Acting Jewish

Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen
Henry Bial
Examines how notions of Jewishness have been conveyed in a range of television, stage, and film productions since the end of World War II


  • Named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title

The history of the American entertainment industry and the history of the Jewish people in the United States are inextricably intertwined. Jews have provided Broadway and Hollywood with some of their most enduring talent, from writers like Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein, and Tony Kushner; to directors like Jerome Robbins and Woody Allen; to performers like Gertrude Berg, John Garfield, Lenny Bruce, and Barbra Streisand. Conversely, show business has provided Jews with a means of upward mobility, a model for how to "become American," and a source of cultural pride.

Acting Jewish documents this history, looking at the work of Jewish writers, directors, and actors in the American entertainment industry with particular attention to the ways in which these artists offer behavioral models for Jewish-American audiences. The book spans the period from 1947 to the present and takes a close look at some of America's favorite plays (Death of a Salesman, Fiddler on the Roof, Angels in America), films (Gentleman's Agreement, Annie Hall), and television shows (The Goldbergs, Seinfeld), identifying a double-coding by which performers enact, and spectators read, Jewishness in contemporary performance—and, by extension, enact and read other minority identities. The book thus explores and illuminates the ever-changing relationship between Jews and mainstream American culture.

Henry Bial is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Film, University of Kansas. He is editor of the Performance Studies Reader and co-editor of the Brecht Sourcebook.

Praise / Awards

  • "In this new and interesting study, scholar Henry Bial examines the phenomenon of Jews in entertainment from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, tackling the question of how images of Jews on the American stage and screen have evolved over the past half-century. "
    Jewish Book World

  • "Acting Jewish is a fresh contribution to performance studies and an invaluable resource for social historians and contemporary literary and cultural theorists. As he complicates the performance of racial authenticity, Bial mines new interpretations from the past sixty years of Jewish American Performance. The text is unusually readable and moving, unpretentious and candid. Bial skillfully compelled this reader to keep the pages turning—an accolade for the surprising subtleness of this book, one that I enthusiastically recommend."
    —Jeff Wax, Theater Journal

  • "Bial's book is an excellent contribution to our understanding of the links between Jewish identity and the performing arts in the U.S., while also demonstrating wider cultural processes in the construction and reception of ethnicities more generally on stage and screen. Its interweaving of archival material, cultural and performance analysis, and a range of theoretical perspectives makes it a model for interdisciplinary work in the field."
    —William McEvoy, The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 2007

  • "Bial's work is an accessible, smart inquiry into the complex nature of what it means to act or appear Jewish, for whom this appearance is important, and what situational elements must be in place for a particular work or performance to 'read' as Jewish."
    American Jewish History

  • "Coming on a wave of scholarship dealing with Jews in American popular culture and the provisional nature of Jewish identity, this study stands out as particularly smart and incisive. Its significance lies primarily in its superb and, I think, groundbreaking theoretical framework... Acting Jewish provides the most cogent recent framework yet for understanding Jewish American representation, and has widespread application to other groups as well. More largely, Bial uses his scholarship to get at the heart of Jewish American faith and identity today. He does so in a way that is both witty and sincere, accessible and substantive. This balancing act is in the best of Jewish traditions."
    —Harley Erdman, Theatre Research International

  • "Bial's well-researched study is most informative and learnedly contextualizes the work of Jewish American artists in relation to both the Jewish community's problem of identity, which is fair to impart, and the concerns of a non-Jewish or imagined, universal American audience. Bial's Acting Jewish is most persuasive and critical because it shows that Jewish American artists did use "double coding" in many of their works."
    —William Ferleman, Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance

  • Named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Look Inside

Copyright © 2005, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 208pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2005
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06908-8

Add to Cart
  • $25.95 U.S.



  • Jewish studies, Jewish American, theater, Jewish identity, Judaism, Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Kushner, Jerome Robbins, Woody Allen, Gertrude Berg, John Garfield, Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Death of a SalesmanFiddler on the RoofAngels in America, Gentleman's AgreementAnnie Hall, The GoldbergsSeinfeld