The Long History of Jewface

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Leonard Bernstein had a big nose. It wasn’t distractingly big—not Cyrano-big, not Mr. Burns-big, not an Alpine astonishment like Mount Durante. It was, rather, a fine, substantial nose, the kind that confers dignity, especially when situated beneath soulful eyes on a handsome face like the late conductor and composer’s.

The dimensions of Bernstein’s nose would seem to be a minor concern in this year of fire and flood. But every day the Internet brings wonders. On August 15th, Netflix released the teaser trailer for “Maestro,” a Bernstein bio-pic, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. The trailer itself is unremarkable, revealing what looks to be an upper-middlebrow melodrama, with decorous touches—Mahler’s Fifth swelling over black-and-white cinematography—engineered for awards season.

What caught viewers’ attention was Cooper’s nose. It appeared to have greater presence—lots more going on, in terms of length, breadth, and over-all affect—than the noses with which admirers of both Cooper and Bernstein are familiar. The news spread that Cooper had worn a prosthesis, and soon nostrils were flaring worldwide, with critics on social media and in the press decrying “Maestro” for propagating an antisemitic trope. In a viral post on X, formerly known as Twitter, a Jewish-studies Ph.D. candidate wrote, “This isn’t about making a non-Jewish actor look more like Leonard Bernstein; it’s about making a non-Jewish actor look more like a Jewish stereotype.” Headlines across the globe framed the controversy as an example of the movie industry’s insensitivity to Jews. It was, according to USA Today, the latest manifestation of “Hollywood’s ‘Jewface’ Problem.”

That term, Jewface, has gained currency in recent years, amid increasingly heated debates about representation, appropriation, and who has the right to depict whom on film, television, and the stage. In the U.S. and the U.K., the casting of non-Jews in Jewish roles has been met with outcry—claims that, in an age of show-business reckoning with historical wrongs, injuries to Jews are ignored. In 2019, twenty-two Jewish actors and playwrights published an open letter lamenting the “erasure” of Jews in the London theatre and the absence of “protests about Jewface” when non-Jews perform Jewish parts. The argument was more aggressively advanced by the British comedian David Baddiel, the author of a best-selling polemic, “Jews Don’t Count” (2022), which he followed up with a TV documentary. Jews, Baddiel has written, are “assumed, anti-semitically, to be successful and privileged and powerful, and therefore not in need of the protections that identity politics affords other minorities. In the case of casting, that falls down as: ‘Well, Jews are everywhere in showbiz, so Jewish actors don’t need that leg-up.’ ”

Baddiel’s American counterpart is the comedian Sarah Silverman, who has emerged as a forceful critic of Hollywood’s casting choices and portrayal of Jewish characters. Silverman has expressed dismay about “a long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews,” citing such recent examples as the casting of Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers. “One could argue . . . that a Gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called Jewface,” Silverman said on an episode of her podcast, in September, 2021. Jewface, she said, “is defined as when a non-Jew portrays a Jew, with the Jewishness front and center—often with makeup, or changing of features, big fake nose, all the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection.”

There are notorious examples of Jewish caricatures in cinema. In “Oliver Twist” (1948), Alec Guinness’s Fagin is a hunched vampire straight out of a Der Stürmer cartoon; Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) features John and Nicholas Turturro laying it on thick as the grasping, kvetching jazz-club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush. But the grotesquerie of these performances has little in common with, say, Rachel Brosnahan’s lead turn in Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer,” both often cited in discussions of Jewface. The Jewface discourse is fuzzy, unclear about where lines must be drawn, what exactly is verboten, and how to distinguish, as Silverman would have it, “front and center” Jewishness from other, presumably subtler, varieties of Jewishness and Jew-ish-ness. For Silverman, the Jewface problem evidently does not extend to Bradley Cooper and his big fake nose: she appears in “Maestro” as Leonard Bernstein’s sister Shirley.

