Joshua Malina Is a Proud (((Jew)))

After The West Wing and Sports Night actor talks about identity, Israel and his recent star turn in Leopoldstadt.
By | Jun 23, 2023
Josh Malina plays the role of Hermann Merz, the patriarch of the sprawling Viennese Jewish family in Leopoldstadt.

“I promise I didn’t just wake up, even though I look like it,” Joshua Malina, dressed in a T-shirt and sweats, sporting a slightly graying beard, tells me when we speak over Zoom from his dressing room. It’s a Friday and Malina is on the tail end of his eight weekly performances—“eight Kristallnachts a week,” he jokes—as Hermann Merz, the patriarch of the sprawling Viennese Jewish family in Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s Tony award-winning production. The play, which ended its run on Broadway in July, follows the extended Merz family for three generations, from the 1890s to the 1950s, and from glory to destruction.

The beard is new, grown for the part, and as we talk it is hard for me not to compare his current look to the television characters he is known for: The West Wing’s Will Bailey, Scandal’s David Rosen, Sports Night’s Jeremy Goodwin. Clean-shaven, button-down-shirt wearing, usually bespectacled, cerebral do-gooders who would easily blend in on the DC Metro.

Malina, 57, acknowledges the role of Hermann Merz was a new direction for him. “It’s the biggest acting challenge of my career, which I think I knew when I took the job,” he says. Malina landed the part of Hermann after starring in Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank at the Old Globe in San Diego last year. (He has called this his Jewish theater period.)

Joshua Malina in 2023. Photo credit by Manfred Baumann.

Stoppard’s plays are known for their verbal gymnastics, which put Malina on familiar ground, having worked for Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes, two television showrunners notorious for their fast-paced dialogue. “I’m one of those actors who feel like the words are the stars, and if I can just stay out of the way of this incredible writing then it will make me look better and I’ll have done my job,” Malina has said.

When we first meet Hermann Merz, he is an extravagantly wealthy textile-factory owner desperate to be accepted into high society. He is also trying to shed his identity by converting to Christianity, a common practice during this period. However, despite his best efforts, the patina of Jewishness remains.

It is hard not to contrast Hermann’s view of Jewish identity with that of Malina, whose Twitter name currently is (((Jew))), a nod to the three parentheses antisemites use to denote Jews online. I think of Malina as Hollywood’s most Jew-y Jew, which might sound like an odd descriptor until you consider his very public discussions of faith, his frequent battling of antisemitism in Hollywood and online, and his role as host of a hit podcast that discusses the weekly Torah portion. But Malina doesn’t view Hermann as a man divorced from his religion.

“The more I read the play, the more I realized that this is really a character who’s struggling with his Jewish identity more than just simply turning his back on it.”

At one point in Leopoldstadt, Hermann tells his brother-in-law about the moment he “decided not to be a Jew.” When he was a child, his grandfather had described a time his hat was snatched off his head and thrown into the road because he was a Jew. “‘What did you do?’ I said. ‘Why, I picked up my cap,’ Grandpa said, ‘and had a good laugh about it.’”

Malina explains, “It’s a moment of humiliation that could either turn a person into being a proud, fierce Jew” or someone who says, “I’m going to hide that part of my identity because I don’t want to be on the end of that kind of antisemitism—and that’s the direction Hermann went.” Although it’s not explicit, throughout the play Hermann is fighting against the stereotypical trope of the weak Jew. He does this by leaning away from his Jewish identity. Malina, in his own life, does it by leaning in.

Malina grew up in New Rochelle, outside New York City. His parents were founding members of the Young Israel of Scarsdale synagogue and, while Conservative, sent Malina to the Modern Orthodox Westchester Day School until 8th grade. After high school at Horace Mann, the well-known college-prep private school located in the Bronx, Malina studied theater at Yale. In a case of successful meddling, Malina’s mother suggested he reach out to an up-and-coming writer named Aaron Sorkin who was a school friend of Malina’s cousins. The two clicked and Malina was cast in Sorkin’s Broadway play A Few Good Men; he then went on to appear in the movie version of the play as well as other Sorkin films, including The American President. 

