clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A bright yellow illustration shows Leonard Bernstein with a tiny Bradley Cooper clinging to his profile, forming an exaggerated nose. Ellen Weinstein for Vox

Filed under:

When is a nose just a nose? A brief history of non-Jews playing Jews onscreen.

Bradley Cooper’s turn as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro is just the latest role to stoke conversations about what Jewish representation means in Hollywood.

Marjorie Ingall is a cultural critic and author. Her most recent books are Mamaleh Knows Best and Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, written with Susan McCarthy.

When the first images of Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic schnoz — the honking appendage he wears to play conductor Leonard Bernstein in Maestro — made their internet debut a few months ago, hot takes abounded: The Nose was antisemitic! The Nose was not antisemitic! Anyone saying The Nose was not antisemitic was antisemitic! Leonard Bernstein’s children responded: Their father “had a nice, big nose” and all criticism was merely “disingenuous attempts to bring a successful person down a notch”! The Onion chimed in: “Leonard Bernstein’s Children Release Statement Confirming Father Wore Big Prosthetic Nose In Real Life”!

Whew. As noted large-nosed Jew Sigmund Freud might have put it, sometimes a nose is just a nose. But sometimes it’s a symbol of something (even) bigger. The question of how some people were absolutely sure the nose was problematic and others were 100 percent convinced it wasn’t raises fascinating, nuanced questions about what it means to be an American Jew. What, exactly, is “Jewish representation?” As Henry Bial, theater professor at the University of Kansas and author of Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen, notes, “Generally speaking, we tend to be upset by non-Jews playing Jews to the degree that we feel Jews are accepted in the mainstream.”

People who see Jews as basically just white people, as immigrants who’ve made it, tend to roll their eyes at those who see Jews as a minority needing protection ... and at those who care about some self-important actor’s oversized proboscis. People who feel threatened by the stratospheric rise in antisemitism in the last few years take The Nose — and the fact that Jews onscreen tend to be played by non-Jews — as a marker of something more sinister.

It’s important to note that not all Jews are white. And because Jews, after their expulsion from Judea by the Romans in 70 CE, have lived all over the world, there are all kinds of Jews: Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Jews of all hues. But it’s the stories of Ashkenazi Jews like Bernstein that tend to get told, when Jewish stories are told at all. That’s probably because American Jewry is predominantly Ashkenazi, and Hollywood is an American invention.

As we gear up for Maestro’s theatrical release, perhaps it’s time to discuss the idea that this disagreement shows the peculiar place Jews hold in the world. We’re seen as both consummate insiders and perpetual outsiders. We’re considered hungry usurpers, foreigners, sneaks; we’re also told we’re influential decision-makers, whispering in the ears of the most powerful people in the world. This is why antisemitism itself is such a weird, singular hatred, one that isn’t so comparable to other kinds of -isms. It comes from both the left and the right. And it hangs on a contradiction. Are we in or are we out? Is it possible to be both?

Make no mistake, the fact that Jews in film and TV are overwhelmingly played by non-Jews is real. Off the top of my head: Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel. (Bonus points for Tony Shalhoub as her father and Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce.) Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. Rachel McAdams as an Orthodox Jew in Disobedience. Renée Zellweger as an Orthodox Jew in A Price Above Rubies. Óscar Isaac as a formerly Orthodox Jew in Scenes From a Marriage. Kathryn Hahn as a rabbi in Transparent. Al Pacino as a wince-inducingly over-the-top Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Alec Guinness as a wince-inducingly over-the-top Fagin in Oliver Twist. Charlton Heston as, y’know, Moses. Millie Perkins as Anne Frank. Jared Leto as Israeli WeWork founder Adam Neumann. (The fact that no one had criticism of Jared Leto’s prosthetic nose is perhaps an indication of just how annoying Jared Leto is. The nose is a drop in the bucket.) Steve Carell as a Jewish therapist in The Patient. Adam Driver as a Jewish cop in Black KkKlansman. Daniel Craig as Jewish World War II resistance fighter Tuvia Bielski in Defiance. Wendi McLendon-Covey as a clinging, neurotic 1980s Jewish mother in The Goldbergs. Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as Steven Spielberg’s Jewish parents in The Fabelmans. Rachel Sennott in, well, everything. Gary Oldman as Jewish screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (cast despite his 2014 rant that “in a town that’s run by Jews,” Mel Gibson “got drunk and said a few things, but we’ve all said those things,” and now Gibson is “an outcast, a leper”; sure, Gary).

