By Lianne Kolirin
“Jewface,” or casting non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles, is an ongoing transatlantic controversy in theatre, film, and TV. At the CANVAS Compendium, we’re often asked what constitutes Jewish arts and culture, so we tasked a reporter with untangling how the issue came up and to find out what Jewish people involved in casting—actors, artistic directors, theatremakers, and TV creators—think about it.
When a leading British theatre announced last year that it was staging Rare Earth Mettle, by respected playwright Al Smith, there was no mention of a Jewish character.
And yet the protagonist, a manipulative Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was named Hershel Fink. When the issue started to gather attention on social media, the Royal Court Theatre denied all suggestion of antisemitism — conscious or otherwise — by saying “for clarification the character is not Jewish and there is no reference to being Jewish in the play.”
Many within Britain’s Jewish community, however, believed it to be a clear-cut case of unconscious bias.
Patrick Marber, a Jewish playwright, tweeted in response to the theatre’s statement: “The name ‘Hershel Fink’ is not ‘antisemitic.’ But you are.’”
David Baddiel, a British comedian and author of Jews Don’t Count, an extended essay on antisemitism in the UK, tweeted: “Apparently @royalcourt claim they didn’t realise ‘Hershel Fink’ was a Jewish name. Hmm. Somehow it just sounded so right for a world conquering billionaire.”
Also among the theatre’s critics was Sarah Sigal, a Chicago-born playwright and director based in London. Sigal says that the issue had been flagged twice to the director by Jewish theatremakers, but nothing was done about it.
“My guess is he just didn’t think it was important,” Sigal told TheCANVAS Compendium. “They probably thought it was a problem if the character was Jewish, but he’s not, so it’s fine.”
Sigal said the suggestion the character was not Jewish might have been “laughable” if it didn’t have serious implications.
“There’s something subliminal and nefarious about the association between powerful Americans and Jewish names,” she said.
“The bigger problem was that his play was being developed at one of the most prominent English-language theatres in the world and they didn’t clock it.”
For many Jewish theatremakers, the Hershel Fink episode is not an individual misstep (to put it kindly)—it’s connected to the issue of Jewish participation in theatre about Jews.
Back in 2019, Sigal was one of the signatories of a letter which first coined the term “Jewface.” She and fellow Jewish actors and theatremakers wrote an open letter to the British company behind a production of William Finn’s Falsettos, which features the opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” Nobody involved in the project was Jewish, a scenario the signatories described as “overt appropriation.”
While not suggesting all Jewish roles be played by Jewish actors, it stated: “Jewface is a heightened and characteristic (mis)representation of Jews that is built on a secondary understanding of tropes, ticks, mannerisms, and vocal affectation that has no awareness of the primary factors such as psychology, geography, culture and history that have framed these outward signifiers of Judaism.”
Responses to a complicated question
As often happens, what starts in theatre ends up in Hollywood. The “Jewface” issue blew up in the US when Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the Queen, was cast as Israel’s first female leader, Golda Meir, in the upcoming movie by Guy Nattiv.
Comedian Sarah Silverman lent weight to the matter on a September, 2021 episode of her podcast. In it she cited, among others, the casting of Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers, Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs Maisel, and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She described the women as “brilliant actresses who are not doing anything wrong,” but added that if a female Jewish character “is courageous or deserves love, she’s never played by a Jewish woman. Ever.”
Joey Soloway, who cast Hahn as a rabbi in the popular TV series Transparent, did say that the casting issue “is certainly an interesting question.” But Soloway stands by the choice.
“Though Sarah Silverman may have a point and though Kathryn Hahn, were she tested by 23andme, may not prove Ashkenazi enough to satisfy certain people, I think it’s the wrong argument. I loved working with Kathryn on Transparent. She is my true muse and I see no reason why she shouldn’t be Rabbi Raquel or Joan Crawford. As long we’re seeing strong Jewish women portrayed on screen — that’s a win.”
Sigal believes that limiting the discussion to casting misses the point.
“We weren’t saying it’s only about casting,” she said. “What we were saying is if you’re going to make a piece of work that has Jews in it and Jewish themes, stories and characters, it isn’t right to do it with no Jews included.
“There are examples of non-Jews making plays about the Holocaust with no Jewish involvement and that’s kind of shocking. You can’t imagine doing a play about the genocide in Cambodia without Cambodian involvement.
“We’re not saying every single actor in Fiddler on the Roof should be Jewish, but we should have people there with the knowledge and lived experience to make sure something comes out of it that is genuine and that we are not just reproducing harmful stereotypes.”
“There is no blanket rule”
David Winitsky, artistic director at Jewish Plays Project, said that the topic is an “evergreen question” that has “come and gone” over the years.
“I cast Jewish roles every day, and 65 to 70% of the time I’m not that worried about it. I need a great actor who can do a good job in the role. But 35% of the time I think there’s something in the knowledge and specificity of that character that would really help if the actors were familiar with that place.
