Jews Should Learn From The Black Community On How To Eradicate Jewface

Impact, not intent, is what matters in DEIA spaces. Yet with the recent release of Netflix’s Maestro trailer, featuring gentile actor Bradley Cooper donning a prosthetic nose even larger than Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein’s actual nose, many people are downplaying the harm, because it lacked antisemitic intent. Bernstein’s children released a statement, supporting the schnoz. But large noses have been used to vilify Jews for nearly 1000 years in Western media. Why doesn’t the impact of Jewface count?

Unconscious biases against marginalized groups can be dismantled when those groups advocate about the harm those tropes have caused. In 2020, after almost 200 years of society not taking blackface seriously, the Black community finally broke through and created a new level of awareness, educating the public about how this practice had been used in minstrels to mock and denigrate. Anyone who didn’t want to be a part of that problematic history needed to disavow darkening their face, no matter the intent or context.

And that’s exactly what happened. In 2020, a slew of celebrities were finally held accountable. In June 2020, late night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel apologized for wearing blackface in sketches decades earlier. Tina Fey issued an apology, as well, and pulled two episodes of 30 Rock from the show’s archives. Even Black celebrities who were guilty of partaking in blackface, like Beyonce, who once darkened her skin in a photoshoot, and Tyra Banks, who had White contestants model in darkened faces on America’s Next Top Model apologized. With a strong and coordinated effort, blackface seems to finally, thankfully, be verboten.

While no two marginalized groups share the exact same persecution, and some people hold multiple intersectional identities, there’s a lot that the Jewish community can learn from the Black community when it comes to organizing, educating and eradicating a problematic practice. Maestro can be the Jewish community’s moment to do so.

First we need to clarify what Jews are. Contrary to popular misconception, Jews are not just a religion. We are an ethnic group that comes from a land called Judea (now Israel). We have a shared land, language, culture, history, DNA and spiritual practice, though not all Jews observe it. Due to exile, forced diaspora and a lot of violence against Jewish women, Jews, like all colonized ethnic groups, have admixtures of other groups. Like Native American tribes, the Jewish tribe has taken in adoptees along the way, called converts. None of this changes the fact that Jews are an ethnic minority with MENA roots, with many Jews having MENA features.

Next, we need to understand the history of both enlarged noses specifically and the complexity of Jewface as old, antisemitic tropes and practices. Starting in the 12th century, Jews became hooked-nosed in European paintings in an effort to vilify them. The two church councils in 1267 forced Jews to wear pointy hats. Those hats, coupled with the hook-nosed trope, led to Jews becoming the inspiration for witches. Jon Stewart was right about the goblins in Harry Potter looking Jewish, not because anyone associated with the films is necessarily antisemitic, but rather because little men with big noses counting money is yet another trope that was born out of Jew-hatred. The practice of “stage Jew” began in the 1600’s, with characters like Shylock, when non-Jewish actors would wear Jewish garb and enlarged noses to mock and degrade Jews. This is actually where blackface originated too.

While Sarah Silverman popularized the term “Jewface” to mean non-Jewish actors getting cast as Jews—an important topic within this larger conversation —it has an older and more sinister origin. Jewface was done in minstrels, in Eastern Europe and the US, starting in the 1800’s with the same enlarged noses, Jewish garb and Jewish affect. Sometimes it was secular Jews dressing up and mocking their religious brethren. Other times, it was non-Jews or antisemitic regimes, like the Bolsheviks, who manipulated secular Jews with the promise of self-preservation to throw religious Jews under the bus. Jewface was done in the US, including in the Antebellum. The Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1909 passed a resolution to protest the existence of the “stage Jew,” because they felt it was causing so much harm to the image of Jews. Nazis also employed Jewface in their 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”

Now back to the enlarged nose in modern media: Charles Dickens wrote the Jewish character Fagin, in Oliver Twist, laden with antisemitic imagery: “a very shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face…” Cruikshank, the illustrator for the original novel, gave Fagin a large hook nose. In the 1948 film, actor Alec Guinness wore a prosthetic nose to match the book. Another infamously antisemitic writer, Roald Dahl, was slightly more subtle with his anti-Jewish imagery. In the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang screenplay, he added The Child Catcher (think blood libels of Jews stealing Christian children), a character that was not in the book. The Child Catcher is described as having a black hat, a long black coat, and a pointed nose. In the 1968 film, actor Robert Helpmann also donned a prosthetic nose. Billy Crystal in the 1987 The Princess Bride played a Jewish character, Miracle Max, and wore a giant fake nose along with a heavy Yiddish accent. Twenty years plus ago, Saturday Night Live did a parody of Blossom, and the actress parodying Mayim Bialik wore a prosthetic to enlarge her nose. And in A Series of Unfortunate Events, the family is Jewish, which means that the hooked-nose conniving, murderous relative Count Olaf, played by two gentiles, Jim Carrey and Neil Patrick Harris, is too.

With a long, troubling history of Jews being vilified and mocked through enlarged noses and garb, in an age of reckoning to do better by marginalized groups, no matter the intention or context, Jewface should join its Blackface counterpart in the dustbins of racist history. Per the 2021 FBI hate crime report, Jews are the most attacked minority in the U.S.

Representation matters for Jews too. Let’s stop making excuses why this form of racism is OK.

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