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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Think Yiddish, cast whoever

A controversy arose in the U.K. last year about casting non-Jewish actors in expressly Jewish roles in an expressly Jewish show called Falsettos (about a Jewish father who leaves his family for a man, just after the son's Bar Mitzvah).

The question has become relevant because of two television series about Jewish people dealing with Nazis in the U.S.: The Hunters, which I watched and hated, and The Plot Against America, David Simon's adaptation of Philip Roth's counter-factual novel about Charles Lindbergh being elected President in 1940 and unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism.

The Hunters cast Jewish actors (Josh Radnor, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Jeannie Berlin, Rubinke's daughter) for most of the major Jewish roles. Al Pacino, playing the head Nazi hunter and Auschwitz survivor, was the exception (although, spoiler, it did not matter).

In the first episode of the companion podcast to Plot (beginning around the 14:00 mark), Simon discusses setting out to make the show with an entirely Jewish cast and crew . He changed direction when he recognized the need to work with the best people and the universality of the story of oppressed "others."

Thus, the father is played by Morgan Spector (half-Jewish) and his sister-in-law is played by Winona Ryder (half Jewish, strongly self-identifies). But the mother is played by Zoe Kazan (Greek from Turkey, granddaughter of someone compelled to name names before HUAC) and the older cousin is played by Anthony Boyle (Irish-Catholic from Belfast); Simon talks about how he convinced them to take on the roles because their (or their families') experiences are comparable to the Jewish experience. And John Turturro plays a rabbi, although Simon and co-host Peter Sagal agreed Tuturro had played so many Jewish characters in his career (Barton Fink, Herbert Stempel, Joey Knish) that he is basically Jewish.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 25, 2020 at 11:47 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Religion | Permalink


You left out the Christopher Plummer-playing-all-the-roles joke!

Posted by: John Tanner | Mar 26, 2020 9:24:21 AM

Shalhoub is like F. Murray Abraham in terms of being Middle-Eastern and being cast in every possible Middle-Eastern/Semitic role.

There is a difference between casting a generic character who could be Jewish or gentile and it doesn't matter and casting a character who is Jewish where his Judaism is central to the character.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 26, 2020 9:05:59 AM

Maisel also has Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub playing the titular character's father, Abe Weissman.

If only Jews played Jews, then perhaps only Gentiles would play Gentiles.

Posted by: Sykes Five | Mar 25, 2020 8:04:10 PM

I guess that is why there so many mistakes in the portrayal of the Sabbath observances. The book describes a traditional Jewish family with strong Eastern European traditions alas the Sabbath meal scene had so many inconsistencies

Posted by: Ilan Fuchs | Mar 25, 2020 5:14:11 PM

also my favorite show these days - the marvelous ms. maisel - the marvelous lead actor is not jewish but she is so marvelous in her jewish comedian role.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Mar 25, 2020 1:40:19 PM

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