“Am I supposed to be mad about the Bradley Cooper situation?” read the text from a befuddled non-Jewish friend one morning this week.
She was referring to the prosthetic nose Cooper had slapped on to play Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, the forthcoming Netflix film about the legendary composer, which Cooper co-wrote, directed, and produced.
The film’s trailer had just been released online, and my social media shtetl was abuzz.
By donning a prosthetic honker to play the role, Cooper was perpetuating stereotypes about Jews having big noses! Why did the thing have to be so huge? And why was Cooper, a non-Jew, playing this iconic Jewish role anyway?
“No,” I wrote back. “It literally doesn’t matter.”
That’s the funny thing about online outrage—no matter what the cause du jour, it’s easy to feel like we must jump onboard.
But whether you’re Jewish or not, consider this your decidedly non-rabbinic dispensation to sit Schnoz-gate out.
It’s not just because there were a bunch of Jews involved with the film: Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, and one of its producers is Steven Spielberg.
Or that Bernstein’s estate signed off on Cooper’s project
Or that the world will get the pleasure of seeing the uber-Jewess Sarah Silverman play Bernstein’s sister Shirley.
Or that Bernstein’s kids, who were included in the process of making Maestro, issued a statement on Twitter saying that Cooper “chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that.” (They added that they’re “certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.”)
Dayenu, as we Jews say. It would have been enough.
But really, I’m not upset about this non-story for one simple reason: It offers us a golden opportunity to take a deep breath and refocus our attention on what truly matters.
What’s that, you ask? The answer is easy, and it’s one the maestro himself would’ve loved: Art.
Why is Bradley Cooper (who isn’t Jewish) playing Leonard Bernstein (who was very Jewish)? Because pretending to be other people is the very definition of acting.
And why is he wearing a big fake nose? As my friend, colleague, and celebrated Jewish actor Joshua Malina recently told Page Six, not because Cooper wanted to perpetuate some nefarious stereotype about Jews and their appendages, but because he was trying to look a lot like one specific Jew who had one specifically nobly-sized nose.
But now that I’ve saved you the time and trouble of getting upset about Cooper and his putty proboscis, here’s something much better you can do with your mental energy: Worry about real Jews, not the glamorous and deceased ones but all of us alive today who are seeing and struggling with actual, unprecedented antisemitism in this country.
When the High Holidays begin next month, we will head to synagogue under heavy security, and face people like the self-professed group of “online trolls” who this week called in fake bomb threats against more than two dozen synagogues across the U.S., making the lives of thousands of Jews hellish.
In this era of takes and takedowns, speaking out against something like Cooper’s fake nose should not be what passes for Jewish engagement.
The news cycle moves fast, but we don’t have to elevate every perceived slight into a referendum on the state of Jews in America. Instead, we should focus our energy on real-life bigotry.
And as for how to fight it? We can do what the world’s greatest orchestras did and follow the maestro’s lead.
Bernstein himself faced terrible prejudice but took it in stride, digging deeper into his Jewish identity and creating beautiful works of art.
So let’s all pay less attention to Bernstein’s sniffer and more to his spirit, the one that, even decades after his death, continues to inspire Jews to engage more fully and passionately with our millenia-old tradition. At our best, we don’t spend too much time worrying about what the haters think of us.
Instead, we contemplate culture—our own and the world’s at large—and create works of art truly worthy of Bernstein’s legacy.
Everything else is just noise.
Stephanie Butnick is a co-host of Unorthodox, a podcast from Tablet Magazine.
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