows that something is off. It seems that the idea of letting an actual Jewish actress interpret a Jewish role is pushing a cultural boundary we didn’t realize was still there.”

“What can we call that boundary? It’s not exactly racism or cultural appropriation, because Jewishness does not fall neatly into the categories of race, religion or ethnicity—some consider it one or another or some combination of the three—and because white Jews have access to white privilege in America (and let’s be honest, we’re often confused with white people of other backgrounds). Jewish actresses like [Rachel] Weisz, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are among Hollywood’s most feted stars. When a white actor or actress snags a role written for another race or ethnicity—like Johansson herself in The Ghost in the Shell—it’s blatant erasure. This isn’t that.”

We saw it in On the Basis of Sex, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic starring non-Jewish actor Felicity Jones. And we see it again in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (possibly the most “Jewish” show on television) starring non-Jew Rachel Brosnahan. The latest instance is the casting of Kathryn Hahn (WandaVision) as iconic Jewish comedian Joan Rivers in an upcoming biopic.

Hahn is, of course, extremely talented, as are Brosnahan and Jones. And Judaism exists as both a religion and an ethnicity, with a culture that spans the globe. There is no one way to be Jewish, just as there is no one specific “Jewish” look (although popular culture tends to focus on the New York Ashkenazim, your Maisels and your Seinfelds). And maybe that’s part of the issue, the lack of clear-cut answers and definitions as to what comprises “Jewish” as an identity.

Silverman, who supported Hahn’s casting saying “singularly I have no problem with it,” addressed the issue on a larger scale. “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.’”

“It’s defined as when a non-Jew portrays a Jew with the Jewishness front and center, often with makeup or changing of features ― big fake nose, all the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection. And in a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so front and center, why does ours constantly get breached, even today in the thick of it? If a Jewish woman character is courageous or deserves love, she is never played by a Jew,” adds Silverman.

Silverman, who has her own history with cultural appropriation and blackface, summed up her feelings thusly “Identity politics is annoying … But right now representation fucking matters, so it has to also finally matter for Jews as well ― especially Jewish women.”

(image: David Livingston/Getty Images)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.

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