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2023 Sundance: How Jewish Portrayals in Hollywood Need to Change

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Allison Josephs (left) and Malina Saval spoke on Jewish portrayals in Hollywood at a panel at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Anjelica Jardiel)

By Vanessa Zimmer

If the first thing you think of when someone says “Jewish mother,” is the nagging, nasal voice and exaggerated accent of Howard Wolowitz’s mother on Big Bang Theory, you might want to talk to Allison Josephs or Malina Saval. 

Neither Howard nor his mother (actors Simon Helberg and the late Carol Ann Susi, providing the off-screen voice) meant any harm — and their scenes were all in fun. But there’s a movement afoot to inject more authentic and more diverse Jewish voices into the mix. Josephs founded the nonprofit Jew in the City, Hollywood Bureau, in 2022, with the intention of changing Jewish depictions from a mostly insufferable and privileged stereotype.

“You never hear the story of a happy Orthodox Jew,”says Josephs, imagining all the storytelling opportunities to show people like her family, who celebrate their Jewish traditions with pride.

In a panel presentation titled “#MeJew: Antisemitism, Authentic Representation and Jewish Identity in Hollywood” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Josephs and Malina Saval, features editor at Variety, shared their personal and professional stories.

Twenty-five years ago, shortly after graduating with a master’s degree in screenwriting, Saval says, she wrote a script loosely based on growing up Jewish in Boston. Her agent took issue with the Jewish angle. Why not make the family Irish Catholic instead?

Being young and anxious to break into the industry, she did. She changed the family’s name and a couple of details, and all was well. 

To this day, Saval and Josephs say, the entertainment industry shies away from Jewishness. The two women say their community needs to lean into their minority status the same way Latinx, Blacks, and Native Americans have, to leverage more accurate stories — and to tell Jewish stories with actual Jewish actors.

The Fabelmans may be a fine movie (just nominated for several Oscars), but neither Paul Dano nor Michelle Williams is Jewish, Saval points out: “That just perturbed me beyond measure.” And the beautiful and elegant Helen Mirren playing the decidedly inelegant Israeli prime minister Golda Meir? “You can’t convince me that there isn’t an amazing Jewish actress out there” for the role, says Saval.

On a critically serious note, Josephs and Saval point to the anti-Semitism sentiment in America, citing FBI statistics that show Jews are the No. 1 targeted group in terms of hate crimes in the United States.

The two believe that if the film and entertainment industry took more care in telling authentic Jewish stories, with accurate details about religious law, Jew hatred might be turned back.

That may be a tall order. But, says Josephs: “Being scrappy is part of the Jewish experience.”

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