Kathryn Hahn was tapped to play Joan Rivers -- until it generated a firestorm.

Why Are So Many Gentile Actors Playing Jews?

The practice of casting non-Jewish actors in roles specifically written as Jewish has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Why is this a problem and why is it happening? Come share your thoughts with Kathryn Bernheimer as we examine this troubling phenomenon at the Boulder JCC on Monday April 3 at 1 pm, with a pre-program gathering starting at 12:30.

Steven Spielberg’s mother, left, and Michelle Williams, who plays her in “The Fabelmans

The glaring example of two recent, critically acclaimed childhood memoirs by famous directors– Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans and James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” – brought the ongoing issue of Jewish characters being played by non-Jews into sharp relief.

Bradley Cooper in the upcoming “Maestro

Bradley Cooper, in a prosthetic nose, will soon be on screen as Leonard Bernstein. Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir. Daisy Edgar-Jones has just been cast to play Carol King. The list is long, prompting questions that merit debate.

Kathryn Hahn played a rabbi in “Transparent,” alongside non-Jewish actors Jay Duplass, right, Jeffrey Tambor and Amy Landecker.

When it was announced in late 2021 that non-Jewish actress Kathryn Hahn, who played a rabbi in “Transparent,” was set to play Joan Rivers in a mini-series, comedian Sara Silverman called out Hollywood, creating a heated controversy that continues to boil today. Interestingly, the Joan Rivers project has since been cancelled following the pushback.

Kathryn Hahn was set to play Joan Rivers until…

In her now infamous podcast, Silverman noted that “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.’”

Silverman continued, “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?”

“Right now, representation f-ing matters,” Silverman added. “It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”

Silverman also noted that when a Jewish female character is “courageous or deserves love, she is never played by a Jew. Never.”

The comedian also pointed to anti-Semitic tropes such as “Jews run Hollywood” as “rendering people very righteously unsympathetic toward Jews.”

Rachel Brosnahan plays the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel while her parents are played by Marin Hinkle, right, and Tony Shalhoub.

Silverman cited Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“On the Basis of Sex”), Rachel Brosnahan playing Miriam Maisel (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), Margo Martindale playing Bella Abzug (“Mrs. America”), and Tracey Ullman playing Betty Friedan (“Mrs. America”).

The comedian stressed that none of these actors are “doing anything wrong” by playing Jewish characters but objected to the widespread practice.

Steve Carrel played a Jewish therapist in “The Patient

Indeed, from “The Patient” or “The Shrink Next Door,” streaming services consistently turn to non-Jews to portray overtly Jewish characters.

We invite film lovers to share their thoughts about a whole host of Jewish movies and streaming series. Whether you are looking for recommendations of programs to watch or want to discuss what you’ve currently been watching, this program will cast light on a wide expanse of Jewish content.

To register click here.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Kathryn has spent her professional life writing about, teaching, and presenting the arts. Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Kathryn was Director of Menorah and ACE at the Boulder JCC from 2003 through August, 2019. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time." kathryn.bernheimer@gmail.com

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