Should non-Jews play Jewish roles in Hollywood?

The general rule is that minority roles are only allowed to be played by that minority. Jews, however, have been excepted from this norm.
Will Ferrell as Marty Markowitz chants from the Torah as Paul Rudd as the therapist Dr. Ike looks on, in “The Shrink Next Door.” (Photo: Apple TV+)

Hollywood has struggled with identity for a long time. Since their founding, major studios have used racist depictions of characters, including characters in blackface and racist stereotypes in cartoons.

More recently, Hollywood has come under increased pressure to combat these racist depictions, forcing Hollywood to become more identity-conscious. Hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite took off in 2015, which further pushed Hollywood to celebrate diverse performances.

The general rule of thumb (as illustrated by the casting of Scarlett Johanson in the anime film, “Ghost in the Shell”) is that minority roles are only allowed to be played by that minority. Jews, however, have been excepted from this norm.

This begs the question: Why can non-Jews play Jews in film and TV and should that be accepted?

When have non-Jews played Jewish characters?

Before we get into that, let’s talk about what it means to “act Jewish” in the first place. Every culture has its unique differences and Jewish culture is no exception.

Anything culturally or religiously Jewish — whether it is an accent, a name, or an expression like “oy vey,” — could express a character’s Jewishness. Often, a character’s Jewishness is also explicitly stated.

It is not uncommon to see non-Jews portraying Jews. In Marvel Studios’ “Moon Knight,” the character Marc Spector (a.k.a. Moon Knight) is Jewish. In the show, Spector attends a shiva for his brother, and wears a Star of David necklace and a kippah.

Even Moon Knight’s comic book origins are explicitly Jewish: his ancestors survived the Holocaust and his father was a rabbi. Yet, the non-Jewish actor Oscar Isaac plays this visibly Jewish character.

A more extreme example is Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Marty Markowitz, a Jewish New Yorker, in “The Shrink Next Door.” He’s shown having a bar mitzvah as a child (and later a second, as he didn’t enjoy the first due to anxiety and, you guessed it, stomach problems!).

Some scenes take place at his local synagogue and his rabbi is mentioned several times. Marty also speaks in a heavy Jewish New York accent. Despite the character’s Jewish-sounding name, accent, and stomach problems, Will Ferrell is not Jewish.


Paul Rudd performing an Aliyah at Will Ferrell’s Bar Mitzvah? 🤯 #JewishCelebs

♬ original sound – Unpacked

Other examples include Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex,” and Helen Mirren in the upcoming film “Golda.”

The trend isn’t new but goes all the way back to Charlie Chaplin as the Jewish Barber in “The Great Dictator” from 1940 and Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” from 1956.

Should non-Jews be allowed to play Jewish roles?

While some people say that anyone should be able to portray a Jewish character, others feel that today’s norm of playing one’s own identity not being applied to Jewish characters is a double standard.

Comedian David Baddiel, the author of “Jews Don’t Count,” expressed the latter point of view in an op-ed for the Guardian.

For Baddiel, the issue is all about treating the Jewish community with the same respect that other minorities are given.

When it comes to other minorities, the thinking is that “there is something disrespectful…about casting an able-bodied actor in a disabled part, or a cis actor in a trans part, and so on,” Baddiel explained. “The deaf actor Marlee Matlin expressed this well when she said: ‘Deaf is not a costume.’”

By likening non-Jews playing Jews to an able-bodied actor playing a person with disabilities, he emphasized a lack of respect. The able-bodied actor does not know the true experience of having a disability, just like a non-Jewish actor does not know the lived experience of being a Jew.

For Baddiel, if the actor playing a Jewish character cannot truly understand what they are playing, they are doing a disservice to Jewish culture and history. They do not know what the value of the story they are telling might be to someone else, showing a carelessness for Jewish topics.

Others believe that Jews should play Jewish characters so that they are portrayed authentically on-screen. As television is many peoples’ only exposure to Jewish life, some argue that having non-Jews play Jewish roles runs the risk of playing up and reinforcing Jewish stereotypes.

The Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman expressed this point of view, and she even coined the term, “Jew-face” for the inauthentic portrayal of Jewish characters by non-Jewish actors.

“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,” she said. “[Jew-face] is 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 Yorkie or Yiddish inflection.”

What’s the counterpoint? On the other side of the debate, some support minorities playing minority roles with the exception of Jews.

Unlike other minorities, Jewish actors are already afforded many roles in Hollywood. Since people of color have historically not been included in mainstream American media, many people see “reserving” roles for them as a way to better incorporate diverse stories into media. Many people I know share the sentiment that because Jews already have so many roles, they do not need to be “saved spots” in this way.

Others reject the whole idea of only playing one’s own identity. They think that anyone should be able to play any role in order to tell the best story. Scarlett Johanson shared this view, saying in an interview, “[A]s an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job . . . I feel art should be free of restrictions.”

Though Baddiel, Silverman, and others have called for a change, nothing has happened. Whether you believe that only Jews should play Jewish roles, or you believe anyone should be able to portray them, it seems unlikely that change will happen. Studios will continue to cast non-Jewish minorities in minority roles while allowing non-Jews to play Jewish roles.

What do you think? Should non-Jews be able to play non-Jewish characters? Tell us on InstagramTwitter, and TikTok!

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