Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein on the set of “Maestro.”/JOSE PEREZ/BAUER-GRIFFIN/GC IMAGES

Jews have more things to worry about than Nosegate

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Jews have more things to worry about than Nosegate

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein on the set of “Maestro.”/JOSE PEREZ/BAUER-GRIFFIN/GC IMAGES

Antisemitic incidents reported were up 36 percent last year. More than two dozen calls were made to synagogues this summer by people vowing to kill Jews or bomb American synagogues. Canada confronted the 90th anniversary of a much-forgotten but still chilling all-night brawl that occurred after a Nazi banner was unfurled at a Toronto park on Aug. 16, 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power. A non-Jewish actor, Bradley Cooper, wears a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein in the upcoming Netflix film “Maestro” that almost certainly will seal Bernstein at the top of the pantheon of American composers and conductors.

Which ones of these are a threat to Jewish safety, security and identity?

To ask the question is to answer it. But for days this summer the Jewish press, and then the mainstream press, was consumed with the question of Cooper’s nose. Never mind that Cooper usually has a beard but doesn’t in “Maestro,” a transformation that I find a little unsettling myself. It’s apparently the nose that matters.

Or really, that it doesn’t matter at all. Or that it matters for a different reason entirely: The judgment required is to choose what matters and what doesn’t, and ultimately which issues to emphasize and which to slough off.

This is the time to employ the wisdom of choosing which hill to die on, and to remind everyone about Hamburger Hill, the 1969 Vietnam War battle where American forces captured a central Vietnam hill initially considered strategic – and then withdrew.
Or, more prosaically: This is a time to choose which battles to fight.

There are some battles out there that demand the attention, and the involvement, of the Jewish community – some hills to die on, metaphorically, to assure that there are sanctuary pews that aren’t venues to die in.

This is especially timely in the summer in which Robert Bowers, who in 2018 gunned down 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was convicted and then given the death penalty. There was plenty to debate in the denouement of the trial – not whether the gunman was guilty or innocent, but whether he should be put to death. You didn’t need a nose for news to recognize that that engendered significant, heart-wrenching and mind-stretching debate, and that it should have.

But two weeks later, the Jewish community was convulsed – maybe that is too strong a word – over the term “Jewface,” which surely was too strong a word, especially given the struggles of Blacks and Jews in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in “Golda.”/SEAN GLEASON/BLEECKER STREET/SHIVHANS PICTURES

Blackface is one thing, Jewface is another thing – or, really, isn’t a thing at all. Not when Helen Mirren, who isn’t Jewish and isn’t Israeli, is starring in a film about Golda Meir. Not when we remember that Al Pacino, forever identified with mobster Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” played corrupt (and Jewish) New York lawyer Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” who is not exactly a fan favorite of Jews and who is especially discredited today because of his influence on Donald Trump. Did Jews take succor in the fact that Allan Arbus, who is Jewish, played Julius Rosenberg – who was prosecuted by Cohn – in the 1974 television film “Judgment: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?” Did Jews think that was justice, poetic or otherwise? Would longtime antisemite Mel Gibson – who might be perfect given that he starred in a film called “The Man Without a Face,” have done just as well?

And while we are at it, is anyone discomfited with the portrayal of Harry Truman in “Oppenheimer,” as I was of the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in any number of films? Or, more to the point, nose or otherwise, that J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, was portrayed by Cillian Murphy, who (in a phrase you don’t hear anymore, almost certainly with good reason) has the map of Ireland on his face?

Nosegate is no more a threat to the Jewish people than a nosegay flower is to a lulav or an etrog.

In the month of the Tree of Life verdict, I was drawn to a Globe and Mail essay about the Christie Pits riot – the one where the Nazi flag appeared in the Canadian park. So the other day I called up the author of the piece, Jamie Michaels, a University of Calgary doctoral candidate in English who heard about the incident in a Winnipeg pub and who, in 2019, wrote a graphic novel about this theretofore virtually unknown episode of history.

“For me, the most pressing issue is the palpable rise of hate in general and anti-Jewish hatred in North America specifically,” he said. “We should look for historical touchstones to better understand the past and also to imagine a better future. The nose on an actor playing an iconic Jew is not the greatest threat Jews face in the war against hate.”

Give that young man his Ph.D., and maybe a ticket to “Maestro.” Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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