With all the attention to Bradley Cooper’s nose, barely anyone has noticed that Carey Mulligan plays Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre, the daughter of an Ashkenazi Jewish father and a Costa Rican mother. And honestly, when it comes to Helen Mirren’s Golda Meir, the prosthetic nose feels like the least of that movie’s problems. (On the upside, Melanie Hutsell did recently discuss her apology to Mayim Bialik for wearing a big ol’ fake nose as Blossom on SNL, back when Bialik was a teenager. Yay?)

Does casting matter? Does casting matter when a lot, though not all, of those Jewish roles played by non-Jews were written by Jews? A common antisemitic belief is that “Jews own the media.” For the record, we do not. But we’ve been integral to the creation of it and have always participated in it. Jews — Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Harry Warner, Marcus Loew — founded early movie studios because they could.

Unlike more prestigious, longstanding fields, moviemaking had no old boys’ network, no status, no one shuddering delicately at these men’s déclassé religious heritage and deliberately keeping them out. When TV was established, it too was viewed by the titans of industry as niche, tacky, beneath notice. It took off fast, though (in 1950, only 9 percent of American homes had a TV; a decade later, 90 percent did), and all at once there was ravenous demand for content, a term no one yet knew. Suddenly, Jewish men had a huge platform.

Jewish history and entertainment history, entwined

Even when those Jewish men were at the helm, they hesitated to depict Jewish characters and Jewish stories. A common phrase at the time — one still, by some accounts, used today — was “write Yiddish, cast British.”

One of the first Oscar-bait depictions of (non-Biblical) Jewishness was Gentleman’s Agreement, the 1947 movie in which Gregory Peck plays a journalist for a prestige magazine who goes undercover as a Jew. He discovers that many hotels are closed to Jews, that some landlords won’t rent to Jews, some neighborhoods won’t let Jews buy homes, and some doctors won’t see Jewish patients. He discovers that Jewish kids get bullied and that many genteel, classy people have prejudices they’re unaware of. It’s vital to note that the first movie about antisemitism had to star a beloved, menschy non-Jewish actor and ask the audience to identify with his courageous discovery that antisemitism exists and it is bad.

In general, though, Jewish creators sought to tell “American” stories. The last thing American Jews wanted to do was point out their otherness. They were probably right to make that call. Eddy Portnoy, senior researcher at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, told me, “The basic racism of American society, especially in the 1950s, was that in a popular TV show you could have Jewish people clowning like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, but if you wanted to have a popular TV show with an office and a family, it had to reflect the dominant society. It couldn’t be Jewish.”

The canonical example is The Dick Van Dyke Show, which aired from 1961-66. It was a de-Jewified version of its creator Carl Reiner’s own story as a writer on Your Show of Shows, with extremely not-Jewish Mary Tyler Moore as his stunning wife. By the 1980s, we started to see more Jewish men playing Jewish men on TV, perhaps as overt antisemitism abated, Jewish university quotas ended, memories of the Holocaust became less immediate. “But it became a common phenomenon to have a Jewish man with a gentile woman,” Portnoy pointed out. “I don’t know if that was part of the male Jewish writer’s shiksa-goddess fantasy.” (Hint: Yes. And I’d argue that today, positive Jewish representation is still more of a problem for Jewish women than Jewish men.)

