THE ORIGINS OF HOLLYWOOD
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews migrated en masse from Eastern Europe to the United States. While the conditions in the United States were much better than those they’d left behind in Europe, Jews still faced economic and employment discrimination. One of the biggest obstacles for Jews were restrictive university quotas, which prevented them from receiving the necessary education to pursue professional careers such as medicine.
To make ends meet, Jews resorted to making their own opportunities. Some started as peddlers and later became shopkeepers. Others migrated west — to Hollywood.
Hollywood was born when a Jewish man, Sam Goldwyn (born Shmuel Gelbfisz), joined his brother to make one of the very first feature films in 1914: The Squaw Man (which unfortunately is very racist).
Many Jews joined Hollywood in search for employment that they couldn’t find elsewhere, but there was a significant effort to diminish the Jewishness of the early film industry. For example, Jews worked under “white” pen names and films purposefully avoided Jewish stories.
During this period, Jews in Hollywood were determined to assimilate, but nevertheless, stereotypes about Hollywood and its Jewishness persist to this day.
LEADING UP TO WORLD WAR II
Jews faced an uptick of antisemitism in the 1930s with the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Jews in Hollywood — assimilated as they tried to be — were no exception.
In the 1930s, Jewish actors appealed to Congress to boycott German goods. Though the American government did end up boycotting Germany, Jews were accused of being “reactive and aggressive,” and Jews in Hollywood experienced a strong wave of antisemitism.
With the Nazi rise to power, Hollywood studios faced a new dilemma. The German market was far too lucrative for Hollywood, so despite the fact that many studios were owned by Jews, a number of studios acquiesced to the demands of the Germans and Jewish employees lost their jobs.
Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg explains: “[Hollywood] even agreed to establish guidelines governing the films’ themes. In all future movies Jews could not be featured, Germany was not to be slighted, Nazis were not to be criticized, and Hitler was not to be mentioned. References to anything Jewish or the appearance of Jewish actors was forbidden. Finally, Germany appointed its own censor in Hollywood.”
Walt Disney has long been accused of being an antisemite. At the very least, he was a Nazi sympathizer. He hosted Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and gave her a tour of his studio. He also attended meetings for the American Bund, the American Nazi Party.
Many of the early Walt Disney films employ a multitude of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. The witches in these movies, such as the witch in Snow White, resemble antisemitic caricatures of the time.
THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
In the late 1940s to mid-1950s, the American government, under Senator Joe McCarthy, enacted an anti-communist campaign known as “McCarthyism” or the “Red Scare.”
While openly anti-communist, the campaign also had heavy antisemitic undertones, with some arguing that it was overtly antisemitic, both given many of McCarthy’s comments and because the campaign disproportionately targeted Jews.
Ten Hollywood personalities, known as the “Hollywood Ten,” were cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted from Hollywood. Six out of the ten — screenwriter and director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Alvah Bessie, screenwriter Lester Cole, playwright and screenwriter Albert Maltz, screenwriter Samuel Ornitz, and John Howard Lawson — were Jewish.
That’s because the proponents of McCarthyism wished to “make an example out of Jewish Hollywood.”
During this period, many Jews in the industry received antisemitic harassment via the mail.
The Hollywood Ten blacklist lasted 12 years. The Jews who stayed behind in Hollywood did so under non-Jewish pen names.
What many people don’t know is that the 1960 movie Exodus — the epic historical drama about the founding of the State of Israel — was one of the two movies that ended the Hollywood blacklist (the other being Spartacus). Otto Preminger (who was Jewish), the director of Exodus, insisted that the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was not Jewish but had been one of the blacklisted actors, use his real name rather than a pen name. Similarly, Kirk Douglas (who was Jewish) insisted that Trumbo use his real name.
Douglas once stated, ““I have been working for Hollywood for 60 years, made 85 pictures. The thing I am most proud of is breaking the blacklist.”
Jew-face is a term that describes performances which portray Jews in negative and stereotypical ways, generally when the actor is not Jewish.
Though the term is derived from “blackface,” Jew-face is not a new term. Instead, it has been in use since the late 1800s, when non-Jewish actors began enacting stereotypical Jewish characters in their vaudeville acts. Some of these stereotypes included wearing large putty noses, long beards, frayed clothing, and exaggerated Yiddish accents.
Eventually Jewish immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe began owning the stereotypes and started performing in these “Jew-face” acts themselves.
Though the term “Jew-face” stems from the late 1800s, Jew-face is much older than that. During Shakespeare’s time, for instance, gentiles would portray Jewish characters and play them in an unfavorable light.
