‘About Us and Without Us’: Sundance Film Festival Features Panel Discussion About Jewish Representation in TV, Film
by Shiryn Ghermezian
A panel discussion about accurate representation for Jewish characters on-screen in film and television, antisemitic tropes, and Jewish storylines took place Sunday at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
The 90-minute panel, called, “#MeJew: Antisemitism, Authentic Representation, and Jewish Identity in Hollywood,” was hosted by Allison Josephs, founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Jew in the City, and Variety Features Editor Malina Saval, who wrote an article in 2021 that focuses on the problematic stereotypes and tropes about Jews shown in film and television.
The panelists spoke to a packed room about issues facing Orthodox and secular Jews on camera. The discussion was the first time that the Sundance Film Festival featured a panel about Jewish representation, according to Josephs.
“There are only a handful of observant Jews in Hollywood and there’s this obsession with telling stories about religious Jews and yet it’s about us and without us,” Josephs told the audience.
“We’re either represented as super shallow, uber rich, controlling everything, or leeches sucking the blood from society. And that’s really kind of how the Jewish depictions always go. And I think we’re seeing other groups represented sort of defying the stereotypes, recognizing that stereotypes are based on something and also saying, ‘let’s get to meet people from these groups that are not the typical person that you think that you know,’ because it matters to tell more broad stories.”
Saval, who is also a screenwriter, and Josephs additionally drew specific examples of inaccurate Jewish representation and pointed out shows and films about Jews where Jewish actors were not cast in starring roles, including the television shows The Goldbergs and Hunters, the latter of which stars actor Al Pacino as a Holocaust survivor and a Jewish actor as a Nazi. They also addressed Helen Mirren being cast to play former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in an upcoming biopic about the political leader, and The Fabelmans, which is about filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Jewish family. Both of the characters who are based on Spielberg’s Jewish parents are played by non-Jewish actors Michelle Williams and Paul Dano.
“It’s these casting directors, directors, studio heads and whatnot saying, ‘we can make this person look Jewish by putting a wig on her, giving her a haircut.’ They’re completely missing the point that being Jewish is about an energy, collective experience, a nishama (soul),” said Saval. “And when you’re watching knowing that these people are not Jewish — I’m not saying Jews always have to play Jews, but for majority of the time they’re not able to play Jewish characters, and that just perturbed me beyond belief. As an entertainment journalist and a screenwriter, authenticity is key. Authenticity really needs to rank extremely high in order for a film to be successful.”
Josephs and Saval further discussed storylines featuring “Jewish law” that are false and portray Orthodox Jews in a negative light; Jewish stereotypes featured on-screen; the repeated use of a prosthetic nose to give a character a “Jewish nose,” and how Jews are often referred to as “good looking, for a Jew,” among other topics.
Jew in the City said its Hollywood Bureau, which it launched in March 2022, will commission an impact study with a “leading academic entertainment group” about these Jewish tropes and how they affect audiences.
Watch the entire panel discussion in the video below.