JTA — A new Hollywood history museum will have a permanent exhibit dedicated to Jewish contributions after early criticism that Jews were left out.
The change was announced this week ahead of this year’s Oscars, which feature a more diverse list of nominees than in the past. It caps a period of intense discussion about how Hollywood includes Jews — and how it doesn’t.
Whether in their on-screen portrayals, the actors chosen to play them, or recognition of their historic role in building the film industry, Jews in recent months have expressed their sense of being excluded from the current Hollywood conversation.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened last fall in Los Angeles, is Exhibit A in this alleged oversight. Overseen by the Academy’s governing body, which has described its mission as “radically inclusive”, the museum’s announcement of its new permanent exhibit dedicated to Jews came only after the academy admitted it initially dismissed or ignored the prominent Jewish founders of Hollywood.
Jewish visitors to its inauguration, including prominent museum donors such as Haim Saban, publicly expressed concerns that Jewish stories were being overlooked in the industry’s historical narrative.
Among the characters who had little or no prominence in the museum’s narrative were Jewish studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers; eminent directors like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch; stars like Hedy Lamarr; and screenwriters like Herman Mankiewicz (subject of the recent biopic “Mank,” which starred non-Jew Gary Oldman).
Figures such as these shaped Hollywood’s early years, while hiding their Jewishness from the general public, according to historians of the time such as Neal Gabler, whose book ‘An Empire Of Their Own’ explores the role central to the Jews in the creation of Hollywood.
These early Jewish films rarely, if ever, dealt with Jewish characters and themes. “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a 1947 landmark film about anti-Semitism, was not starred, directed, or produced by Jews (although co-writers Moss Hart and Laura Z. Hobson, whose novel is based on the film, be Jewish). Some of these showbiz legends were refugees from Europe, and their track records of escaping (and continuing to operate under) extreme anti-Semitism informed their desire to keep their Judaism a secret.
The Academy’s initial omission of these Jewish figures and their self-imposed cultural erasure contrasted sharply with the museum’s focus on people of color and women in early Hollywood. An anonymous insider told The Hollywood Reporter that the exclusion was a symptom of “wake-up overcorrection.”
The museum’s critique came amid other ongoing conversations about Jewish representation in modern Hollywood. Jewish actress Sarah Silverman recently popularized the controversial term “Jewface,” previously used by scholars to describe secular Jews disguised as Hasidic in Yiddish theater, to describe a different phenomenon: non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles, in popular works such as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s biopic “On the Basis of Sex”. Jewish Helen Mirren in the role.
Just this week, an anonymous Oscar voter interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter wondered if Rachel Zegler, the Colombian-Polish star of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, was diverse enough for the role, based only on his name.
“I know they insist that they cast Latino and Latino actors this time, but the actress who plays Maria is called Rachel Zegler, so I think that’s a bit of a stretch,” the Academy member said, as justification for not voting for the film — in what could be interpreted as an insinuation that Zegler is Jewish and therefore doesn’t count. as miscellaneous. Zegler is Latina and not Jewish.
Allison Josephs, a writer and activist who heads the Orthodox media organization Jew In The City, says how Jews are portrayed on screen has real implications for how they are treated in real life.
“Jews are not considered a minority in Hollywood. We are seen as white,” Josephs told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, adding that depictions of Orthodox Jews in particular are “two-dimensional.” His writings about such negative portrayals prompted apologies and episode retractions from major producers.
This week, Josephs announced that Jew in the City would open a “Hollywood office,” intended to be a Jewish parallel with the NAACP, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment — existing organizations that make pressure for positive blacks. , Muslim and Asian depictions on screen.
The office would advocate for Jews in Hollywood by helping place observant Jews in entertainment production roles, as well as through performance awards; a “minority impact study” to determine whether negative portrayals of Jews on screen lead to more anti-Semitic incidents in real life; and a media consultancy. Josephs is also working on a documentary about Jewish representation in Hollywood.
Along with television writer Yael Levy, Josephs also invented what they call the “Joseph test” for judging an Orthodox character’s on-screen portrayal, modeled on the Bechdel test, a tool for popular analysis for on-screen depictions of women coined by comic book artist Allison Bechdel. (There is also the Kranjec test, to assess whether Torah study includes female sources.)
Bechdel’s test criteria require a film to feature two named female characters who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. Josephs’ test calls for a movie or TV show featuring Orthodox characters who “are emotionally and psychologically stable” and can “self-actualize without giving up their Judaism” – unlike Netflix’s popular “Unorthodox” shows. and “My Unorthodox Life,” both of which feature protagonists outside of Orthodox Judaism.
“Basically every show and every movie fails the Joseph test, except for [Israeli movies and TV shows] ‘Shtisel,’ ‘Fill the Void,’ [and] “Ushpizin,” because they were all made or worked with real Orthodox Jews,” Josephs said.
Only one film released this year had a sufficiently positive portrayal of Judaism, in Josephs’ eyes, to be eligible for a Jewish portrayal award: the musical documentary “Rock Camp: The Movie,” whose central subject is an Orthodox musical agent.
She’s not alone in wanting better portrayals of Jews on screen. In an op-ed last year, Malina Saval, Variety’s editor and former screenwriter, lamented what she saw as “the weakening of Jewish representation in TV and film,” criticizing so-called “Jews who hate each other” on screen. , like Woody Allen and Larry David, who she says help create a safe psychological distance between the public and a positive view of Judaism.
But the academy is committed to correcting the tide around Jews, museum director and president Bill Kramer wrote this week in a joint op-ed with Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.
“As a cultural institution that seeks to elevate the underrepresented and untold stories of the film industry, the Academy Museum has a responsibility to examine and explore the experiences of oppressed and marginalized groups in film. , including the Jewish community,” Kramer and Greenblatt wrote, adding that the museum and the ADL would partner with public programming to educate the public about the role of Jews in Hollywood and in the fight against anti-Semitism. .
The Academy Museum’s new permanent exhibit dedicated to Jews, titled “Hollywoodland,” will open next year. Meanwhile, Jewish viewers of the Oscars still have some entrenched interests this weekend: Director Steven Spielberg, actor Andrew Garfield and screenwriter Maggie Gyllenhaal, among other Jews, are all up for awards.