Jewish sensitivity in publishing and Hollywood

You don’t need to imagine the outcry that would occur today if the character of Rosa Parks were played by a white actress.

 A SCENE from ‘A Stranger Among Us,’ starring Melanie Griffith.  (photo credit: RICARDO PABLO/FLICKR)
A SCENE from ‘A Stranger Among Us,’ starring Melanie Griffith.
(photo credit: RICARDO PABLO/FLICKR)

Despite all the recent clatter in the world media about whether Whoopi Goldberg is antisemitic because she doesn’t think Jews are a race, and whether it’s okay that Jews are invariably portrayed by non-Jewish actors, a similar but possibly more important issue has been virtually ignored.

Bewailing the lack of Jewish representation of Jewish characters on-screen is the new Wordle. Why, goes the outcry, in an era when blacks play black characters, and deaf actors play deaf characters, are the majority of Jewish roles played by non-Jews? Why are Jewish sensibilities not considered in the same way as other ethnicities and subcultures? To echo Goldberg’s unfortunate parlance, are Jews not a race the same as other races? If it’s true for everyone else, why isn’t it true for us?

It’s a good question, deserving of consideration. But we may be missing an even larger issue.

First, for those who have been hibernating with the groundhog, the quandary: The actors, and those speaking for them, are torn between championing their excellent acting prowess, which should let them play any role regardless of color, religion and the like; and sticking to the recent liberal party line that prohibits cultural misappropriation of any sort.

You don’t need to imagine the outcry that would occur today if the character of Rosa Parks were played by a white actress. But renditions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Golda Meir, to name just two of many recent examples, are being played by non-Jews. Comedian Sarah Silverman calls it “JewFace,” parallel to the blackface of racist minstrel shows. Isn’t this cultural misappropriation at its worst?

Rosa Parks in Her Bus Seat, diorama – National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Rosa Parks in Her Bus Seat, diorama – National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, where to draw the line? Does “The Good Doctor” need to be autistic? Does a trans character require a trans actor?

Can murderers be portrayed only by actual murderers? What about aliens? Isn’t the whole point of acting to act?

It seems patently absurd.

And no one wants to even mention the obvious corollary to this line of thought: that Jews are permitted to play only Jewish roles. That’s even worse.

Or that consistently depicting Jewish characters stereotypically as white, big-nosed, rich characters – when Jews are racially, ethnically, economically and culturally so diverse – seems like a hearkening back to the ’50s.

On the other hand, as deaf actress Marlee Matlin so eloquently put it, “Deaf is not a costume.” If deaf isn’t a costume, then thousands of years of Jewish identity and shared history probably aren’t, either.

But in an era where other ethnicities are all being portrayed by their own kind and getting their due, why are Jews – as usual – exempt, somehow the exception that doesn’t deserve equal treatment? And how does that connect to Goldberg’s assertion that Jews are not a race?

ASIDE FROM the issue of who’s portraying the Jews, though, a larger point is lurking and being ignored.

The Jewish details are often just plain wrong.

Turns out, there’s an entire profession of editors who specialize in what is now known as sensitivity reading.

Meticulous attention is devoted to ensuring that details of various subgroups (blacks, gays, trans, deaf, autistic, Native American) are portrayed both accurately and sensitively in books, TV and movies. Sensitivity readers (who invariably come from within the community) get paid big bucks to be sure that The Man is depicting them accurately.

But despite this, and despite how this profession has contributed to the greatly improved portrayals of all kinds of other groups, the sensitivity reading for Jewish characters and situations ranges from insensitive to just plain wrong.

Why, in an era when sensitivity readers are hired to vet and approve the cultural details and errata of every single religious, geographic, cultural and ethnic group in movies, television and books, are Jews – as usual – being portrayed incorrectly, clumsily, inadequately?

Is it just lack of attention? Is it some kind of subtle antisemitism? Or is it that we are the only group that knows so little about ourselves that we are unable to sensitively and accurately portray Jews? Is it mostly Jewish illiteracy – and ignorance of that illiteracy – by the Jews in the literary and film worlds themselves?

The latest Pew Report tells us that 27% of Jews today do not identify with the Jewish religion at all. They identify as Jewish culturally, rather than religiously. Of Jews under age 30, 40% identify as “nothing in particular.”

We need a more literate Jewish community, unless we want Judaism to be only about our common affinity for bagels.

So are all the movie and TV details wrong simply because the Jewish consultants, writers and producers are Jewishly illiterate?

Though Israel, unlike the US, has no sensitivity reader profession per se, many of the productions being filmed in Israel, including Unorthodox and Shtisel, get the details correct: Unofficial ex-haredi Israeli movie consultants abound. (Ironically, Shtisel depicts these very fringe but knowledgeable haredim as extras in Lippe’s recruitment for the show within the show.)

It is the American productions and books, in a country where sensitivity readers abound, that invariably get those details wrong.

