Hello. I am the authority on who can play Jewish characters on TV because I didn’t know that Jews were a minority until I was 10 and gentile was used as a four-letter word in my house.
Famous non-Jews have played Jews for centuries, so much so that academic articles have been written on the subject of “Jewface.” Sometimes the roles are a bagel: just a schmaltz of Jewiness and therefore permissbale for a gentile to step into. Sometimes the roles are a full platter of gefilte fish, where the only acceptable actor is Zero Mostel.
In recent years, many actors have transcended these Jewish roles to become practically canonically Jewish. Is this kosher? Let’s let me, a Jew, decide.
PATTI LUPONE: No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Patti LuPone is not allowed to play a Jew!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We have far too many Jews in the musical theater canon for Patti Lupone to get away with playing a Jew, like she does on the Netflix show Hollywood. And like she did when playing a RABBI in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Patti LuPone is too well known AMONG Jews to be considered a fake Jew on television. Everybody RIIIIIISE (kadosh, kadosh, kadosh).
NATHAN LANE: Like… yes… he is similarly regarded to Patti LuPone. However, The Producers is basically a book of Torah at this point, and Angels in America is a haggadah. We have to lay down our swords (lulav) and let this man play Jewish because, quite frankly, he’s good at it.
ZACHARY LEVI: This man is too fucking big to be a Jew. Have you ever seen a Jew this big? He is monstrous. His arms are like their own challahs, but in reality, they are just sourdough! Just because he does his little dances on Broadway (delightful) and frowned his way into our hearts on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel does not mean for a second that I believe he is Jewish. Also, if we are going to have a famous Jewish Zachary, let it be ME!
ADAM DRIVER: Unfortunately, I am going to break my own rules I just made up and say yes, Adam Driver is allowed to play Jewish. Is he massive? Of course. But he’s massive in, like, a Jewish way. He’s massive in a way that if he were a character on the DCOM Full Court Miracle where a bunch of Jews receive a Hanukkah miracle and become good at basketball, he would be an important character because he is tall. Most importantly, Adam Driver is allowed to play Jewish because of the sound of his voice. He sounds like he is getting post-nasal drip from his grass/pollen allergy in November. He sounds like he would be the loudest in the shul belting Shomrei at the end of High Holiday services.
OSCAR ISAAC: As we continue into hyperspace on the Millenium Falcon, I will admit that Oscar Isaac is also allowed to play Jewish. Sorry! I don’t make the rules! (Yes I do.) Star Wars basically has a minyan (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alden Einrich, Natalie Portman) and is therefore canonically Jewish. Isaac, a Guatemalan-born actor, has apparently lost Cuban roles because he came off Jewish, despite having a Cuban father. If you can be invited to a Coen brothers’ b’nai mitzvah, you can play Jewish onscreen.
JASON BIGGS: How dare you? You convinced us all. You showed us nebbishy men how to behave, how to become adored, even. I feel betrayed by you, Jason Biggs, and your total lack of Jewishness. No, you are no longer allowed to play Jews. In fact, I think you should be forced to only play Santa Claus for the rest of your career. (Love you in Orange Is The New Black though!!!!!!)
ARMIE HAMMER: Armie Hammer IS Jewish, but that still doesn’t mean he isn’t too fucking big to play a Jew (see: Zachary Levi). Call Me By Your Name was unrealistic for that point and that point alone. PASS!
STEPHANIE J. BLOCK: This is a tricky one. It pains me to let her do it, but Stephanie J. Block is allowed to play Jews. With limitations! The Broadway star of The Cher Show and many more is no stranger to playing Jews. Her Tony-nominated performance as Trina in the musical Falsettos was a revelation. Trina, however, is one of the most Jewish female roles since Yentl. Stephanie J. Block was also the original Elphaba in the out-of-town tryout of Wicked (she was indeed painted green before Ms. Idina My Bat Mitzvah Dress Still Fits Menzel). Wicked is basically a big Purim spiel, so Stephanie J. Block is allowed to keep playing Jews in my book (of life).
KATHRYN HAHN: I am so sorry but no, her name is Kathryn, a derivative of Catherine, which is based on the Catholic saint, Catherine the Great. Catholicism is in her name! I have no time for her Rabbi Raquel from Transparent antics. And, by the way, Rabbi Raquel straddles the line between nervous and neurotic in a way that breaks the matzah in half when finding the afikomen. Sorry Kath, stick to loving Dick.
RACHEL BROSNAHAN: The obvious, most hotly contested one. Rachel Brosnahan, the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is allowed to play Jewish because she is from my hometown, a place where, from 6th to 8th grade, the average student is invited to over 100 bar and bat mitzvahs. My official tally was 106 (we counted the invites). These bar mitzvahs were ostentatious and often featured ice sculptures, branded burgers (branded as in like — branded with iron), make your own graffiti shirts, iPod giveaways, and, of course, graphic sweatpants. As we know, Rachel Brosnahan has a closet full of bar mitzvah sweatpants and hoodies that say something along the lines of “I had a Sweet Time with Samantha Schwartzberg.” This three-year, nearly rabbinical seminar into the shtetl of the North Shore of Chicago is enough education for her to fake it on television.
Hollywood, take note. As sets reopen, let’s hang a mezuzah on the door and cast from the wide net of actual Jewish actors out there. Might I suggest Tiffany Haddish?
Header image design by Emily Burack. Screenshots via Netflix and Amazon Prime.