Attempts to police these boundaries can veer into absurdity. In a Guardian opinion piece, Baddiel complains that the Netflix animated series “BoJack Horseman” hired the non-Jewish actor J. K. Simmons to voice the character Lenny Turteltaub—“a turtle,” Baddiel writes, “but a very Jewish one.” Another question is whether the standards must be upheld in the other direction. If we insist that Gentiles not play Jews, shouldn’t Jewish actors be barred from impersonating the goyim? That’s a development that would put a lot of Jews out of work. It would also impoverish culture. Where would we be, as a human race, without Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge, in “The Big Sleep,” or Jason Alexander’s (nominally Italian American) George Costanza?

What we have here, in other words, is a case study in culture-war overreach, in which the precepts of identity politics are clumsily invoked and the realities of structural power misconstrued. To put it less politely: the Jewface imbroglio feels like a dubious effort to elbow in on the long-standing grievances of Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian actors and filmmakers. Baddiel is right that “Jews are everywhere in showbiz” has long been an antisemitic talking point. Nevertheless: there are lots of Jews in show biz. A century after émigrés from the Pale of Settlement and the Lower East Side schlepped West to found Hollywood’s major movie studios, Jews remain heavily represented among the industry’s power players and gatekeepers. It is specious to imply equivalence between the standing of Jews in Hollywood and that of people of color, who, until recently, were locked out of nearly all positions of influence in the industry and were made to enact racist stereotypes onscreen—on the occasions, that is, when those roles weren’t performed by white actors, wearing the hideous minstrel stage masks of blackface, redface, brownface, and yellowface.

Blackface, in particular, is germane to this conversation. It’s no secret that, from around 1885 on, Jews were prime movers in the blackface industrial complex, benefitting materially (and, as has often been argued, psychosocially) from the wild popularity of racist burlesque on the stage and screen. Jewish variety-theatre impresarios reaped fortunes by featuring blackface acts; the Jewish songwriters and song-publishing moguls of Tin Pan Alley churned out cakewalks, “coon songs,” ragtime ditties, plantation-nostalgia anthems, and other blackface numbers; and Jewish vaudevillians, including some of the biggest stars of the early twentieth century—Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Stella Mayhew, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and, preëminently, Al Jolson—cut their teeth in blackface, and were among the genre’s most beloved performers. The primordial place of blackface in both motion-picture history and the drama of Jewish American self-actualization is captured in the first feature-length talkie, “The Jazz Singer” (1927), an assimilationist parable in which Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) blacks up, belts out “My Mammy” at the Winter Garden, and graduates from immigrant cantor’s son to Yankee Doodle pop star.

Hollywood has never fully severed its roots in minstrelsy. Blackface continued to show up onscreen deep into the civil-rights era and beyond, including in this century. In fact, both Silverman and Baddiel have blackface episodes in their past: Baddiel wore blackface and fake dreadlocks in a 1995 impression of the soccer player Jason Lee; in 2007, Silverman blacked up for a sketch on her Comedy Central show. (The comedians have each since expressed regret.)

This history has things to tell us about today’s Jewface debates. If we revisit American vaudeville’s turn-of-the-century heyday, we find, alongside the countless wearers of burnt cork, many other comedians specializing in racial and ethnic burlesque. Outfitted in stereotypical garb and makeup, singing and joke-telling in thick dialect, these performers depicted stock characters: drunken Irishmen, doltish “Dutch” (i.e., Germans), bad-tempered Italians, opium-smoking Chinese, and so on. The popularity of these caricatures reflects the anxieties and upheavals of the period, when cities teemed with immigrants, and the Anglo-American majority fretted over the threat to racial purity and the social order posed by changing demographics. It also reveals how pop culture, especially comedy, reinforced racialist ideology—how melting-pot myths, eugenicist pseudoscience, and the imperatives of Jim Crow were amplified in one-liners and knockabout routines, in cartoons and Tin Pan Alley hits.

