Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen

From the 2005 book by Henry Bial, Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen:

* At 8:00 P.M. on the evening of Thursday, 14 May 1998, the Jewish Museum in New York City hosted a panel discussion entitled “Young Jewish Writers” featuring novelists Allegra Goodman (The Family Markowitz), Marcie Hershman (Tales of the Master Race), Thane Rosenbaum (The Golems of Gotham), and Aryeh Lev Stallman (The Illuminated Soul). The conversation, moderated by Ellen Pall (Among the Ginzburgs), focused in part on how the writers’ perceptions of their own Jewish identity did or did not affect their professional craft. As part of the museum’s inaugural “Live at the JM” series, the event was specifically intended to attract a younger, “hipper,” Jewish audience than the institution’s typical public programs. Although the discussion was lively, the hall was sparsely filled. Many spectators left early. The real interrogation of contemporary Jewish American identity was taking place elsewhere.

At 9:oo p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on that very same evening, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcast the final episode of its top-rated comedy Seinfeld (1989-98). The self-billed “show about nothing” features comedian Jerry Seinfeld as a comedian named …Jerry Seinfeld. The character of Jerry is explicitly identified as Jewish in selected episodes, and this identification is reinforced through a variety of visual and linguistic performance codes: Jerry has dark hair, dark eyes, and a stereo typically Semitic profile. His accent (especially in the early episodes) betrays his real life upbringing in Queens and Long Island. He resides on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a largely Jewish neighborhood. His last name, Seinfeld, is unmistakably “different” from the Anglo-Saxon norm and is recognizable to a Jewish audience as German-Jewish in origin. Yet, while Jewish critics and viewers alike identify Jerry Seinfeld as unambiguously Jewish, his religious and ethnic background is essential to the narrative in only a handful of episodes scattered over the show’s nine-year run on NBC. The vast majority of episodes contain no explicit reference to Jews or Jewishness. The episodes that do acknowledge his Jewishness tend to downplay its importance. For example, in one episode Jerry suspects that his dentist has converted to Judaism so that he can tell Jewish jokes without being labeled a bigot. When a priest asks Jerry, “This offends you as a Jewish person?” he replies, “No it offends me as a comedian.”

* My argument is based on the concept of double coding, the specific means and mechanisms by which a performance can communicate one message to Jewish audiences while simultaneously communicating another, often contradictory message to gentile audiences. As the late performance theorist Dwight Conquergood explained, “Subordinate people do not have the privilege of explicitness, the luxury of transparency, the presumptive norm of clear and direct communication, free and open debate on a level playing field that the privileged classes take for granted.” Jewish American artists in theater, film, and television, while certainly enjoying access to the “means of production” at a level far from subordinate, nonetheless have tended to approach their creative work from just such an outsider’s point of view. Because of real or perceived anti-Semitism, Jewish characters and themes are frequently “reformed” for performance.

* Ethnic studies as it has developed in the United States owes its greatest debt to African American studies and Marxist epistemology. A byproduct of this genealogy is that ethnic studies, or in some departments cultural studies, tends to assume that there is an adversarial relationship between the ethnicity under consideration and the so-called dominant culture. In other words, to be a minority, whether ethnic, racial, or religious, is to be by definition marginalized, oppressed, victimized.

* Jews are anything but marginalized in American theater, film, and television. Indeed, the success of Jewish writers, actors, and directors (not to mention producers, agents, and network executives) is legion, to the point where “Jewish control” of America’s entertainment media has achieved almost mythic status among both Jews and antiSemites: a source of pride for the former, an instrument of demagoguery for the latter.

* Judaism is a particularly performative religion; that is, unlike most forms of Christianity, Judaism is more concerned with process than product, more concerned with actions than interior reiterations of faith.

* Theater historian Brooks McNamara suggests, on the other hand, that Jewish dominance of Broadway is largely a historical accident. Popular entertainment, he argues, has always been looked down on by so-called respectable people. In the nineteenth century, the Irish, the largest working-class ethnic group, dominated theater and vaudeville. With the vast immigration of eastern European Jews to the United States around the turn of the century, the Jews became the new underclass and moved into the performing arts largely because no other group was willing to humiliate itself. 16 But, as one of the many Jewish
stand-up comics of the 1950s might have put it, a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. As Jews experienced upward mobility throughout the twentieth century, they did not leave the performing arts behind; rather, theater and film also climbed the social ladder. This was partly due to the emergent technologies of radio, film, and television. Mass market entertainment turned the performing arts into a cash crop…

* While Jews account for less than 4 percent of the U.S. population, in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, the historical centers of theater, film, and television, Jews make up closer to 25 percent of the population.

