If Jews Control Hollywood, Why Are There So Many Cringeworthy Jewish Characters?

Last week Variety editor Malina Saval penned an important piece:  Too Jewish For Hollywood: As Antisemitism Soars, Hollywood Should Address Its Enduring Hypocrisy In Hyperbolic Caricatures of Jews. In it Saval discusses Hollywoood’s Jewish history and its troubling portrayal of Jews.

While some will say, “Jews control Hollywood,” the truth is that Jews created Hollywood out of necessity because there were not too many industries where they were welcome. And creating is different than running, Saval notes. While there were and are many Jewish directors and producers, to this day, Hollywood treats Jewish actors differently. Other minorities are ONLY allowed to play themselves, but for some reason, most casting directors use gentiles to play Jewish parts, especially female ones.

Saval notes that sometimes Jews do play Jews, but in those cases, they have to be a little self-hating to pass. This point struck me the most, because we’ve been tracking bad portrayals of Orthodox Jews here at Jew in the City for years. Writer Yael Levy even penned “The Josephs test” to assess how and to what degree TV shows and movies poorly represent Orthodox Jews.

The main criticism of Orthodox portrayals is that the character either wants to escape his religious life in order to self-actualize or is so obnoxious and judgmental, the viewer wants to escape from the character. So unless the actor is played by a gentile, it seems that Hollywood can’t produce a terribly likable Jewish character – either religious or secular. This led me to an important realization.

The Jews who are in positions of power in Hollywood don’t just dislike Orthodox Jews – they are uncomfortable in their own Jewish skin. Perhaps it stems from their history of not being wanted anywhere, coupled with a non-existent Jewish education. If being Jewish is only a liability with no positives, can you blame them?

According to the FBI, 63% of all reported religion-based hate crimes in 2019 were directed at Jews, despite us only making up 2% of the population. Saval correctly argues that Hollywood has a social responsibility to do better. But Jewish Hollywood execs won’t do better until they feel better about who they are as Jews.

I’ve made the offer before to educate Hollywood directors and producers about Orthodox Jews in a cultural way, so they can represent us with humanity and nuance. But it occurred to me that there’s an even more foundational offer I need to make. I’d like to offer a chance to learn to love what it means to be Jewish, to take great pride in our heritage, our wisdom, our traditions. There is so much depth and beauty in our way of life, and all it takes is taking the chance to learn.

Jews are not running Hollywood, but there are certainly many in power. And it’s time for them to learn to love the Jews that they are before we can ever hope for them to show that positivity on the screen.

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  • Avatar photo Belle says on June 25, 2021

    I’m confused by this statement: “Other minorities are ONLY allowed to play themselves, but for some reason, most casting directors use gentiles to play Jewish parts, especially female ones.”
    The first part of that statement may be true enough now, but until quite recently, Native Americans were frequently portrayed by non-Native actors, Asian characters were played by non-Asians, etc. And we all know about the issues with white performers in blackface that started in minstrel shows during the 19th century (with antecedents even earlier) and persisted into the silent-film era and slightly beyond.
    Or did I misunderstand your statement?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 25, 2021

      Thanks for your question. In the past this was not the standard. But in the last year, we’ve seen voice over actors turn down roles because they were not from the group they were portraying. The world has made some big realizations about sensitivity in the last year. But Jews get left out.

    • Avatar photo Jenny says on June 26, 2021

      Belle, Over the past 5 years or so, there has been increased effort made to avoid racial/ethic stereotypes when portraying characters (rightfully so). Also in the past 5 yrs or so, Black actors play Black characters, Latino actors play Latino characters, etc (except Hamilton when white characters are portrayed by POC!).

      However, Jews continued to be stereotyped, portrayed with horrible characteristics and generally unlikeable in TV/film plots. Jewish characters are always portrayed as greedy, sly, overly interested in money, anxious/neurotic (Woody Allen-ish), etc.

      You may notice, some Jews literally spend their lives working to fight for Black rights, Latino rights, Native American rights, LGBT, etc etc….but no one returns the favor….. when Jews are the #1 victim of Hate Crimes and when we are killed, no one other than Jews is out there speaking up for us.

      • Avatar photo Jenny says on June 26, 2021

        And of course obviously I know there are many Jews of Color (particularly in Israel!! where most Jews are people of color)

        • Avatar photo avi says on July 27, 2021

          almost all Israeli Jews except Ethiopian are white

          • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on July 27, 2021

            Not true. Most are brown Sephardic Jews.

  • Avatar photo David Katzoff says on June 27, 2021

    I just want to correct something stated in the article. It doesn’t change the point made but Jews make up 2.4% of the US population, not .2% as stated here.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 27, 2021

      Whoops! That was supposed to say 2%. Thanks for catching it.

  • Avatar photo David Penzel says on June 27, 2021

    What I want to see from Hollywood is Moshe portrayed by a Jewish actor. We’ve had ubergentile Charlton Heston, honorary MOS Burt Lancaster, Theodore Roberts, Val Kilmer, among others, and cruelest travesties of all, Christian Slater and Christian Bale. I have nothing against all these fine gentlemen, but really now, Christian Slater and Christian Bale?

    • Avatar photo David Penzel says on June 28, 2021

      That should have been “honorary MOT Burt Lancaster.

      • Avatar photo Leba says on July 1, 2021

        I mostly agree with this article and hope that Jewish actors are given the opportunity to play Jewish characters in the vast majority of roles going forward. I 100% agree that Hollywood needs to cast roles authentically.

        But the movement to cast characters authentically is fairly new and still an ongoing struggle. Jews aren’t the only minority group left out; notably, characters with disabilities are still often played by abled actors, for example. And despite the media focus on people of color calling for more diversity, the vast majority of movies and TV shows created in America still have majority white casts (and writing teams).

        Hollywood has a long way to go to better represent diversity, period. I want them to represent Jews better and cast Jewish actors to play Jewish characters, but we should stand in solidarity with other groups pushing for nuanced representation, and not imply that their struggle is over.

    • Avatar photo avi says on July 27, 2021

      sometimes I think they cast a gentile in Biblical depictions as to deJudaize the character. Moses was a “Hebrew” not a Jew.
      But if all asians have to be asians , than all Jesus’s need to be Jewish


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