Perhaps the most widespread form of minstrelsy, after blackface, was “Hebrew comedy”—that is, Jewface. Like other vaudeville stage fixtures, the so-called Hebrew comedian had a trademark costume and repertoire of gags. The character he played, typically named Abie Cohen, was a Lower East Side immigrant who worked as a pawnshop dealer or in the secondhand-clothing trade. He looked and sounded the part: he wore raggedy black overcoats and battered derby hats; he spoke heavily accented English, riddled with errors, malapropisms, and frequent interjections of “Oy!” His obsession was money—making it, hoarding it, wheedling it out of all and sundry. “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-seven Dollars,” a 1916 “Hebrew dialect” song, tells the story of a Jewish schmatte salesman who makes a miracle deathbed recovery when he learns he will recoup a debt.

The humor was broad and shameless, embracing bad puns and big pratfalls. The slapstick flavor of Hebrew comedy is captured in the 1900 silent film short “A Gesture Fight in Hester Street,” which shows pushcart peddlers squabbling over sidewalk turf on the Lower East Side. Another favorite theme was the romantic misfortune of Jewish men. Often, vaudeville routines co-starred zany Hebrew comediennes, who sassed and scolded their counterparts, rebuffing Abie Cohen’s advances in favor of Irishmen or Italians.

The principal jokes that Jewface told were about acculturation and the failures of greenhorns to adjust to the New World. Hebrew comedians mangled the English language, misapprehended American customs, struggled to comprehend modern ideas, values, and machines. One of the first comedy records to sell a million copies, the dialect monologue “Cohen on the Telephone” (1913), parodies a Jew’s efforts to master the newfangled communications device. Many skits and songs portrayed Jewish males as fish out of water, bumbling in their efforts to play archetypal masculine roles: cowboy, Indian chief, boxer, soldier.

And, of course, there was the perennial punch line of physiognomy: sight gags, sketches, and songs that depicted Jewish bodies as misshapen and absurd. Hebrew comedians wore scraggly crepe beards—the more obviously phony, the better—and used putty to mold their noses into monstrous beaks. “He’s got a Yiddisha face / He’s got a Yiddisha nose / And every other thing what on a Yiddisha grows,” the chorus of “Yiddisha Feet,” a 1911 song, declares. The protagonist of another song, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band” (1906), is a Jewish marching-band leader who uses his gigantic schnoz as a conductor’s baton. Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein is not the first big-nosed Maestro to trouble popular culture.

As it happens, I have Jewface bona fides, and not just because I’m the possessor of what my forebears liked to call a sheyn punim. For years, I collected Hebrew-comedy ephemera: wax-cylinder and 78-r.p.m. records, sheet music, advertisements, photographs, jokebooks. In 2006, I compiled “Jewface,” an anthology of Hebrew-comedy recordings, dating from 1905 to 1922. (Many of these artifacts now reside in, yep, the Jody Rosen Collection of humorous antisemitica, at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) What I discovered, during my years of scouring eBay and library archives, was a paradox. Hebrew comedy was clearly antisemitic, echoing “stage Jew” tropes established in medieval mystery plays and Elizabethan theatre. In 1909, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform Judaism’s governing body, announced its intention to “take up the matter of the caricature of the Jew on the stage.” Jewish organizations, including chapters of B’nai B’rith, arranged theatrical boycotts, denouncing vaudevillians’ “scurrilous and debasing impersonations of the Hebrew type.” Editorialists railed against Hebrew comedians’ “stupid and stale jokes that have their origin in ignorant prejudice and in turn feed the same prejudice.” A Cleveland-based union of synagogues and Jewish fraternal organizations called the stage Jew the cause of “greater prejudice against the Jews as a class than all other causes combined.”

But there was a catch: Hebrew comedy was largely a Jewish enterprise. In the commercial and creative spheres of the Jewface industry, Jews predominated. The vaudeville and variety stage theatres where Hebrew comedians performed were often Jewish-run. Many of the top Hebrew comedians were Jews; such legends as Jolson, Tucker, Brice, and Cantor all did Jewface turns. Jewish songwriters were often responsible for Jewface tunes. One of the most prolific composers of Jewish dialect songs was Irving Berlin.