* Whatever the cause of this “overrepresentation,” the binary, dominant versus oppressed paradigm of ethnic and cultural studies lacks a vocabulary that can address the phenomenon of a dominant minority. As a result, Jews as an ethnic group are frequently left out of the ethnic/ multicultural studies conversation. This is especially true in theater and performance studies. Contemporary performance theory holds that performance’s political potential lies largely in its power to disrupt the existing social order. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the minority performer (female, gay, ethnic, communist) to use performance to call attention to the inequities of late capitalism and/or present a rehearsal for social change. The former usually means a sort of Brechtian alienation or estrangement, which often finds its expression in performance art that explicitly critiques the so-called dominant or hegemonic culture.

* But the Jewish minority, which we might call a dominant minority, is not looking to overturn the entire applecart. Its political activism as played out in theater is limited largely to addressing issues of racial or ethnic discrimination. The Jews are decidedly not planning the revolution. In fact, as Neal Gabler points out, Jewish artists are largely responsible for-some critics would say complicit in-the promotion of the myth that America is a meritocracy. While there have been many self-identified leftists among Jewish theater, film, and television artists (e.g., Lillian Hellman, Zero Mostel, Tony Kushner), their political messages have always been wrapped in the audience-friendly trappings of well-constructed emotional drama. Is this protective coloration? Is this part of the secret plot to control America that is alleged by anti-Semitic hate groups? Or is it a genuine belief that the system works? After all, the so-called meritocracy in America has worked out better for Jews than for almost any other definable ethnic group over the last century.

* The familiar Hollywood narratives of rags to riches, taming the frontier, and suburban domestic bliss, argues Gabler, reflect not a self-satisfied gentile culture but the fantasies of Jewish artists seeking an escape from the literal and metaphorical ghettoes of early-twentieth-century urban Jewish communities.

* Many feminist scholars have productively challenged this notion by pointing out that the preponderance of media depictions of women’s bodies as spectacle has impeded rather than advanced the cause of women’s rights.

* the high concentration of Jews in the American television industry has led to Jews “policing each other’s visibility and, in some cases, striving for invisibility.”27 Hence, we have seen the entrance into popular usage of the phrase “closet Jews,” which stands as a more sympathetic and strategic reading of what others have called “self-hating Jews.”28 To put the matter in colloquial terms, it seems to be Jews, rather than an anti-Semitic culture industry, who are most concerned about performances that are “too Jewish.”

* In the early 1990s, the French writer Alain Finkielkraut proposed the term imaginary Jews to refer to those Jewish children of the post-Holocaust years who identify themselves as an oppressed people yet suffer no genuine oppression. He writes: “They are unwavering Jews, but armchair Jews, since, after the Catastrophe, Judaism cannot offer them any content but suffering, and they themselves do not suffer.”

* In communities with strong religious affiliations, writes [Haym] Soloveitchik, the yeshiva (Jewish religious school) became the focal point for imparting Jewish religion and culture to new generations. In less affiliated homes, popular drama has become increasingly more important as a source of information on how to act Jewish. Stephen Whitfield, for example, in In Search of American Jewish Culture, writes, “No epicenter of American Jewish culture exists …. But if there were such a locale, it would be Broadway.” Egon Mayer, expressing optimism about the future of American Jewry writes, “We see this longing for Jewishness reflected time and again in Jews who flock to Woody Allen movies.”42 Literary critic Arnold Band perhaps sums up the proposition best: “[O]nce we ask the basic question: What shapes the identity (in the sense of self-image) of a Jew in the post-Enlightenment period?, we are compelled to treat Exodus, Maryorie Morningstar, and Fiddler on the Roof-and dozens of other works of this genre-with the same scholarly respect as a truly epic work like Graetz’s History of the Jews…”

* Like the tortured spirit in S. Anksi’s classic Yiddish drama The Dybbuk (1914), the modern American Jew is trapped between two worlds: the “Old World” of our ancestors and the “New World” of America.

* I would also contend that the development of the American Method is inclusively Jewish to a degree unmatched by previous approaches to acting. First and foremost, Method acting from its inception has been a cultural process for which Jewish American artists can claim a birthright, much as African Americans claim jazz music. Its arrival and subsequent level of acceptance in the United States coincides with their own.

