A Deadline report suggesting that Oscar Isaac has been cast as the lead role in the forthcoming Disney+ series Moon Knight has ignited debate over whether Isaac is an appropriate actor to take on the role. And frankly, I’m not here for any of it.
The comic book series features main character Marc Spector, AKA Moon Knight. Moon Knight may not be the most famous Jewish comic book character, or the most famously Jewish. But much like many young Jews, his relationship to his Jewish identity is often shifting and uncertain.
Marc’s father, Elias, was a rabbi who escaped Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe and hoped that his son would follow in his scholarly footsteps. However, Marc rejected his own Jewish identity at a young age; he saw Judaism as a weakness when his father was attacked by antisemites in their Chicago home and Rabbi Spector did nothing to defend himself.
In Moon Knight #37 (1984), Marc learns his father is dying. Shortly after receiving the news, Moon Knight responds to a fire at a nearby synagogue. There, he rescues a rabbi clinging dearly to the synagogue’s Torah, hoping to protect it from the flames. Moved by the man’s commitment to his people’s holy book, and enraged upon discovering a swastika painted on the side of the burning building, Moon Knight chases after the perpetrators.
For perhaps the first time in 18 years, Marc’s generational trauma and kinship with the Jewish people surfaces. “I belong with the decent and innocent folk who can’t find a moment’s peace, not in the streets, not in their own homes so long as punks like you terrorize them. I belong with the persecuted,” Marc declares as he beats up neo-Nazis in a full-blown mood.
Over the next several decades of Marc Spector’s comic book career, his relationship with Judaism as a religion and an identity take on a number of iterations, much like many modern Jews who struggle with what it means for them to be Jewish. His identity as a Jewish man is constantly shifting and evolving.
When Marvel announced that they would be bringing Moon Knight to his own original Disney+ series, many, myself included, hoped the series would offer an opportunity to showcase the complexity of Jewish identity. While some hoped the series would cast a “Zac Efron type” of Israeli descent, my only wish list item was that the role would go to an up and coming actor, similarly to the recent Ms. Marvel title role casting of Iman Vellani.
With the supposed casting of Oscar Isaac to the role, whether the rumor is true or not, the eternal debate over “who is Jewish” is ignited anew.
Isaac has shared in the past that he has Jewish heritage on his father’s side, calling himself a “big mix of many things,” though he has also said he was raised in a “very Christian” household.
For those who believe you are only Jewish if born to a Jewish mother, his patrilineal connection to Judaism is disqualifying of his “counting” as a Jew. For others, the fact that he seems not to consider himself Jewish, at least publicly, outside of a single family connection precludes his Judaism.
Then, there are those who are quick to remind everyone that Jewishness, for some, is an ethnicity. To those arguers, the very fabric of Isaac’s being is comprised of Jewish parts, and he is therefore sufficiently Jewish.
I don’t know exactly how I personally define whether somebody is Jewish or not, but none of these assertions or absolutes sit well with me. Ultimately, this question with no straightforward answer, when not being used as a weapon against us, is just another part of what makes Judaism so unique and wonderful.
To be Jewish is to struggle. It’s right in the name: Yisrael, the Hebrew name for the Jewish people, which can be translated as “to struggle with God.” Whether to identify as Jewish, and how to identify within Judaism, is an integral part of the Jewish experience. And a b’nei mitzvah student, someone in the process of converting, or somebody exploring their Jewish identity for the first, or thousandth, time all lay equal claims to that eternal struggle in my eyes.
As much as these discussions unnerve me, I have to admit it’s almost too perfect that a conversation around who qualifies as Jewish or not is taking place around a character, Marc Spector, who so emblemizes this struggle. But to wrestle with whether somebody else is sufficiently connected to or part of the Jewish people is not the same as wrestling with one’s own roots or one’s own choice to consider themselves Jewish. Personally, it matters little to me whether anybody else, Jewish or otherwise, thinks Oscar Isaac is Jewish enough to play the role of Marc Spector. The only person who can answer that question is Isaac himself.
Should Isaac be cast as Moon Knight/Marc Spector, it is on him to choose whether and how to struggle with his Jewish identity. But questioning whether another person is “Jewish enough” is a slippery path towards sinat chinam, or the “senseless hatred” the rabbis of the Talmud say caused the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem in ancient times. In ancient times, Jews of different sects fought frivolously with one another; might our haste at deeming others Jewish or not-Jewish amount to senseless hatred just the same?
Our job, as people who aren’t Oscar Isaac, is not to question Oscar Isaac’s Judaism. Our job is to open the Jewish tent wide enough that should he be interested in dipping a toe under its shade, he will be welcomed to do so. And then, when the time comes, we’ll watch Moon Knight and argue anew about the portrayals of Jewish identity within.
Header image design by Emily Burack. Image of Oscar Isaac via Richard Harbaugh – Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images.