“It’s about competency and cultural knowledge. There are certain times when being a Jew gives you that perspective.”
Winitsky expressed sympathy for the concerns of the Jewish community.
“What I hear is a level of anxiety—that I share—that the idea of Jewishness as a kind of otherness is being dropped from, excluded from, separated from other conversations about otherness.
“We are having a very identity-driven moment and are having a lot of conversation around all the kind of different identity politics and inclusion, and I think there’s a concern here that Jews are being left out of that conversation.”
He added: “These things are causing a level of anxiety amongst Jews in the creative community and the way that’s being expressed is ‘Let’s make sure Jews get into Jewish roles.’”
Nevertheless, when it comes to casting there is “no blanket rule,” according to Winitsky, who admires Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of Abe Weissman in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel.
The question is “complicated,” according to Josh Hecht, artistic director at Portland, Oregon’s Profile Theatre, but essentially boils down to “that old adage, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
He continued: “It seems to me in some ways more complicated than other forms of questions of representation, because Jewish people sit in a particularly ambiguous nexus of religion, ethnicity, and race. So that question is less clear-cut than other things like blackface or yellowface.”
He pointed out that six percent of roles in Broadway plays went to Asian-American performers, and in non-musicals it’s less than three percent.
“There’s such a lack of representation in that community that the thought of casting someone who doesn’t identify as Asian American feels like robbing one of the few opportunities from this community of actors.
“So I think that context is really important. If the character’s Jewishness is prominent and an important part of their motive, the actor has to have intimate knowledge of what that means.”
The issue is older than you think
Perhaps for some perspective it’s helpful to look backwards, to one of the most famous Jewish characters in the Western canon—Shylock, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Winitsky believes there’s no saving the situation, no matter who plays him.
“I’m done with Shylock,” he said. “My take is we should just retire that one.
“If Shylock were a character of any other minority, we would say it’s offensive, and it wouldn’t be produced anymore.”
Interestingly, however, a recent production of Merchant at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience featured John Douglas Thompson, a Black actor, as Shylock. In a thoughtful essay for The New York Times, Maya Phillips praised Thompson’s “devastating pathos” while noting that while “of course Black Jews exist, […] the conflation addles the themes of the production and bends the original text in directions it can’t actually go.”
In the UK, a new production has just opened at London’s Globe Theatre, starring Jewish actor Adrian Schiller as Shylock.
In a recent interview with The Jewish Chronicle, a British Jewish website, he said the production was not about Jewishness but antisemitism and that the role of theatre companies was to expose that.
“Even so, we know there will be antisemites in the audience, because there are always people who come along to Shakespeare plays not knowing the theme, and there are antisemites everywhere.
“And there will also be Jews in the audience, and so we know at times those Jews will feel very, very isolated, because they will be surrounded by people who are going to laugh at antisemitic tropes, to laugh at Shakespeare’s antisemitic jokes. Our job is to expose that.”
Different communities, different concerns
As far as Sigal is concerned, the issue is not the same in Britain and the USA: while the history of American Jews has long been intertwined with the arts, the same cannot be said for Britain.
“I genuinely think the difference between the US and UK is that in the US there’s more presence, physically and in culture. It’s more common that people know Jews.”
Referring to the Hershel Fink affair, she said: “Part of the problem is that when this happens the rest of the theatre industry says nothing and it’s totally galling. It feels like no one cares.”
Emma Brand, a London-based theatre-maker and performer agrees, saying the controversy is about so much more than casting.
“I think this argument has been really flattened in quite a depressing way. From my experience I don’t think Jewish artists are saying only Jews can play Jews.
“It’s a broader thing—don’t wear my heritage as a costume. Think about it and make sure it’s authentic.”
Brand recalls being one of only two Jewish people involved with an adaptation of David Pinski’s Yiddish play Treasure.
“I got asked to cut up a tallit so they could put the tassles under the costumes and I said, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’”
“It wasn’t disrespectful, it was just wrong. A lack of Jewish representation is going to mean that there are things that you miss and things that you don’t appreciate.”
Brand added: “It isn’t like society is perfect when it comes to addressing other forms of racism, but I think not many groups would have this conversation happen over their heads.”
There is quite obviously no simple solution to the issue of non-Jews in Jewish roles, but perhaps there is something encouraging in the thoughtful range of responses, and that Jewish people working in film, theatre, and TV, see themselves as having some agency in the process.
Sarah Sigal has been involved in talks with The Royal Court Theatre and with playwright Al Smith about how the “Hershel Fink” blunder happened and how they might move forward from it.
Joey Soloway, interestingly, believes that the casting issue “is the wrong question.”
Marginalized groups should be fighting to be the people in power instead of “accepting their crumbs and enacting horizontal violence on one another within our movements. So that means that people like feminists are calling out other feminists. Activists are calling out other activists. […] And in doing so we are desecrating and destroying our movement from within.”