In the 1910s, “Jew movies,” which portrayed Jews as evil, conspiring, unlikeable characters, were produced every two weeks. The characters were played by non-Jews.
“Jew-coding” is when characters in literature, movies, television, and other media are not explicitly stated as Jewish but posses enough “stereotypically, often negative Jewish” characteristics to be subconsciously read as Jewish.
Common Jew-coding tropes reflect antisemitic stereotypes. For instance, characters can be depicted as rich, spoiled, loud, whiny, cheap, stingy, manipulative, or have “physical” characteristics stereotypically associated with Jews, such as large noses.
Most often, Jew-coded characters don’t posses just one stereotypically Jewish characteristic but rather a combination of many Jewish stereotypes, leading to the impression that the character must be Jewish.
The main issue with Jew-coding is that it highlights the same antisemitic stereotypes and tropes while at the same time downplaying or whitewashing legitimate, multifaceted Jewishness. In other words, the character perpetuates negative stereotypes about Jews, without explicitly stating that they are Jewish. Oftentimes, these characters are not played by Jews, which means that characters are performing stereotypical Jewishness while not being Jewish themselves.
An example of a Jew-coded character is Rachel Green from Friends. She is rich, spoiled, from Long Island, gets a nose job (and wears an oversized prosthetic nose in flashbacks), her dad is a doctor, calls her grandmother Bubbe, and is quite literally called “Rachel Green,” but she is never explicitly stated as Jewish in the show, even though one of the creators, David Crane, has said, “In our minds I guess she was Jewish. You can’t create a character with the name ‘Rachel Green’ and not from the get-go make some character choices.” (And yes, the creators of Friends are Jewish, but Jews can write Jew-coded characters too.)
Since the earliest days of Hollywood, there has been a concerted effort to diminish the Jewishness of the film industry to make it more palatable for non-Jewish audiences.
The origins of this phenomenon date back even further. In the early twentieth century, Jewish women in vaudeville would change their last names to sound less “ethnic.”
It’s true that there are many Jews in Hollywood; after all, the American film industry was essentially started by Jews. However, that “Jewish representation” hasn’t been very Jewish.
Some examples of Jewish whitewashing in Hollywood include:
- Casting non-Jewish, generally white characters to play Jewish characters
- Reducing Jewish characters to stereotypes
- Jew-coding characters without explicitly stating them as Jewish
- Depicting a one-dimensional, whitewashed, assimilated version of the Jewish experience
- Ignoring the diversity of the Jewish community
- Casting white people as Jews while passing up Jewish actors because they look “too Jewish” or have Jewish-sounding names
BRADLEY COOPER CONTROVERSY
In the upcoming Netflix film Maestro, non-Jewish actor Bradley Cooper plays Jewish American composer Leonard Bernstein. In the film, Cooper wears a large prosthetic nose — one much larger than Bernstein’s actual nose was.
This has infuriated much of the Jewish community, as it not only harkens back to the Jew-face of the vaudeville days, but it perpetuates an antisemitic stereotype that has led to the murder of millions upon millions of Jews. Not to mention, for decades, Hollywood has denied many Jews opportunities because they looked “too Jewish.”
Leonard Bernstein’s family, however, has defended the choice.
In my view, there are two problems here:
(1) Bradley Cooper wasn’t wearing a prosthetic nose to look more like Leonard Bernstein — whether consciously or subconsciously, he was wearing a prosthetic nose to look more “Jewish.” To look more like an antisemitic Jewish stereotype, to be more precise.
Of course, not all Jews have large noses, and studies have found that Jews with large noses are not any more common than other Mediterranean people with large noses. Nevertheless, Jews have been not only mocked because of the stereotype for centuries, but in the case of Nazi Germany, specifically targeted for genocide because of our so-called “racial” characteristics, such as the large, hooked nose.
(2) the fact that Bernstein’s family defended the choice doesn’t matter. If anything, it makes the situation worse, because it legitimizes an antisemitic choice that the film made (“How can it be antisemitic? Bernstein’s family defended him!”).
Not all Jews are scholars or historians of antisemitism. Not all Jews understand that perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes, whether done so unconsciously or in jest, ultimately end up hurting the Jewish community. This isn’t about being antisemitic toward Leonard Bernstein; it’s about antisemitism that hurts every other Jew on the planet. Antisemitism is sneaky, insidious, and oftentimes very hard to catch. The fact that Bernstein’s family doesn’t seem to think this is a problem does not mean that it’s not a problem.
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