In general, Jews and non-Jews alike seem uncomfortable talking about the Jewish history of show business. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opened the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2021, controversy erupted: There was almost no mention of the industry’s pioneers being Jewish. As a Brandeis professor of American Studies and Hollywood historian observed, “It’s sort of like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting, and ignoring the Italians.” The museum responded with a promise to launch a special exhibit called “Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital,” which focuses on the early studio system and will open in May 2024. Is that good enough?

An illustration shows two hands forming a shadow puppet. The shadow, in the shape of a person’s silhouette with an exaggerated nose, falls over a small man. Ellen Weinstein for Vox

Jewface and its malcontents

Jews are in this weird liminal space, both inside and outside the general entertainment discourse. Meanwhile, all of us are now in an era of reckoning in which people are looking at the media they consume and realizing that, historically, certain stories haven’t been told. Or if they have been told, it’s been through white savior narratives, like Gentleman’s Agreement, or a gazillion movies about heroic white rescuers of Jews, Black people, and so many other marginalized communities. We’re starting to contend with exclusionary, horrifying casting decisions. Mickey Rooney’s squinty-eyed, buck-toothed portrayal of Audrey Hepburn’s Asian neighbor, for just one example, has rendered Breakfast at Tiffany’s unwatchable for many. Where do Jews fit into this paradigm?

“In the ’50s and ’60s and into the ’70s, you had this self-policing, in which Jewish producers and directors worried that if they cast a Jew in a Jewish role, people wouldn’t watch,” Bial told me. “It’s different when it’s a non-Jewish actor playing Jewish to show what a good actor they are, because being Jewish is so inherently weird and hard. A parallel might be straight actors playing gay and getting awards, or actors who aren’t disabled playing disabled.” And don’t forget cisgender people playing trans folks and, in a colorist world, perhaps even light-skinned Black actors portraying dark-skinned historical figures.

Actors often want to play people who are nothing like them because that’s how you win Oscars. And sometimes this casting comes from what Bial called a “naively optimistic” place: “A non-Jewish actor can be eager to play a Jewish role to show they don’t see Jews as different,” he explained. “Not in an oppressive, colonizing way, but in a ‘we’re all just people’ way.” It’s a method acting thing: You needn’t have the same experience as a character as long as you can tap into parallel emotional experiences in your own life.

But does this mean you’re taking roles away from those who should be inhabiting them? Sarah Silverman and others have complained about “Jewface,” by which they mean the casting of non-Jews as Jews. In 2021, after Kathryn Hahn was cast as Joan Rivers in a now-shelved project, Silverman said on her podcast, “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.” Jewface, to her, means “changing of features, big fake nose, all the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection.” Silverman asked, “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?” (Due to the publicity blackout of the SAG-AFTRA strike, Silverman has thus far been saved from having to comment on her role in Maestro as Bernstein’s sister Shirley.)

Silverman’s is a valid question. But as the critic Jody Rosen has long pointed out, “Jewface” has a specific meaning that’s different from the way Silverman uses it. Back in the day, vaudeville featured all kinds of ethnic mockery: of Irish people, Jewish people, Black people. One reason I’m personally uncomfortable using the term Jewface about casting decisions is that it plays on the term blackface, some of the most noted stars of which were Jews. The plot of 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first talkie and the rare early film that starred a Jew playing a Jew, is about the son of a synagogue cantor who prefers to sing onstage — sometimes in blackface — rather than in the pulpit.

While Irish organizations were successful in fighting demeaning vaudevillian portrayals of drunk Irishmen, Portnoy told me, Jews took a different tack: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em — and be better at it. Around 1909, the Central Conference of American Rabbis instigated an investigation into offensive portrayals of Jews in vaudeville because they felt it led to increased antisemitism: “But then they figured out that by that time, Jewish performers had taken over the field,” Portnoy said. Jews have always been quick to make fun of themselves. The rabbis backed off, deciding there was nothing to be done about Jewface when, in Portnoy’s words, “not only the performers, but the writers, the sheet music publishers, the theater owners, the managers, and the audiences were mostly Jewish.”