This is partly because so many members of the influential Group Theater (generally credited with the Method through their work in the 1930s) were Jewish. But what is often overlooked is that the Jewish members of the Group, even those who did not speak Yiddish themselves, grew up in homes where Yiddish theater was the primary source of dramatic entertainment. Harold Clurman, for example, writes that “from the age of six, when I had been taken to see Jacob Adler in Uriel Acosta at the Grand Street Theatre, I had a passionate inclination toward the theatre.”

As Nahma Sandrow notes, Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater was the fin de sicle art theater that “most directly influenced Yiddish theater, which was attuned to the intellectual life of its East European environment…. In interpreting modern realistic drama, Stanislavsky’s group evolved a vividly lifelike method of acting which was to have a widespread effect on modern Western theater, especially in America, where Yiddish immigrants helped to spread it.” Thus, while most European (and many American) theater historians attribute the Group’s psychologically based and emotionally driven manifestation of the Method to Americans’ desire for individual glory, it would be more accurate to say that the American Method differs from “pure Stanislavsky” because (at least in part) the “system” arrived in the United States filtered through the emotionally and politically charged
Yiddish theater.

Of course, the Jewish members of the Group were, in part, reacting against the contrived plotlines, star turns, and overly theatrical staginess of the Yiddish theater. Nonetheless, they found the deeply felt emotion and working-class consciousness of the Yiddish theater more appealing than either the bourgeois vapidity of the commercial stage or the aloof and self-consciously artistic style favored by the Theatre Guild and other art theaters.

So while it is fair to say that in the course of its translation from Russian to Yiddish to American the Method became less “authentically” Stanislavskian we should also note that it took on a decidedly political tone. Strasberg’s emphasis on the specificity of the actor’s emotions is based not on self-aggrandizement but on a liberal assumption of universal humanism. The Method actors believe that their own emotions can be appropriate to the character because people of all races, religions, and nations experience similar emotions in similar ways; otherwise they are limited to playing characters substantially like themselves. Indeed, it was the Group’s resistance to typecasting that initially distinguished its repertoire from those of its contemporaries…

But the fundamental premise on which the Group operated was that a talented actor could pass as anything, precisely because, at the level of deeply felt emotion, all human beings are essentially the same. Obviously, the Method actor must likewise believe that the audience shares this common humanity. This is why the actor’s interior evocation of emotion in performance can be “read” correctly with a minimum of theatrical mechanics. Yet cultural and psychological specificity is essential to the naturalistic mode of production that dominated the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Method virtually equates specificity with truth. Realism demands specificity because a real individual is never generic. Thus, a playwright may argue, as Miller does, that “Where the theme seems to require a Jew to act somehow in terms of his Jewishness, he does so. Where it seems to me irrelevant what the religious character or cultural background of a character may be, it is treated as such.” And yet the actor playing the role, in building his or her character, must reconsider the question of “religious
character or cultural background”-especially when the playwright consciously omits such information from the written text. As part of this reconsideration, the actor will scrutinize the information provided by the text, with an eye toward an overall “objective” or “motivation” that will shape the performance.

* Performance theorist Jos Esteban Munoz argues that “majoritarian” American performance is distinguished by a “national affect, a mode of being in the world primarily associated with white middle-class subjectivity, [which] reads most ethnic affect as inappropriate.” Overt displays of emotion or excitement are configured as incorrect or declasse. Munoz further suggests that “the affective performance of normative whiteness is minimalist to the point of emotional impoverishment.” In other words, to the degree that an audience perceives a character’s
behavior as emotionally excessive that character is seen as Other-different from the nonethnic norm.

* Like spic, anti-Jewish epithets such as kike, yid, and sheenie connoted a J ewishness that exceeded the bounds of white middle-class good taste. Consider Miss Wales in Gentleman’s Agreement, who seeks to distinguish “good Jews” like herself from “the kikey ones” who “ruin it for the rest of us.” The “other kind”-a phrase once common among acculturated American Jews-as Miss Wales explains, talk too loud, dress too outlandishly, wear too much makeup, and, worst of all, talk too much about being Jewish.

* This rhetoric of ethnicity as excess offers another way to think about the mechanism and function of double coding. Method acting (and, to a lesser degree, all forms of emotive performance) demands emotional affect that the actor provides in excess of the written play text. And to the degree that the actor’s emotion exceeds the written text, the performance challenges the emotionally impoverished “national affect” theorized by Munoz.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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