PARSHAT VAYISHLACH

JEWS PLAYING JEWS

“Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” (Genesis 36:12)

            I want to take a break this week from the painful news of the war in Gaza, the release of hostages, and growing antisemitism.  I decided to write on a lighter subject, my love of Broadway musicals.  I went to see Funny Girl last week at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.  It was terrific.

            For those who do not know, it tells the story of the rise of the Jewish comedian-entertainer Fanny Brice from her humble beginnings as a Jewish immigrant to super-stardom.  It also tells the painful story of her failed marriage to the gambler Nicky Arnstein.  When it opened in 1964 on Broadway and then became a movie in 1968, the role made Barbra Streisand a star.  Of course, Barbra has the skills the role needs – comedic timing and a gorgeous singing voice.  And it helped that she is Jewish.

            When the show was revived on Broadway in 2022, there was much controversy over casting.  Beanie Feldstein was given the role of Fanny Brice, a wonderful Jewish comedian but lacking the singing voice.  She was forced to leave the show early, and her understudy Julie Benko took over. Julie has the comic ability, the singing voice, and is Jewish, and the show was a career changer for her.  But she did not have the name recognition.  So, Lea Michele of Glee fame took over the role.  She has a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, was not raised Jewish, but has enough Judaism in her blood to take over the role.

            That brings me to the show I saw.  The touring company stars Katerina McCrimmon, amazingly talented.  The show requires someone that can send the audience into intermission with “Don’t rain on my parade” ringing in their ears.  McCrimmon deserved her standing ovation.  But then I read several articles and reviews of the show.  McCrimmon is a Cuban  American from Miami, not Jewish.  These reviewers asked why could they not find a Jewish actress?  According to one review, if a Jewish actress sings in a heavy Yiddish accent, “I’m Private Schwartz from Rockaway,” it is self-deprecating humor.  If a non-Jewish actress sings it, it is the sin of “cultural appropriation,” forbidden in our woke world.  I could not believe the religion or ethnic background of the lead actress is even an issue, but we live in a world of identity politics.

            That brings me to a deeper problem of our culture today.  Our identity politics teaches that only a Jewish actor can play a Jewish character.  People are upset that Bradley Cooper, not Jewish, is starring in the movie Maestro as the Jewish composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.  He even had a prosthetic nose to look more the part.  In 2004 people were upset that the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof starred Alfred Molina, a talented but non-Jewish actor.  Many people felt that only a Jew can play Tevye the milkman.  In fact, the Monty Python show Spamalot makes fun of this.  One of the songs goes, “We won’t succeed on Broadway if we don’t have any Jews.”

            We live in a world where people are placed in boxes according to their religious or ethnic background.  On Broadway or in Hollywood, only Jews can play Jews, only gays can play gays, only Hispanics can play Hispanics, only Asians can play Asians, only the disabled can play the disabled.  We are judged not by our individual talent but by our group identity.  It is part of the entire identity politics that has taken over the left.

            This issue reminds me of a verse from this week’s Torah portion.  A young woman named Timna wants to switch her identity and become part of the people Israel.  She seeks to convert to Judaism.  She is turned away; the closest she can do to being part of the people is by becoming the concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz.  As a result, Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people is born.  When people are closed out from being part of a community, there are negative consequences.

            Acting is acting.  No role should be closed to anyone because they are the wrong ethnicity.  After all, in the original cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton was played by a Puerto Rican, Eliza Hamilton was played by a Filipino, Aaron Burr was played by a black man, and King George was played by a white gay actor.  I was privileged to see an extremely talented Cuban American sing her heart out as Fanny Brice.  The fact that she is not Jewish is irrelevant.