Jews in Hollywood have long been changing their names to sound less…well, Jewish. Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall; Isadore Demsky became Kirk Douglas; and Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen—the list is quite long. For better or worse, the trend reflects that hiding identity or ethnicity makes stardom more plausible. And at the very least, it might attract more work.
So what happens when an actress with a plainly Jewish name doesn’t tweak her title?
Tovah Feldshuh, who currently stars on Broadway as a Polish Catholic in a Holocaust play, told Playbill her name keeps the Jewish roles coming. It’s with characters that lack an explicit ethnicity that she is sometimes overlooked.
She had this to say to Playbill.com:
Playbill.com: Many of your theatre projects deal with Jewish subject matter and feature Jewish characters. How important is that to you that your projects have that aspect?
Tovah Feldshuh: I’m interested in doing good projects. But I think, because people have busy lives, shorthand is a useful tool for everybody. Shakespeare says, “What’s in a name?” I say, “Yes, but you must put the effort forth.” It is much easier for me to be handed, without audition, the mini-series “Holocaust,” or Golda’s Balcony, than for me to be handed Love Letters, which I had trouble getting an audition for in New York, I’m sad to say. And I’m sad for the production, because how many other capable performers were passed over because the name didn’t sound right?
Playbill.com: So you’re saying your resume has as much to do with serendipity and other people’s perceptions than it does with your personal convictions about the kind of projects you want to do.
TF: My name was perceived, at first, when I was completely unknown — people wondered if I was foreign or from another country. I believe I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered projects that sometimes have to do with Jewish ethnicity and history that are the cream of the cream of those projects. The top. You don’t see me showing up for those I don’t consider of the highest rank. Let’s be frank here. I absolutely love being an American, and I’m proud to be an American Jew. I have no bones about it. But as an artist, you want to be able to play everything.
A friend of mine once wrote that there is something unbelievably transcendent about an artist who performs in their own accent (of course she has a very charming English one). And I thought, yes! A person who performs in their own skin is more real and raw than in any other role. I think of Tovah Feldshuh, who completely personified New York-Jewish mother perfection in one of my all time favorite films, “A Walk on the Moon.” And my passion for it has nothing to do with the scene where Diane Lane and Viggo Mortenson make love while submerged beneath a waterfall—with Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” playing in the background. Nothing to do with that at all.