The ‘Jewface’ debate: Religious representation in the arts

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The ‘Jewface’ debate: Religious representation in the arts

Should non-Jewish actors play Jewish characters? Should there be better religious representation in the arts?

In December 2021, production of an upcoming biopic Golda finished. This film focuses on the former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her actions during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The protagonist, who was Jewish, is being played by Dame Helen Mirren, a non-Jewish actor. The casting of a non-Jewish actor to play one of the most famous women in Israeli history has generated debate and some criticism. For example, Jewish British actor Dame Maureen Lipman has said that “ethnicity should be a priority” when it comes to casting.[1]

This debate is reflective of wider discussions over representation in the arts which have existed for years. Condemnation of whitewashing[2] in film and TV is now commonplace and demonstrates society’s improved understanding of racism. However, the ‘Jewface’[3] debate – a term that describes actors of non-Jewish descent playing Jewish characters – continues. This article will discuss whether religious representation should be understood differently to other forms of representation, and if so, why.

The Golda debate

Before discussing religious representation in the arts more widely, it is important to look at the different sides of the debate over the film Golda. Dame Maureen Lipman was the first Jewish actor to publicly criticise Dame Helen Mirren for accepting the role. She stated that “the Jewishness of the character is so integral … my opinion is that if the character’s race, creed or gender drives or defines the portrayal then the correct ethnicity should be a priority.”[4] Lipman’s opinion was supported by Jewish author David Baddiel, who says the issue is not actually whether Mirren is entitled to play Golda Meir but instead the lack of uproar her casting has caused compared to other “non-authentic” casting choices.[5]

However, a few commentators within the Jewish community have disagreed with Lipman and Baddiel. For example, Prominent Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain defended Mirren’s casting. He said that “actors should act — that’s what is their skill. You don’t have to be Jewish to play a Jew.” Although he added that it is wise “to have an adviser from whatever is the context.”[6] Moreover, from within the arts world, playwright-director Patrick Marber dismissed the idea that “lived experience” should be critical to casting and making plays. He said that “I want us Jews to fight our corner but to not be excluding.”[7]

The importance of representation

Central to the Golda debate, and other debates of this nature, is the importance of representation. Why is it important that we represent different religious and cultural groups accurately? In 2019, the American musical Falsettos, which is heavily focused on reflecting Jewish life, opened in London with no Jewish actors in the cast. In response, Jewish director Adam Lenson raised concern and stated that “people’s lived experience of Jewishness, in all its glorious richness, informs the way that they make Jewish art.”[8] From Lenson’s perspective, to accurately portray the experiences of a Jew, the actor must be one. By failing to cast any Jewish actors, the musical cannot truly reflect the Jewish experience. Indeed, this perspective could also be applied to other societal groups, religious or not religious.

Should we view religious representation differently?

Therefore, the idea of correct representation in the arts is important and is supported by many within the film industry. For example, when it comes to casting actors in roles in which they have to play a different ethnicity, issues of racism and eurocentrism are rightly raised. However, should similar concerns be applied when casting in religious roles? Should non-Jewish actor Christian Bale not have been allowed to portray Moses in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings? Or should British actor Tamsin Grieg, who is practising Christian, not have been allowed to play the character of a Jewish matriarch in the TV sitcom Friday Night Dinner?[9]

Journalist Brendan O’Neill stresses that acting is about portraying someone other than yourself and that “acting will suffer if we sacrifice imagination to identity, if we demand ‘authenticity’ of actors rather than convincing, empathetic performances.”[10] For O’Neill, this rule applies to all – whether it be portraying someone of a different religion, culture, or sexuality. Therefore, trust in the talents of actors and directors to research and explore the character they are portraying is of great importance.

Jewish actor Tracy Ann Oberman agrees with the fact that actors should be able to play any character. However, her issue is that whilst conversations about the appropriation of characters are happening, until now, she believes there has been “little similar concern about Jewish characters where their Jewish religious and cultural identity is intrinsic to who they are being discussed with the same respect.”[11] Therefore, from this perspective, it is not that religious representation should bar any actors from a role, but that there should at least be discussion about it, something that has been previously lacking.

Continuing the discussion

This article has explored the different angles of the ‘Jewface’ debate, one which is not clear cut and has divided opinion, especially within the Jewish community. It has also shone the spotlight on whether an actor’s religious beliefs and experiences (or lack of) affect their portrayal of a religious character. Some believe that drawing a distinction between reality and fiction is essential. It is, at the end of the day, only acting. Yet, others feel that the debate is not about casting but instead about making sure that discussions on Jewish, and more widely, religious representation in the arts are taking place.

Martha Scott-Cracknell

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[1] Helen Mirren Faces ‘Jewface’ Accusations Divide UK Jewish Community – Variety

[2] In the film industry, whitewashing is when white actors are cast in non-white roles.

[3] The term ‘Jewface’ was inspired by similar terms, such as ‘blackface’ and ‘yellowface’ used to refer to when whitewashing occurs. How the History of Blackface Is Rooted in Racism

[4] Helen Mirren Faces ‘Jewface’ Accusations Divide UK Jewish Community – Variety

[5] Golda: Helen Mirren’s Controversial Casting as Jewish Prime Minister | Emanuel Levy

[6] Casting of Helen Mirren as Israeli PM Golda Meir sparks ‘Jewface’ spat | The Times of Israel

[7] ‘It’s a disaster’: theatre giants draw battle lines over ‘Jewface’ – The Jewish Chronicle

[8] Drama erupts in UK as Jewish thespians claim they are cast out of roles | The Times of Israel

[9] Tamsin Greig clarifies Friday Night Dinner comment about playing Jewish mother | The Independent

[10] Maureen Lipman’s ‘Jewface’ criticism of Helen Mirren isn’t fair | The Spectator

[11] Helen Mirren ‘Jewface’ Row Over Golda Meir Portrayal Divides U.K. Entertainment Industry