Why Hollywood Needs to ‘Explore and Highlight Jewish Joy’



“What’s your favorite Jewish movie?” This is not a question you often hear. Ask it and you’re likely to get a furrowed brow, a scrunched nose, and then finally a, “Uh… ‘Schindler’s List?’”? Same goes for theater (“Fiddler on the Roof?”) and television (“Maisel?”). We don’t have a lot of options when it comes to Jewish stories onscreen, and the ones we do have are most often stories of strife, persecution and victimhood. The pickings are slim.

Look, I understand that the Jewish people are the most minor of minorities— we make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population — so I don’t expect to find thousands of high-profile Jewish stories every day in every medium. But at this moment within our culture, when the entertainment industry is being flooded with the palpable vibrating energy of so many minority communities rightfully surging forth to take up space, tell their stories, and celebrate their identities, the Jewish people need to get in gear and join the party. Simply put, we need more stories on our stages and screens that focus not only on Jewish suffering, or Jewish idiosyncrasies, or just featuring characters who happen to be Jewish — we need to explore and highlight Jewish joy.

What is it about seeing Jews happy together, or celebrating a holiday or life-cycle event that has for decades made the creators and gatekeepers of content so queasy in Hollywood? Why have they so often shied away from illuminating these joyous interactions, or felt that, at best, they must be undercut with self-deprecation or juxtaposed with suffering? I do not think it a fault of audiences. We have seen time and again that audiences respond well to authentic, nuanced, celebratory content about marginalized groups. The recent smash hit “Barbie,” a film by women, about women and for women springs to mind.

The responsibility truly lies with those crafting the tales, and those who decide which tales are told.

But wait a minute, power in Hollywood … isn’t that … the Jews? And here we arrive at one of the biggest misconceptions about Jews working in Hollywood. Though there is no actual data, it certainly feels, and has felt historically, that there is a large number of Jews within the entertainment industry, at least in in relation to the number of Jews in the overall population. And yes, many Jews have historically found great success in the industry that we created. But for as long as Jews have been involved at Hollywood’s highest levels, so too have they been actively and desperately hiding their Jewishness from their colleagues and audiences for fear of the hate and vitriol that has plagued our people since ancient times.

This sad, useless fear to be openly and proudly Jewish has permeated our industry for far too long. Add to this the fact that, according to a recent Jewish Federation study, 40% of Jews in Los Angeles are unaffiliated. From this statistic, one can assume that of the Jews “running” Hollywood, the vast majority are either afraid to claim their Jewishness or have abandoned it. This is the reason that while there are many Jews in powerful positions in the industry, it has not translated to equal representation onscreen.

However, there are encouraging signs of change and progress. On Broadway this summer, you had Alex Edelman’s “Just for Us,” where I got to sit in a theater and watch a deeply Jewish person own and love his Jewish identity for 90 minutes. On TV, we had a beautiful episode of “Spidey and his Amazing Friends,” where Jewish superhero Benjamin Grimm (aka The Thing), along with the Spidey team, save Rosh Hashanah, enjoying apples and honey with Thing’s kippah-clad neighbors the Rosenbergs. What a beautiful expression of Jewish joy to impart to our children, like my 4-year-old son, who simply could not believe Spidey was celebrating Rosh Hashanah like we do!

And in film, we had the Sandler family’s “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” which, for my money, is the most celebratory Jewish film ever made. For once, a bat mitzvah wasn’t something to be mocked, or eye-rolled, or bemoaned. Rather, it was important, it required willingly given practice time and mature commitment — it carried weight and meaning. Most of all, it was something to look forward to. A celebration! The culmination of a kid’s entire life! And yes, while a lot of emphasis was on the party, that was a shortcoming of the protagonist, not a true belief of the writer. Her obsession with her party was something the lead teenage character eventually overcame, so much so that she gave her party away to uplift her best friend. If that’s not a celebration of Jewish values and Jewish joy, then I don’t know what is.

Why the shift? For one, as mentioned before, reclaiming cultural space that we have abandoned or been barred from inhabiting is a part of the zeitgeist. It’s in the air, it’s infectious, it has caught fire and it’s spreading at such a rate that even the fearful are becoming emboldened. Secondly, the extremely visible and shocking rise of bald-faced antisemitism in this country — and within the industry itself — has shaken many sleeping folks awake, making them aware of the vital importance of owning our Jewish identities and advocating for ourselves (thanks, Kanye!). Mock them all you want, but the general vibe of Gen Z is one of inclusivity, acceptance and understanding. And as we all know, youth drives culture.

So, if you’re a Jewish writer or director or studio executive or producer, join the Jewish jamboree. It’s time to break free from the narrow confines of Jewish representation in media and embrace the richness of our culture, our traditions and our values. It is time to share our Jewish joy with audiences everywhere.

God willing, by the time my son is my age, I can ask him, “What’s your favorite Jewish movie?” And he’ll furrow his brow, scrunch his nose, and finally say, “Gosh Dad, how do I pick just one?”

Jonah Platt is an actor, writer, composer, director and producer.

This article is part of Variety’s Antisemitism and Hollywood package and was written before October.


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