Leopoldstadt will run on Broadway through July. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

But it was his character on Sorkin’s critically beloved show Sports Night on ABC that introduced most audiences to the actor. Malina played Jeremy Goodwin, a wunderkind research analyst and associate producer who wore his heart on his sleeve. Goodwin’s Judaism popped up throughout the show, culminating in an impromptu seder. “I was so excited when I read the script and saw that Aaron had written this seder episode, and that it was going to end with my character actually starting to say kiddush.” (Close watchers noted that Malina chose to say ado-shem instead of adonai—presumably so as not to take God’s name in vain). “I just thought it was beautiful and substantively Jewish, in a way that not much content on TV and film is,” says Malina. “Usually, they’re these same sort of Jewish tropes. The fact that people are still bringing it up to me 20 years later tells me that, like every other minority group, we like to see our stories.”

Leopoldstadt also has a pivotal seder scene. In it, Hermann returns home after learning of a personal betrayal but also being faced with the reality that whether he is baptized or not, certain people are always going to think of him as a Jew. Hermann joins the seder already in progress—a seder he didn’t want to have in the first place—and when his nephew starts reciting the four questions in Hebrew, he joins in. It’s a visceral response, says Malina. He initially has a negative reaction to the realization that he’s going to be a Jew no matter what, Malina explains.

“But soon after, he connects to this song that he probably sang as a kid himself.”

Stoppard has called Leopoldstadt his “Jewish play,” and critics often describe it as a reckoning with his Jewish identity. Cast members experienced the play as a catalyst for learning more about their own Jewish history. For Malina, who keeps a kosher home and used to regularly attend a Reconstructionist synagogue in LA, the play did not affect the way he viewed his own Judaism. (“My prime identifier is as Jew,” he tells me with a laugh.) However, the play did serve as a “clarion call” for him to remember how easy it is for democracies to erode without constant vigilance. “‘Never again’ was part of the internal genetic mantra of my childhood,” says Malina. “But even as I said it, there was still a piece of me that, having lived, thank God, a secure, safe, comfortable life as an American Jew, was like, ‘Well, it can’t happen again.’ The play really warns you.” Malina has called his decision to take on this role a privilege and responsibility, as bigotry and hatred toward Jews and other minorities continue to rise.

‘I hate that within the Jewish community, we have such polarization and mutual revulsion at each other’s stances. We have to talk to each other a little bit more.’

Leopoldstadt is just one of many recent plays to deal directly with antisemitism. Off-Broadway, Prayer for the French Republic, This Beautiful Future, Camp Siegfried and Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish enjoyed successful runs. On Broadway, Parade, about the 1915 Georgia lynching of Leo Frank, made headlines when neo-Nazis protested the show during its first preview performance. The musical’s co-stars Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond have both used the current staging of Parade to publicly discuss contemporary antisemitism.

This is not Malina’s first foray into the fight against antisemitism. In December 2021, Malina made headlines with an essay in The Atlantic, “Cancel Mel Gibson, Hollywood’s Leading Anti-Semite.” It was a response to the news that Gibson was in talks to direct the fifth installment of Lethal Weapon. “Gibson is a well-known Jew-hater (anti-Semite is too mild). His prejudices are well documented,” Malina wrote. “So my question is, what does a guy have to do these days to get put on Hollywood’s no-fly list?” He went on to list Gibson’s antisemitic statements and actions as well as his racism and misogyny, and questioned why Gibson still had a bankable career. “I write this knowing that it’s more likely to lead to a boycott by Warner Bros. of Joshua Malina than of Mel Gibson. But if that’s the result, so be it. I’ve had a nice career, baruch Hashem.”

Josh Malina as Will Bailey in The West Wing.

The article went viral and made Malina a lightning rod for what he describes as “keyboard warriors and Jew haters.” In response, Malina did the one thing they say not to do: He fed the trolls. In fact, Malina frequently and enthusiastically engages with his detractors, responding to their vitriol with whip-smart takedowns or reposting their comments to his own large audience. “Rather than ignoring them, I’m always delighted to amplify what they have to say for others to see,” he says. “I think it’s a nice reminder that antisemitism, and all sorts of senseless hatred, are not a thing of the past. It is important to keep our eyes open and talk about it.”

