I’ve been trying to figure out how to phrase this article for a long time, because it deals with a sensitive subject, and people tend to get touchy when you start telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, but I’ve decided the best thing is to come out and say it. I’m tired of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters. For now, let’s set aside the question of whether or not Jewish people are generic western-European white (we aren’t) and the question of whether or not Jewish people are still oppressed (we are). Instead, let’s move on to the reasons why non-Jewish people playing Jewish characters need to step off.
First of all, there aren’t a lot of Jewish characters floating around the theatre world. When picking up a new play to read, you can be fairly sure that all of your leads are Christian, and that if any character happens to be Jewish, they’ll be a caricature of a person and their religion will be a punch line (“Merchant of Venice,” I’m looking at you). Now, if you should find a play where that isn’t the case, look back at its performance history, and I’ll bet you anything that nine times out of 10, the Jewish characters were played by non-Jewish actors. The biggest examples of this — and the ones I’ve been frustrated about since day one — are the stage plays of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Both of these plays feature predominately Jewish main characters, and neither are the sort of stories where the main characters’ religions don’t matter. In both plays, the characters’ religions are the only thing that matters. Religion drives the plot. Religion creates conflict. Remove the characters’ Judaism from either play, and you no longer have a story. So why do directors the world over keep removing Judaism from the characters?
And make no mistake, that is what they’re doing. There’s a massive difference between simply playing a character and knowing that, had you been born in a different time period, you would be that character. Take “Fiddler on the Roof” as an example. The main plot deals with the increasing difficulties of being Jewish in the world of imperialist Russia, and it ends with the main characters being forcibly expelled from land they’ve lived on for generations. My ancestors lived in imperialist Russia during the same time period as the play is set, and like Tevye and his family, they fled the country or were forced out. When I read the play or watch it performed, I can imagine my family in the same situations, and any Jewish person can do the same (if you go back far enough, we’ve all been kicked out of somewhere). It’s an understanding that non-Jewish people don’t have, and it weakens the play as a whole to have the story performed by people who don’t get it.
The same goes for “The Diary of Anne Frank.” All of the main characters in the story are Jewish, and if one followed the story to its conclusion, they’d see that all but one of the characters is murdered for that very reason. The premise of the play wouldn’t exist without the characters’ Judaism, and there isn’t a Jewish person alive today who’s not intimately familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust. Again, there’s a difference between watching a play and thinking about how horrible it must have been, and watching a play and knowing that you and two-thirds of your family would have met the same fate.
There’s a connection to these stories that non-Jewish actors lack. There are complex personal feelings surrounding these characters and experiences that non-Jewish actors can’t possibly understand. I want to see these plays presented by Jewish actors. So this is a message for actors and directors. Stop erasing characters’ Judaism. Stop appropriating our stories by casting non-Jewish actors in roles written for and about us.
And for the love of all that’s holy, if you’re going to persist in casting goyim in Jewish roles, teach them how to pronounce Hebrew correctly.