Your Periodic Reminder That Antisemitism Is Still Actually Very Real. Yes, “Even” in Hollywood.
Part 2 of the Lesly Kahn saga.
Yesterday, I wrote a piece about Los Angeles acting teacher Lesly Kahn, who gave some really shameful acting career advice to a student, telling her that because she “looks Latin,” she should change her name to something Latinx, wear “something fucking red,” and put on “sparkly earrings” to have a better chance at getting jobs. What I didn’t mention was that this upset me both as a Latina and as someone who is currently converting to Judaism.
But first, Ms. Kahn did issue an apology for the incident, once the recording came out:
— Lesly Kahn (@leslykahn) February 26, 2018
While I’m glad she made the apology, at first, it struck me the way such apologies often do. I thought: Had someone not leaked footage of you talking this way and embarrassed you, you never would’ve apologized. As it happens, students at her school have spoken publicly about how this was not an isolated incident, but rather, a disturbing pattern of behavior. So, I have no interest in taking away from the offensiveness of the “solution” to a struggling acting career that she proposed.
However, her words can’t be examined in a vacuum. As I mentioned above, I’m “joining the Tribe,” as they say, and a weird thing is happening. It’s the same thing that happened when I finally came out as bisexual a couple of years ago. That thing where you don’t really notice discrimination until you become a part of the group, and suddenly your ears start pricking up in a new way and you start hearing and seeing it everywhere. It wasn’t until I came out and became a participating member in the LGBTQIA community that I really noticed how bisexuals are consistently erased, misunderstood, or flat-out mistreated, both within their community and outside of it.
And it wasn’t until I married my Jewish wife and began the process of conversion, when I stopped referring to “they” and started referring to “we” when talking about Jews, that I truly noticed how marginalized the Jewish community actually is. The glaringly antisemitic ways in which we are discussed and portrayed, and the equally glaring ways in which we are absent.
An important thing to point out when discussing both what Kahn said, and her apology afterwards, is the way in which she discussed Jews and being Jewish. From her “advice” to the student:
“Aren’t we allowed to change our names to whatever we want to change our names to? And she already looks it. So stop admitting to being a huge Jew, ok? That’s not going to help you. Speaking as one, it’s not going to help. As a Jew, it doesn’t help.”
From her apology: “As a Jewish woman, I understand the pain that can come from being discriminated against.”
Her advice was terrible, and based in racism and bigotry, but it clearly came from a place of pain. She was basically telling this fellow Jewish woman, This is how you survive in this business. Because you won’t be able to do it being who you are so openly. That is hugely, hugely sad.
There is a big difference between a group having “white privilege” and individuals having “white-passing privilege.” A mistake that I often see and hear being made with relation to both Latinx and Jews is that both are told that they “have white privilege” when they have white skin. What this fails to take into account is that this privilege is entirely dependent on keeping their full identity hidden. In order to make full use of white-passing privilege, one would have to not reveal that they’re Latinx, or Jewish, because once that’s revealed, the potential racist on the receiving end of the information has already started to look at them differently, to see them as a member of this “othered” group.
Passing privilege is survival.
So yes, there are plenty of Jewish people who benefit from white privilege, who have white-passing privilege, and that is something that absolutely needs to be examined and taken into consideration. However they are not, as a group, “white people” with “white privilege.” How do you know?
First, because there are Jewish people of all races, shades, and body types. Diaspora, forced migration, colonization, and oppression will do that to a community. Saying that Jews “have white privilege” makes as little sense as saying “Latinx have white privilege.”
Second, we know this because a bunch of white people in Charlottesville got together in the streets carrying tiki torches and wearing swastikas saying things like “Jews will not replace us!” and “Death to Jews!” talking about “blood and soil.” Even the most pale Jewish person don’t count as “white” for those white people for whom “whiteness” matters and who “white privilege” actually benefits.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book We Were Eight Years in Power, talks about the construct of whiteness, and how it has shifted over time. Because we all know that the idea of race itself is a construct, right? Whiteness only matters if you’re trying to maintain a hierarchy based on skin color and where someone was born. Two hugely arbitrary things that don’t actually mean any one thing in particular.
People love to trot out the idea, for example that the Irish “used to be slaves too,” when confronted with racism. They were not, of course. Indentured servitude and slavery were two different things, and while the Irish were absolutely mistreated, what they went through was nothing like the centuries of African slavery that continue to have ramifications on the black community to this day.
There was absolutely a time, then, when Irish people were not considered “white” in this country. But they certainly are now. They have “become white.” No one is marching in the streets talking about killing the Irish. No one is shouting about how the Irish “will not replace them.” The few lingering stereotypes about the Irish are easily dismissed as throwbacks to another era. Meanwhile, you still hear, in all seriousness, about how “cheap” Jewish people are, how they “run Hollywood,” and conspiracy theories about how they “control the banks.” I came across a community page on Facebook talking about how all our children are in danger with Jews around, because they engage in blood libel.
I reported it to Facebook as a hate page. I got a message back saying that the page didn’t violate their community guidelines. Um … k?
To bring all this back to Lesly Kahn, it is very likely that she has experienced antisemitism in various forms as an actor in Hollywood.