Then, there was the Jewish audience, whose appetite for Hebrew comedy was voracious. The irony was noted by a rabbi, writing in 1909 in Houston’s Jewish Herald newspaper: “If we could only induce our theater-loving co-religionists to boycott those houses in which their brethren are held up to ridicule, the obnoxious stage Jew would soon become a thing of the past. Unfortunately there is a class of Jew which actively encourages this infamy, and all protests by societies will be of no avail as long as Jews may still be found who actually enjoy seeing their people held up to ridicule.” An editorial published the following year in the American Israelite echoed the sentiment: “In the ultimate analysis, the Jews themselves are responsible for the caricaturing stage Jew. . . . There are very few of the theaters that could exist were it not for the Jews.”

Jewface, in other words, was a different kind of minstrelsy: it was coarse ethnic caricature that functioned as ethnic in-group amusement. Why did Jews embrace entertainment that slandered them? For one thing, Hebrew comedy performed a nifty undercover operation. The Yiddish cadences that performers used in vaudeville bits, the snatches of cantorial music that composers smuggled into dialect song parodies—for Jewish audiences, these interpolations offered a frisson, the thrill of watching a parochial tribal thing become a mainstream pop thing. Yiddishkeit rode the night train into American culture.

But the deeper appeal of Jewface lay in the historical moment that produced it. In a discussion of Jewish humor, the folklore scholar Dan Ben-Amos argues that dialect jokes are a “form of verbal instrument which functions in the very process of assimilation and integration into the new society.” This insight applies to turn-of-the-century Jewface. To revel in comedy routines that mocked newcomers was to assert your distance from the immigrant experience—to assume the subject position of an American, scoffing at the Old World other. If you laughed at the misadventures of Abie and Sadie Cohen, it meant that you weren’t them.

As the years passed, melting-pot-era anxieties faded. Yet Jewface never vanished. It has percolated through pop culture for decades, providing a kind of running commentary on Jewish assimilation and alienation—cheeky midrash on changing identity. Jewface was kept alive, through the mid-century, by standup comics and novelty-song specialists in Borscht Belt resorts and on the Jewish cruise-ship circuit, communal safe spaces where the food was kosher and the punch lines were Yinglish. It surfaced, in altered form, in “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), whose nostalgic vision of shtetl life spoke to American Jews grieving the world that was destroyed in the Holocaust. What is “If I Were a Rich Man” if not a flipped and remixed Jewface dialect song?

Or listen to another song, “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” recorded by arguably the greatest Jewish jester of them all, Bob Dylan, in April, 1962, just months after Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick began work on “Fiddler.” It begins with Dylan announcing, “Here’s a foreign song I learned in Utah,” before launching into a halting version of “Hava Nagila,” enunciated one syllable at a time. The song cracks a joke about Dylan’s musical milieu, lampooning folk revivalists who roamed the land, “collecting” the music of rustics. But it is really a Jewish joke, or a series of them: a nod to the old vaudeville sketches about Yiddish cowboys; a wink by Dylan, né Zimmerman, at his own passing act; a spoof of bar-mitzvah boys phonetically chanting their haftarah portions; and a satire of secular Jewish estrangement from tradition. How’s that for a twist on Hebrew dialect comedy: the immigrant who once malapropped his way through English has become, in Dylan’s skit, a baffled American Jew, sputtering the language of his ancestors.

There are other improbable Jewface legacies. Take “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,” that song about the Jewish Sousa with the great big honker. The first six notes of the song’s chorus seem identical to those found in a far more famous piece of music: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” There is no definitive proof that the songwriter drew on this source, but it is likely that he’d heard “Mose with His Nose”; it was a minor hit in 1906, when he was eighteen and working as a singing waiter, a job that entailed keeping up with the latest Tin Pan Alley output. And Berlin had a lifelong habit of consciously and unconsciously air-dropping bits of half-remembered melodies into his compositions. In any case, whether by accident or by design, the transmutation of a vulgar old Jewface number into a civic hymn is hard to resist as metaphor—an emblem of minstrelsy’s fugitive movement through American life. When the strains of “God Bless America” rise, the rude ghosts of Jewish vaudeville are summoned.

