Would Jonah Hill have saved Kanye West if his name was still Feldstein?

The fact that so many in Hollywood still de-Jew their names shows there's a limit to our acceptance

March 28, 2023 17:20

Kanye West — yes, him again — made an exciting announcement last weekend: he will no longer rant dementedly about Jewish people. Now, I know some JC readers disagreed with me when I wrote here a few months ago that it seemed to me that West’s problem was more that he is extremely mentally ill rather than antisemitic, but his latest revelation of what cured him of his anti-Jew feelings bolsters my argument quite significantly. West claims he is no longer antisemitic because of … 21 Jump Street.

And more specifically, because of the star of that film: “Watching Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street made me like Jewish people again,” West announced on Instagram.

Now, antisemitism is never a laughing matter, of course, but I must confess to JC readers that, on reading that, I laughed quite a lot. And then I had a little think about Hill, the unlikely saviour of the Jewish people.

As it happens, I’ve interviewed Hill — not for 21 Jump Street, but its sequel, called — of course —  22 Jump Street. I wouldn’t say I was exactly a Hill megafan, but I’d always enjoyed his acting and so, without thinking too much about it, I asked him, why he changed his surname from Feldstein to Hill.

The atmosphere in the room plummeted from polite to pneumonia-inducing. After several very weird seconds in which he seemed to be panting to himself, Hill whispered, “Can we just not?”

Is this awkward, I asked.

“Just… don’t,” he hissed.

That was definitely the weirdest response I ever got to my question because I always ask famous Jews why they de-Jewed their name. Jon Stewart, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Kirk Douglas — they’ve all got the question from me, lest Hill felt singled out here.

I am the Peter Tatchell of the Jews, determinedly outing the truth about Jewish people’s names. And the answers have ranged from the faintly surreal (Melvin Kaminsky believed that “Mel Brooks” would fit more easily on his drum kit) to the mostly credible (Jonathan Leibowitz wanted to drop his father’s surname after his parents’ divorce and so became Jon Stewart).

Allen Konigsburg changed his name to Woody Allen because he thought it was “funnier”, Yissur Danielovitch opted for Kirk Douglas because it was easier to spell. Nothing to do with hiding their roots, ever. After all, as Stewart (Leibowitz) said to me, “It’s not like people don’t know I’m Jewish.”

But that’s exactly why I’m so interested in the name changes. With the exception of Douglas, being Jewish is a big part of all of these people’s identities, so what’s the point? It feels so retro now, a hark back to when Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall and Bernie Schwartz was reborn as Tony Curtis.

Female Jewish celebrities tend to change their names less often –— Sarah Silverman stuck with her birth name, as did Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand before her. One who didn’t, interestingly, was Natalie Portman — probably the most famously Jewish actress working today — who ditched “Hershlag” for something a little less Yiddish.

As Kanye West himself pointed out, several times, there are a lot of Jewish people working in Hollywood. But the fact that people like Hill and mega-producer Chuck Lorre (original name: Chaim Levine) still feel the need to de-Jew their name shows the limits of Jewish acceptance in the mainstream: sure, audiences like the Jewish jokes and the awkward Curb-esque comedy. But don’t sound too ethnic, too foreign, too, well, different.

Would Jonah Hill have cured Kanye West of his Jew hate if he’d stayed Jonah Feldstein? Alas, we will never know.

March 28, 2023 17:20

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