While some stars look Jewish or publicly identify as Jewish, supporting Israel—you go, Scar Jo!— or record Chanukah songs that even gentiles love to love, others mask their heritage like a traveling salesman with a toupee; only, no matter how many times you comb it over, transplant it or blow it out, everyone knows it’s a rug, especially in high-def. Meantime, some stars kinda look ethnic (read Jewish) but aren’t. It’s a conundrum.
In my house growing up, a stronghold of secular but devoted cultural Judaism, as soon as anyone’s name was introduced, famous or otherwise, my mother would immediately and inevitably punctuate the mention with the modifier “JEWISH!” or “NOT JEWISH!” While this particular brand of Yiddishkeit echolalia may not have been unique to our household alone, it is unique to the Jews to think about who is and isn’t Jewish, more than, say, the goyim. Walker Laird Gaffney and Turfer Throop probably do not yell out the word “JEWISH!” mere seconds after you tell them you just had lunch with Manny Howard or Jessi Burger. Nor do they gleefully tell you that Kate Hudson is, in fact, a member of the Tribe and exactly how and why (maternal grandmother).
What’s interesting here, or perhaps troubling—more than the commonplace self-identification practices of the Tribe via name recognition—is who among those in Hollywood chooses to maintain a public Jewish identity and who decides to go lo pro, even though, let’s face it, we all know what’s up. And I’m not talking about who’s a Zionist—that’s a whole other blog—or about depictions of Jewish characters in movies or in TV—don’t get me started—but who is a big ol’ ethnic Jewy the Jew all the livelong day in looks and name and life besides Madonna and Britney Spears! O Red String and Yehuda Berg (JEWISH!), thank you for all you have done. Hot gentiles dressed like bunnies at Purim parties? It’s a world gone mad.
While there’s a certain pride in Jewish identity in the world of letters, Hollywood generally shies away from wholly embracing Jewish identity, with the exception of the yearly smattering of Holocaust films or the Goldbergs and Krusty the Clown. This is remarkable especially when you think about the fact that Tinsel Town continues to be presided over by its forefathers, almost all of whom still seem to prefer an anemic version of what I like to call “blow-out Judaism,” where everyone either looks like Courtney Cox at a slut cotillion or is a fax of a fax of a fax of pre-bad-for-the-Jews Woody Allen.
In other words, whether or not you believe in your heart of hearts that America is a Christian Nation, its goysichelook is defined and imposed by a bunch of schleppy desert nomads whose last names end in –stein, –berg, –sky and –witz. And these now wildly successful American nomads, no matter how Jewish they themselves may look, do not, I repeat do NOT want to look at frizzy hair, nor back TV series about life in Borough Park. It’s everything a Jewish boy from Brooklyn or the Bronx would live to avoid. Still and all, my mother and I are not fooled! And when big, dark curly hair comes back with a vengeance, which it will, believe Jew me, we are ready and have been since the 1980s. Come back to the Dry Bar, Harvey Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.
So the next time you’re settling in for your next Netflix marathon, and the credits are rolling, or Kevin Bacon (NOT JEWISH!) enters the frame, play a rousing round or six of Jewish/Not Jewish and let your neighbors keep score. It’s not just a game; it’s a matter of national nachas.
The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.
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Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.