Mrs. Maisel Isn’t a Shiksa

Why Do Non-Jewish Actresses Get All The Best Jewish Roles?

Recent groundbreaking films like Black Panther, Get Out, and Crazy Rich Asians have proven that films can be cast with non-white people and they can still rake in the dough. These aren’t perfect times, but the issues of inclusion and representation are at the forefront of casting conversations more than ever before. Hollywood is being called out on its racial and cultural insensitivities, and it’s responding in mostly appropriate ways. But there’s one area where I’m noticing a glaring blindspot: the actors playing ethnically Jewish female roles. 

Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, Rachel Brosnahan playing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I’ll be honest, I’m not finding verification that Lee Israel is Jewish, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the assumption. To be clear: I’m not criticizing any of these women’s performances. I am wondering, in an industry so filled with Jewish writers, producers, directors and executives, why are gentiles playing these Jewish female characters? Could they really not find anyone to cast? 

We all know they could find someone. There are scads of talented Jewish women out there. Lizzy Caplan would have made a fabulous RBG. So the question is: Why did they choose to cast non-Jews? Is it because Ashkenazi Jews are so white now that we’re interchangeable with the white gentiles? Never mind the Holocaust and millennia of discrimination, we can let whoever play us on screen? Are we not an oppressed minority anymore? It’s true that white Jews benefit from white privilege, but we’re also subject to an increasing number of hate crimes. According to FBI statistics, only Black Americans experience more hate crimes than American Jews. And yeah, yeah, Judaism is a religion and anyone can play, but Ashkenazi Jews have a specific cultural and ethnic identity that isn’t interchangeable with the identity of other white people.

Yes, your honor.

Having perused the creative teams behind the aforementioned projects, it seems certain that Jews contributed to the casting choices. Not every power broker and gatekeeper in the film industry is a Jew, but lots of them are. If Latinos and Asians and Indigenous People and Black folks are holding Hollywood up to a standard, why are the Jews in Hollywood not holding themselves up to the same standard for their own people? Especially with roles like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon of the Jewish community, and the entire cast of Mrs. Maisel, a show completely steeped in New York Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Lee Israel’s Jewishness may be incidental, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s and Midge Maisel’s definitely are not. So why are we leaving ourselves out of the representation conversation? 

I suspect the answer involves a certain degree of self-loathing. Whether it’s coming from the actors, the producers, or both…I’m not sure.

There’s a long-lingering effort to obscure and hide Jewishness in actors. Historically, Ashkenazi Jews have rarely fit the Hollywood ideal of attractive. Here we are in 2019 and Jewish actors continue to change their names or use their middle names as last names. Gatekeepers still suggest plastic surgery to actors with unsuitable noses. As if trying to stay L.A. skinny weren’t already a full-time job. It makes me wonder: are Jewish actresses shying away from roles about Jewish characters? Are people not auditioning for these roles because they don’t want to be pigeonholed as Jewish, or are they not being considered because producers want someone with a more classic look?

Either way there’s an element of self-sabotage at play where Jews don’t hold themselves up to the same standard of representation as everyone else.

I suspect this issue won’t sort itself out easily. Jews have a historical penchant for justice and don’t like to be called insensitive, so I think Hollywood will start to get the hang of appropriate cultural representation as it pertains to everyone else. But confronting why the Jews in Hollywood aren’t casting Jews? That’s going to require self-examination and unpacking of the shame Jews have been made to feel about themselves. And that, I’m afraid, will take some time. And probably therapy. 

OK, this one is Jewish.

Mia McCullough

Mia McCullough is a playwright and filmmaker. Her plays have been seen around the country at various theatres including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Red Fern Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists. Season One of her web series The Haven is available on OTV/ www.weareo.tv and her book Transforming Reality, on the creative writing process, is available on www.lulu.com.

6 thoughts on “Mrs. Maisel Isn’t a Shiksa

  • January 16, 2019 at 10:20 am
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    Actors with two Jewish parents: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bar Refaeli, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, James Wolk, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Michael Vartan, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Julian Morris, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Dan Hedaya, Emory Cohen, Corey Haim, Scott Mechlowicz, Harvey Keitel, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Timothée Chalamet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Brandon Flynn, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jewish and/or identify as Jewish: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Andrew Garfield, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, and Ed Skrein were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer, Chris Pine, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark-Paul Gosselaar are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

    Reply
  • December 16, 2019 at 4:58 pm
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    It’s almost a year since this article posted but I found it because I searched a phrase that expresses my frustration: why aren’t Jewish actors playing the Jews on Mrs. Maisel? I stopped watching the show because I’m sick of seeing movies and tv shows that capitalize (dare I say, culturally appropriate) Jewishness, but won’t hire Jews to play the roles. I’m just fucking sick of it.

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  • January 9, 2020 at 11:28 am
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    Seriously? Why is it ok to prefer a Jewish person to play Jewish parts, but it would be outrageous to only want a non-Jewish person to play Gentile parts?
    Reverse discrimination doesn’t fix discrimination.

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    • January 9, 2020 at 1:32 pm
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      I think you need to read up on what discrimination actually means. Wanting to cast Jewish people in Jewish roles is not discriminating against Gentiles.

      Reply
  • January 23, 2020 at 5:03 pm
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    While we are addressing discrimination in Hollywood, how about the rampant discrimination in the form of ethnic chauvinism that goes on in Hollywood production companies and talent agencies? It is completely absurd how overrepresented people of Jewish descent are in management and agent positions. Ethnic nepotism is discrimination. It is completely acceptable in Hollywood for people of Jewish descent to hire mentor, promote and hire fellow Jews, and overlook people of other nationalities. These companies are simply not trying to make themselves diverse in management.

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    • January 23, 2020 at 7:40 pm
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      Jews ended up in behind-the-scenes roles in Hollywood because they generally were not perceived to have the right “look” for on-screen work. Jews who wanted to participate in the entertainment industry did so in the way they were allowed, and that’s how they came into that power. Through discrimination. Seeing as how we’re still not being asked to play our own people half the time, I can see how those who have managed to have a little control/power, might pass it down to others like them. I don’t know the numbers, so I don’t know how discriminatory it is, but I do know many non-Jews working in the business.

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