The great bastion of Jewface is, where else, Hollywood. For nearly a century, from the Marx Brothers to the Safdie brothers, Jews have popped up onscreen, with jokes that revive and refigure the Jewish burlesque of yesteryear. Once you start looking for it, this brand of Jewface is hard to miss. There’s Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” and Mel Brooks in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” donning the mask of the Old World Jew. There’s Brooks again, in “Blazing Saddles,” as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief. Even Eddie Murphy got into the act in “Coming to America” (1988), wearing whiteface to play Saul, a crusty old guy with a Yiddish accent—a sly riposte to the legions of Jewish blackface performers.

In recent years, movies and television have delivered ingenious Jewface updates and postmodern inversions. There are the Israeli variants: Adam Sandler’s Mossad agent turned hair stylist in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008), Sacha Baron Cohen’s “anti-terror expert” and army captain, Erran Morad. Baron Cohen’s most famous creation, Borat, may be the most intricate of all Jewish masquerades: an English Jew disguised as a Central Asian rube, who speaks Hebrew disguised as Kazakh, while staging outrageous antisemitic stunts that expose, and mock, society’s latent Jew hatred.

Meanwhile, a younger generation has brought new shades of irony to riffs on Jewish identity and physiognomy. In “Lost and Found” (2019), an episode from the final season of “Broad City,” the show’s screwball heroine Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer) takes a “Genes and Me” DNA test and gets good news. “I just found out that I have the richest history a millennial Jew can have,” she exults. “I’m related to a Holocaust survivor!” The test also reveals a family history of “anxiety, poor eyesight, I.B.S., Tay-Sachs disease.” In short, Ilana reports, “I am one hundred per cent Ashkenazi Jew.” Her mother’s response: “Yeah, no shit—ever seen a mirror?”

Sarah Silverman and fellow-crusaders condemn casting decisions in prestige pictures as “Jewface.” But in 2023, as in 1903, Jewface is a form of comedy, and nearly all its practitioners are Jewish comedians, who embody familiar stereotypes and wring laughs from ancient libels. The list goes on. The schlemiel: Ben Stiller, the Abie Cohen of our time, fumbling and slapsticking as he tries to woo shiksas and win over their parents. The kvetch: Larry David, scheming, haggling, antagonizing everyone he meets. And let’s not forget Silverman herself, whose brassy, horny, neurotic persona gives a twenty-first-century spin to the shtick of vaudeville’s madcap Hebrew comediennes. Jewface remains a Jewish art—by Jews, for Jews. Of course, it’s also for the goyim, the millions of Gentiles who got hip to Jewish in-jokes, after decades of eavesdropping on them.

As for Bradley Cooper’s proboscis: it’s a big nose all right, but not, in the scheme of things, a big deal. At a time of resurgent neo-Nazism and rising white-nationalist violence, there are worse things for the Jews than Leonard Bernstein bio-pics. Bernstein’s three children came out in support of “Maestro.” (“It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose,” the Bernsteins said, in a statement.) The Anti-Defamation League also threw its support behind Cooper, distinguishing between his prosthesis and the “evil caricatures with large, hooked noses” in antisemitic films of the past. On September 2nd, “Maestro” débuted at the Venice Film Festival, receiving rave notices. In the Hollywood Reporter, the critic David Rooney lauded the film’s hair-and-makeup team for allowing Cooper “to disappear into the role.”

Ultimately, “Maestro” may hold scant lessons for students of the Jewish question. It does cast light on Hollywood’s weird ideas about acting and the human body. There are few things the movie industry loves more than a physical transformation. When beautiful movie stars take the brave step of impersonating regular schmoes, with flawed physiques and imperfectly proportioned appendages, praise and prizes often follow. History tells us that a phony nose is as good a way as any to catch the attention of the electorate. (“By a nose,” the presenter Denzel Washington quipped at the Seventy-fifth Academy Awards, announcing Nicole Kidman’s Best Actress victory for her prosthetically enhanced portrayal of Virginia Woolf.) Surely, Cooper—a nine-time Academy Award nominee and zero-time winner—had his trophy case in mind as he sat for long sculpting sessions in the makeup trailer. Jewface? Try Oscarface. ♦


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