Golda Meir’s grandson weighs in on ‘Jewface’ debate

“I have no issue with Helen Mirren being Jewish or not Jewish playing my grandmother. It doesn’t matter at all. I am sure Helen Mirren is great.”

Helen Mirren as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. (photo credit: Jasper Wolf)
Helen Mirren as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
(photo credit: Jasper Wolf)

As the controversy over the casting of non-Jews in Jewish roles in movies, television and theater continues, Golda Meir’s grandson, Shaul Rahabi, said last week he had no problem with non-Jew Helen Mirren portraying his grandmother.

“I have no issue with Helen Mirren being Jewish or not Jewish playing my grandmother. It doesn’t matter at all. I am sure Helen Mirren is great,” Rahabi told the Jewish Chronicle.

Rahabi did have some tips for how Mirren, who won an Oscar for The Queen, could best bring his mother’s mother, the first and only female Israeli prime minister, to life on the big screen: “If anyone was to portray my grandmother, they should know that she glowed; she had an amazing, powerful aura about her. Whenever she entered the room, you immediately felt it. She carried a powerful aura – that was what I felt.”

Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nattiv is directing the biopic, and the cast includes Shira Haas as Meir in her younger days and Lior Ashkenazi as David “Dado” Elazar, the former IDF chief of staff.

The issue of Mirren’s casting was raised recently by Maureen Lipman, a British Jewish actress who, like Mirren, holds the title “Dame,” who told the Chronicle: “With that [casting] I disagree, because the Jewishness of the character is so integral.”

 Actress Helen Mirren at the Berlinale 2020 (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) Actress Helen Mirren at the Berlinale 2020 (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

In an interview with ITV’s Good Morning, she walked back her remarks, saying she thought Mirren would be good in the role, but that she wished other actresses had been considered.

This issue has been called “Jewface,” a term that Lipman and others used in a 2019 letter protesting the casting of non-Jews as Jews in the play Falsettos.

The issue of casting gentiles as Jews has been in the headlines all over the world recently, notably when comedian/actress Sarah Silverman and others raised concerns over the casting of Kathryn Hahn, who is not Jewish, in a proposed biopic of the late comic Joan Rivers. The biopic was shelved, although no official reason was given.

Actress Tamsin Greig, who is not Jewish, recently said she should not have portrayed a Jewish mother in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner. Some in the US have said that Rachel Brosnahan, who is not Jewish, should not have been cast in the title role in The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel.

But many, like Meir’s grandson, have added their voices to the debate, saying that an actor’s religious beliefs and ethnic background should be irrelevant.

Patrick Marber, a theater director and playwright, told the Chronicle, “I really want us Jews to fight our corner, but to not be exclusive and excluding. I want us Jews to be liberal-minded and generous. I think a gentile can play a Jew and a Jew can play a gentile. I don’t like it when someone plays a Jew and gets it wrong. [But] I don’t like quotas. I don’t like laws. I think we should be better than that, we Jews.”