Oppenheimer has raked in over $300 million in box office sales, since its opening a week and a half ago. It’s a movie about several Jews who created the atomic bomb, which was built to end the systematic killing of the Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Many of the central players in the Manhattan Project were Jews, yet many of these actors who were cast to play these roles are gentiles. These choices have led to some online chatter about authentic casting for the Jewish community. Should tales about real Jewish people be played only by Jews? Should Jews of great historic significance have Jewish actors sharing their stories?
The question of who can play a Jew, is not just happening in Hollywood. Just before Oppenheimer’s release, the Broadway world had its own casting brouhaha when it was announced who would play the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl for the musical’s national tour. The lead role went to a non-Jew who is Cuban named Katerina McCrimmon. While there is no question on her talent and ability to carry a national tour, there is a question if the actress cast should have been a Jew.
Jennifer Apple, a Jewish actress who starred in the national tour of The Band’s Visit, recently spoke out on her Instagram account about the decision. It wasn’t just because of this decision alone though. For her, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in a series of similar incidents.
Apple was in two productions of Fiddler on the Roof, for example, and both times she was one of only two Jews. While there is the issue of “Jewface,” a term Sarah Silverman coined to speak about when a non-Jew portrays a Jew whose Jewishness is a main part of the character, there is also the issue of not having enough knowledge to effectively and accurately perform.
Apple explains that in one of her Fiddler productions, the bartender is supposed to sing a niggun, or a Jewish song, at Tzeitel and Mottel’s wedding. The director of the show suggested — “in earnest” — that he should sing “Dreidel, Dreidel.” “The only other Jew in the show and I had to stand up in the middle of rehearsal and be like, ‘Um, no,’” she shares.
Incidents like these happen repeatedly and could have larger consequences. In the case of the recent casting of Fanny Brice, Fanny’s Jewishness is central to who she was as a person. Firstly, she is a character based on a real Jewish woman who had to overcome antisemitism in order to make it big on stage. She refers to her nose in the script and dances around singing, “oy, oy, oy” with bagels around her neck.
When these comments are made by a Jew, they are part of who she is and she can accurately represent the sentiments behind them. When they’re read by a non-Jew, they take on a different feel. All of a sudden, you have a non-Jew poking fun at elements of Jewish culture and a whole audience laughing about it. Suddenly, things aren’t so funny.
The Complexities of an Ethnoreligion
While all minorities deserve advocacy, it gets slightly more complicated for the Jews, since Jews are an ethnoreligion, not just a religion or a race alone. During the Holocaust, it didn’t matter if you didn’t identify as Jewish. If you were an atheist or if you were a regular synagogue-goer, you were persecuted. It didn’t matter if you were Asian, Latina, Black or White, if you were simply Jewish, it was a problem.
To that point, Apple said McCrimmon’s Latina background is not even close to the issue. If the person cast was a Latina Jew, it would be incredible. When an actress is cast only on looks, you continue to perpetuate the Ashkenazi stereotypes that often exist in antisemitic ways, i.e. Bradley Cooper getting a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein.
In fact, Apple suggests that having an actress who doesn’t look exactly like Fanny could have done even more good for the Jewish people and to help antisemitism. “Would it be unbelievably incredible to have a Black or Latina Jew going around the country in this role? It would be so cool,” she says. “That wouldn’t have been exactly what Fanny Brice looked like, but it would be erasing the idea that Jews look a certain way.”
What’s the Answer?
Apple clarifies that she doesn’t only want to play Jewish roles and doesn’t think all Jews need to play Jewish roles. The fact is, when it’s central to the character, that Jewish background needs to be taken into account heavily. “I came into this industry to play human beings,” she shares. “If I get to authentically tell Jewish stories, what a gift. But the flip side of this and the fear I have in speaking out is that [people will classify me as only a Jew]. I am a Jew and I am also a human being and I want to make sure that I continue to be able to be seen and brought in for roles that are not just Jewish stories and also that Jewish actors can be seen authentically for who they are.”
“Is this a trend I want to be continuing for people to only be playing themselves? No, but I do understand the importance of that and if it is okay for other groups it has to be okay for Jewish people to also be playing Jewish people,” she continues. Apple also stresses that we’re not playing the “Oppression Olympics” here. One group can speak about being an oppressed people and it doesn’t negate another’s. We can speak about all of it simultaneously
Apple is hopeful though that this conversation will spark change for the better. She has received so many messages of support from both Jews and non-Jews who are now understanding why this is an issue in the first place. One person sent her a direct message on Instagram saying she was cast in a production of Parade and the leads aren’t Jewish. She decided, after listening to Apple’s words, to speak to the director about it. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a star,’” she shares. “People who felt empowered to have these conversations for themselves was a really big takeaway…I’m really grateful that in any small way, I impacted people enough that they found agency in their own voice. It felt really cool on a micro-level to know that people are feeling just a little movement to speak up.”