The great Irving Berlin had a song called “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars,” in which Old Man Rosenthal is on his deathbed but refuses to die until Cohen pays him. “A Jew wrote this!” Portnoy exclaimed. “This is in some ways problematic! But it was a writing gig!” Jewface performances quickly became so full of Yiddish that non-Jews wouldn’t understand them. They were aimed at the in-group, not the wider culture. Lots of marginalized artists — drag queens, Black standup comedians, Latino performance artists — have turned other folks’ mockery into points of pride through their work.

Jews’ insider/outsider status in American show business was predated by centuries of painful portrayals by non-Jews. Bial has written extensively about the ways in which medieval dramas, church drama stories, and Renaissance, and early modern theater used physical conventions to show that a character was Jewish. The character would have red hair, which was associated with the devil, or they’d have to sport special conical or Sorry-game-piece-shaped hats. For hundreds of years in physical media, Jews were portrayed with very specific physicality. Portnoy said, “Humor magazines like Puck and Judge had lots of cartoons with horrible caricatures of big-nosed, thick-lipped, curly-haired, droopy-eared, weird-bodied Jews. That was the nature of humor at the time.”

A bright yellow illustration shows a large woman’s face with an uncomfortable expression. A small singing performer on a stage completes the shape of her nose. Ellen Weinstein for Vox

These images were printed on postcards, many of which are part of YIVO’s large postcard collection. “Clearly the images were so commonplace they weren’t even discussed,” Portnoy continued. “The postcards in the collection are all used, all written to someone, and they’re always, like, ‘We’re in Niagara Falls; we’d love to see you!’ They never even comment on the image.”

The long history of “this is what Jews look like” can make a prosthetic nose feel awfully weighted, particularly since Maestro’s nose seems way more prominent than Bernstein’s own. (In my humble opinion, that is. As the saying goes, though, two Jews, three opinions: A Jewish female screenwriter protested to me, “I’d kill to have a nose like that! If I had a nose job, that’s the nose I’d want!”) Portnoy notes that the term in vaudeville for the substance used to attach a fake snoot was “Jew clay.”

Reasonable people disagree about where Jews belong in the diversity conversation. Bial puts it succinctly: “There’s a fundamental asymmetry in that progressives universally think of Jews as white and white supremacists universally think of Jews as not white, and this creates a problem. Because if you think Jews are white, there shouldn’t be a problem with any other white person playing them.” Of course, again, not all Jews are white, and even those who are can have their whiteness questioned. There are so many kinds of Jews whose traditions and stories are rarely shared, which informs questions around Jewish representation far bigger than The Nose.

And yet, The Nose pulls the focus. It might be more productive to ask questions like, “Do you have to have generational trauma baked into your bones to be able to play Anne Frank or Leonard Bernstein?” as Bial asks (rhetorically?). Is authenticity artistically vital because it makes someone a better actor, or is it politically vital because people who have been excluded in the past should now get to be centered? Are Jews who throw around the term “Jewface” demanding to be seen as oppressed when they shouldn’t be?

Which brings us back to Bial’s point: “If we feel Jews are just another white American ethnicity, there’s no real power imbalance. But if we feel that Jews are othered or slandered in media, or that antisemitism is on the rise, we tend to get a lot more nervous about how we’re being represented and we’re less likely to trust someone who’s not a member of the tribe to do that representation.”

When I started this piece, I didn’t think The Nose was a big deal. By the time I finished, I felt that telling other people they’re silly or overreacting for being upset is perhaps more harmful than any prosthetic nose could ever be.

Maestro is playing on Netflix.

Culture

Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation

Culture

The chaotic, irreplaceable Wendy Williams

Celebrity Culture

Are Skims campaigns the new Vogue covers?

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.