When is a nose not just a nose? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the ‘Jewface’ controversy that wasn’t

Keep all nose prostheses away from open flames.

Recently, I found myself lurking in a social-media spat between two Jewish women I don’t know. One made a self-deprecating remark about Barbie not having a Jewish nose. The other replied that in these times of rising antisemitism, a comment like that was unacceptable. Per Jewish Woman B, Jewish Woman A was spreading the nefarious rumour that Jews have noses unlike the one found on a Barbie doll.

Lurker that I am, I did not join in, but if I had, it would have been firmly on the side of Jewish Woman A.

Jewish noses are on some level always in the news, but they’ve been making headlines over the past week, when some images were revealed of Bradley Cooper playing the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in a biopic. Cooper, like some but not all gentiles, is a bit lacking in the schnozz department, so he got an enhancement.

Social media exploded (aka a few people posted), comparing the movie nose with its real-life inspiration. Was Cooper schnozz’d up to look not like a Jew, Leonard Bernstein, but rather like The Jew, that is, a Jewish stereotype? From some side-by-side photos, this seemed plausible, and concerning. As someone who came to this story familiar with Bernstein but not with the exact contours of his nose, I was lost amidst the screenshots.

Then the New York Times reported on Bernstein’s own children have to say, and it is worth considering: “‘It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.'”

This seems fine. I was ultimately more concerned with the flammability issues, as the stills showed Cooper-as-Bernstein with a cigarette. This reminded me of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy disguises herself with a fake nose (unrelated to anything Jewy) and it catches fire under similar circumstances. But I’m sure precautions were taken.

There’s this idea, one I’ve seen floating around (and been objecting to) for years, that for someone Jewish to simply have the expected features of our kind is to be somehow confirming a negative stereotype, to be doing Jews wrong. And it’s like, my sincerest apologies for having voluminous black-the-colour hair, for having a nose that no one would compare with a button, unless it were an especially large button. I’m so sorry to have offended.

Just kidding! Sorry not sorry. I look how I look, not to spite anyone but because I’ve got the features I do, and it causes me no problems. Yes, I meet the feature-by-feature description of the evil witch in children’s stories, down to the eerily pale skin, but actual children do not recoil when I pass by.

And when they cast Elle Fanning, as they inevitably will, to play me in the equally inevitable biopic, the filmmakers have my permission to mould the Silly Putty accordingly.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on whatever Twitter is calling itself this week @bovymaltz