The tendency to see Jews while not seeing Jews finds a zenith in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Amazon’s gaudy television show about the life of an American-Jewish comic in the 1950s and 1960s.
The final season just wrapped in New York City: the non-Jewish actor Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Mrs Maisel, posted a farewell photograph from the set.
I’m not objecting to what the American comic Sarah Silverman calls “Jewface”, although, as Silverman is both comic and Jew, I can understand why Brosnahan’s performance might vex her.
Non-Jews are capable of playing Jews if they have the requisite sensitivity. Rod Steiger is the leading interpreter of Jewish tragedy on screen — The Pawnbroker — and who can fault Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List?
Mrs Maisel’s father, played by the non-Jewish Tony Shalhoub, offers a perfect interpretation of an anxious Jewish intellectual. I don’t like quotas, and to suggest that only people of a certain ethnicity play people of that ethnicity is to chop artists off at the knees; it also suggests you are not dealing with racism in other places.
If we must tolerate Laurence Oliver as a Jew (The Boys from Brazil) and the usually superb Simon Russell Beale as a Jew (the awful Lehman Trilogy), that’s the price of experimentation. Sometimes artists fail. We can only step over the corpse.
But we must name it failure, and ask also why, if it fails, is it still beloved? The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is a great success — it has the same gaudy colours and exquisite production design as Netflix’s romanticised story of Georgian aristocrats Bridgerton — but it is an insult to Jewish women and Jewish comics. Of course, it is a fairytale, but as American antisemitism rises to a terrifying pitch, I question both the value, and the purpose, of this fairytale.
In the beginning, Mrs Maisel was a beautiful, bourgeois Jewish housewife. A crisis in her marriage led her to a stage, and her nightgown fell down onstage; she was suddenly addicted to transgression.
The model for Mrs Maisel is surely Joan Rivers, and this is where Mrs Maisel begins to fall apart. At its beginnings. Comics are a peculiar breed. It’s a condition, not a job. They stand at the microphone because they do not feel listened to.
I accept that Mrs Maisel may not feel listened to by her parents — a pair of mad obsessives that I buy as Jewish (the actors aren’t) — but the idea that a woman as secure and lovely as Mrs Maisel would be a comic is absurd. In their bones, comics have nothing. Mrs Maisel has a glut of everything except rage.
Joan Rivers spoke about her struggles with bulimia before she died. Unless Mrs Maisel changes personality, that is not her future. She is not a comic. She is a princess. She even has Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) as her mentor and occasional lover. He performs the same role as the angel Clarence does for George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. He is Mrs Maisel’s Sex Clarence.
If Mrs Maisel is a fake comic, she is also a fake Jew. Even Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar — another Jewish princess from New York City who wanted to take to the stage — has more shadow. Her performance is what David Baddiel calls “nebbish being” and I call “the Jew Wobble”. She is all gestures, and the gestures never touch the heart.
I watch Mrs Maisel, which is brilliantly produced, and I am certain that the casting of Brosnahan as Mrs Maisel — a non-Jewish Jew — is deliberate.
Of course, it is possible that Amazon decided that no one would watch a landmark television series about a real female Jewish comic, because it would be too dark to be profitable, and, of course, people have an insatiable desire to look at pretty women. For another lesson in the prettiness — and the self-image — of real female Jewish comics, look what Joan Rivers did to her face with plastic surgery.
If American antisemitism was not rising, Mrs Maisel would be a harmless confection, a curio in which actors who are allowed to be plausibly Jewish circle a leading lady who is not.
But it is, and Americans need to understand who Jews are, if it is not to rise further. I don’t suggest that you can educate Americans out of antisemitism with truthful television drama; either all the wrong people would watch it, or no one would.
But this is not seeing Jews. It is unseeing us. It is taking our culture as landscape, glibly and with charm, and de-Judaising it for profit. At best it is meaningless, at worst it is offensive. My final point is the most crucial one, and I make it for female comics: Mrs Maisel isn’t funny.