AND IT’S not a new fashla (screwup), though as the sensitivity industry gets more and more sophisticated, the phenomenon grows more and more surprising.

Thirty years ago, Melanie Griffith starred in a murder movie, A Stranger Among Us, about a female undercover cop who infiltrates the New York hassidic community to find the perpetrator. In one pivotal scene, the Orthodox community engaged in mixed dancing, a strict no-no in Orthodox religious circles. And even way back in 1992 when the movie was released, it is hard to believe that had the Melanie character been told of some esoteric black or Hispanic custom, it would have been acceptable for her to dismissively say, “Yeah, whatever,” which is how she responds to the explanation of Jewish customs.

The problem persists to the present day.

With so many Jewish authors, Jewish editors, Jewish screenwriters, and Jewish directors, why, oh why, do so many books and Hollywood productions get the Jewish details so very wrong?

Take Downton Abbey, which spared no expense on sets or costumes, so it presumably had enough budget to cover sensitivity. In Season 5, a character with a distinctly non-Jewish name mentions that his grandfather had changed his name (i.e., from something Jewish) – but that he’d like to change it back.

This is 1924. No matter how heimish this guy leans, no matter how much chopped liver and gefilte fish he craves, no one Jewish in 1924 Europe wanted to change their name back. Certainly no one in 1924 who was passing would admit it.

Or take the otherwise wonderful and more recent show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From the very first episode, the Jewish details were treated cavalierly – even though being Jewish is a cornerstone of this show.

Some of the errors can be explained away by noting that the Maisels and friends are mostly Reform, rather than Conservative or Orthodox Jews, so Midge’s Kol Nidre night improv performance at the night club was theoretically possible. And many of the scenes and ambiance of the Catskill’s Jewish resort were pitch-perfect.

But the shrimp in the wedding egg rolls, the rabbi wearing his tallit during the opening wedding reception dinner, and particularly the treif dinner procured at the pork-chop deli that was cooked for the rabbi’s Yom Kippur breakfast were all unlikely at best, verging on laughable.

(Or perhaps that’s the point: Scrutinizing each episode for your favorite mistakes quickly turned into a reason for viewing, causing some of us to wonder whether maybe the gaffes were a deliberate ploy to encourage viewers.)

YET THE same issues plague the book world, with perhaps even less excuse: TV and even movies, although with enormous budgets, are sometimes adapted on the fly for various reasons, but books, albeit with smaller budgets, are almost always left alone once edited, and the editing is generally finalized at least a year before publication date. That should be enough time to catch all the Jewish mistakes.

But apparently it’s not.

Look at Remy Maisel’s recent rom-com, Grounds for Divorce, a fun romp with the unlikely premise of an unknown being accidentally tapped to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Remy gets the Israel and cultural details uncannily correct, but then portrays a business meeting on Shabbat, and the family eating hot dogs with macaroni and cheese.

Nor are the best sellers, with theoretically bountiful budgets, immune.

Take Jodi Picoult’s Change of Heart, where on Saturdays the main character drives to her mom’s New Hampshire spa for a facial or pedicure, after which they have lunch at the spa, of which we are told, “Her spa cuisine was kosher” – but the meal is being cooked and served on Shabbat. Not impossible, but unlikely. (Why bother importing kosher food to the wilds of New Hampshire, if the clientele won’t have a Shabbat experience? Who are the spa’s customers that are insisting on kosher food, but booking Shabbat pedicures?)

Or try Jennifer Weiner’s latest.

Mrs. Everything is the story of two Jewish sisters and their family saga. But just 14 pages in, they’re eating lunch in Bubbe and Zayde’s strictly and explicitly mentioned kosher kitchen – a bowl of chicken noodle soup with bread “spread with real butter.”

The other mistakes can be written off as remnants of a Judaism that have been discarded like their antiquated clothing, but even the Orthodox characters are out of character. No Orthodox bubbe would be deliberately serving up chicken soup with real butter.

Nor does anyone seem particularly worried when, when it comes to Jews, cultural misappropriation crosses the line into cultural theft.

Even best sellers, like Fredrik Backman’s recent Anxious People, misquote the well-known Yiddish aphorism “Man plans, God laughs” without crediting or even hinting at its Jewish roots.

No one gets it right. It seems as though no one is even really trying.

Maybe the problem is not that non-Jewish actors are portraying Jews. Maybe the problem is that what Jews are portraying – and writing about, and publishing – is uneducated and ill-informed, a caricature of a caricature. Maybe it’s the legacy of the Pew Report all over again.

On the face of it, this may seem a less significant and weighty issue than whether Jews should be portrayed by Jewish actors. But think about it. If the story of Golda Meir, for example, is riddled with historical inaccuracies, what difference does it make which ethnicity is portraying her? The story is still wrong. ■

The writer advises on media at FernReiss.com. She is an occasional Jewish sensitivity reader for Hollywood and publishing.