For all that Jewish people are supposed to “run Hollywood,” it’s interesting how Jewishness tends to be erased. How there are a billion Christmas movies every year, but far fewer films about Jewishness that aren’t some kind of Holocaust narrative. One could argue that this is a “business decision.” There are more Christians than Jewish people in this country, and so of course they’re going to produce the things that make the most profit, right? But if Jews “run Hollywood,” don’t you think they’d create more work about Jewish characters and about Jewish themes?
There’s a big difference between a group being prominent in a certain field and “running” that field. “Running” something implies power, not constantly being apprehensive about the response of others to your very existence.
It’s interesting that Jewish actors often feel the need to change their names for the sake of their careers. It’s interesting that when we encounter Jewish characters on television, they are either Jewish in name only, or they embody all the Jewish stereotypes at once.
Jewishness is either downplayed or laughed-off in Hollywood for a reason: because white-passing privilege has allowed Jews in the entertainment industry to survive. As long as no one thinks too hard about these Jewish people being Jews, they can be safe. Because antisemitism is very real, and there is a long history of Jewish people being targeted in Hollywood.
As you might know, writer/director Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, a thinly-veiled film about then newspaper magnate William Ranolph Hearst. When Hearst, who had a press monopoly at the time, saw a rough cut of the film, he was incensed by the way his life was portrayed and the way he was seemingly mocked.
So, he tried to use all the tools in his arsenal to stop the film from ever seeing the light of day. One of those tools was having the gossip columnists and reporters in his pocket begin stoking the flames of antisemitism in the press against the heads of the Hollywood studios, most of whom were, indeed, Jewish. Using dog-whistle words like “swarthy refugees” and “not real Americans,” Hearst used the antisemitic sentiment that already existed in the country to bully the Jewish studio heads not to release the film (as you can see in the clip above from the HBO film RKO 281 about that fight). And it nearly worked. Because that’s how bad it can get if people think too hard about Jews being Jews.
And as we know from Charlottesville that antisemitism, like the anti-black racism that also showed itself that day, hasn’t changed much.
In trying to think about shows on television that actively show Jewish people and families being Jewish, I could come up with three (all of which I’d recommend): Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Broad City. All three are comedies, though Transparent has become much less of one over the years.
All of these shows attempt to portray Jewish life as it is. You see people actually observing their religion regularly, going to synagogue, celebrating holidays other than Hanukkah (which only manages to pop up in relation to Christmas on TV). That’s less the case when it comes to Broad City, but Jewishness clearly permeates everything Ilana and Abbi do on that show, too. Being that they’re all comedies, they of course lovingly play with stereotypes sometimes, but as they’re all created by Jewish creators, it’s done well.
Here’s the thing: both Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have cast non-Jewish actors to play Jews. Rachel Brosnahan, who is brilliant as the lead on Mrs. Maisel, is not Jewish, though she has spoken about having been raised in a very Jewish neighborhood and having an appreciation and affinity for the culture having grown up with so many Jewish friends. Of the Pfefferman clan on Transparent, two of the three Pfefferman children are played by non-Jewish actors (Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass). Hell, the rabbi character on that show is played by a non-Jewish actress (Kathryn Hahn).
What’s interesting, and sad, is that the more “important” the Jewish role, the less Jewish the casting people actually want the actor to look. It’s weird. If your hair is too curly, if your nose is too big, if you look “too Jewish,” as Kahn pointed out to her student, that’s seen as a disadvantage for a “serious role,” and so those roles tend to go to non-Jews who look “Jewish enough.” Meanwhile, if the role is constantly making “being Jewish” the butt of its jokes—your Ari Gold on Entourage, or your Schmidt on New Girl—that’s where you can find the Jewish actors.
Never mind that Jewish people look all sorts of ways, so again, this whole “look” business is absurd.
Kahn gave really shitty, racist advice to her student. That was inexcusable. It’s precisely because she comes from a community that has its own hatred to deal with that she should know better. However, her response to this particular student, one who shares her identity, warrants some understanding. Antisemitism is not over, and Jewish people, while some have white-passing privilege, are not considered white in this country by those for whom whiteness is a thing.
Depending on what they look like (or don’t), Jewish actors face similar challenges to other minority groups when it comes to getting cast. And just as a white-passing Latinx might take a non-Latinx role, so will a white-passing Jewish person take a non-Jewish role. Alternately, those actors take the roles that stereotype the groups they’re part of, because that’s the only way they get to be employed while also playing someone of their own identity. And in the middle of all of this, Jewish actors who don’t “look Jewish” according to Hollywood tend to be treated more favorably and cast more often.
The solution to all of this is not in actors being taught not to be true to themselves, but the opposite. Actors should be their own advocates and be unapologetically who they are, insisting on respect. It’s much more difficult, but it’s the path to a career one can ultimately be proud of, rather than a career based on compromise and self-hatred.
The solution is also in Jewish creators writing stories that are unapologetically Jewish, and then casting Jewish actors. It’s such an obvious fix, but it’s sad that so many are either too afraid, or too complacent and comfortable to take those steps.
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