Shutting one’s eyes is probably the easiest insult to hurl at Hermann and his family, who refuse to leave Vienna even as the situation around them deteriorates. But Malina views this as simplistic. “It’s easy to look at Hermann in 1899 and think what a foolish, naive guy. But by the end, hopefully you’re thinking, well, I’m sitting here feeling pretty secure about my place in society and maybe just as I judge certain characters for their complacency, I ought to question my own complacency as well.”

In an early scene in Leopoldstadt, Hermann quarrels with his brother-in-law about a new pamphlet making waves—Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State.” To Hermann it is clear a Jewish state is unnecessary, even insulting: “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven overlapped?” Hermann asks. Austria, he says, “is the promised land” and “not because it’s some place on a map where my ancestors came from.”

In real life, Malina has long been a vocal supporter of Israel. He traces his public advocacy to 2000, when he was asked to appear as a celebrity guest at a pro-Israel rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “They told me it was a rally for Israel’s right to exist, and I thought, wow, that’s sad that you have to have a rally to even make that point,” says Malina. “But sure, I’m on board. I’m for Israel’s right to exist.” He was surprised when he arrived that no other celebrities (or as he called them, “actual celebrities”) were there. When he asked the coordinator why, she said, “Oh, if it has to do with Israel, nobody wants to say anything, do anything. They might give money behind the scenes, but it’s hard to get anyone to show up because it’s one of those third-rail issues.” Disappointed with the answer, Malina gave a frank interview to LA’s Jewish Journal expressing frustration at the status quo. “It just drives me nuts that there are so many high-profile Jews in Hollywood, yet we can’t get anybody to say, ‘Yes, I defend Israel,’” the actor said. “It’s not that I expect people to sign off on everything the Israeli government does. I just don’t think it should be considered a radical thing for celebrities to say that the Jewish state has a right to exist in peace.” Soon Israeli organizations and Jewish federations all over the country were contacting him and asking him to speak.

Despite Merz’s best efforts to convert to Christianity, the patina of Jewishness remains. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Malina continues to speak out about Israel. “As an American Jew, I have a stake in what Israel is,” he says. He has become a target for people on the left who are angry that he supports Israel and people on the right who accuse him of not supporting Israel enough in the right way. “I am sent messages like, ‘You’re a filthy Zionist’ or ‘You’re a Kapo,’” says Malina. But it doesn’t bother him. “If neither side agrees with me, then maybe I’m onto something.” He is not shy about criticizing Israel’s current government and recently joined the board of Americans for Peace Now, which he acknowledges often gets vilified by Jews as an anti-Israel organization. “You can’t say just because that’s not your way of loving Israel, it’s anti-Israel. I hate that within the Jewish community, we have such polarization and mutual revulsion at each other’s stances. We have to talk to each other a little bit more.”

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Talking to each other about Israel and other controversial Jewish topics was the catalyst for Chutzpod!, the weekly podcast he launched in January 2022 with Shira Stutman, who served for 11 years as the rabbi of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. Malina met Stutman on an Encounter trip, a program that takes Jewish leaders into the Palestinian territories. The podcast focuses on questions of Jewish faith and tradition as well as delving into thorny subjects such as how converts are treated in Judaism or Palestinian perceptions of Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). Malina announced in May that he is moving on from Chutzpod! to join another popular Jewish podcast, Tablet’s UnOrthodox.

The actor has also waded into other complex issues, including the question of representation in Hollywood. “My instinct as an actor is to say, ‘We’re actors, anybody can play anything,’” he says. “Am I offended that Helen Mirren is going to play Golda Meir? No, she’s an incredible actor.” He recounts how when he was in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, the actor who played a Haredi character was not Jewish. “He was fantastic. Every time somebody would rave to me about his performance, I’d say, ‘Wait for this. He’s not Jewish,’” says Malina. “I would hate for him not to have played that role or been denied that role because he’s not Jewish.”

However, Malina says that if the focus in Hollywood is becoming more and more on ensuring greater representation of minority groups, as well as giving those minority groups chances for employment, Jews should be included in that conversation. “I do get a little bit defensive. I’m like, ‘Well, Jews are a minority too.’ We’re white when you want us to be white, and then we’re a minority when you want to not like us.”

Like all Stoppard plays, Leopoldstadt is too nuanced to send you away with a direct lesson. But one takeaway is that there is no escaping who you are. The final scene of the play takes place in 1955, when Nathan, a member of Hermann’s extended family who survived Auschwitz and has returned to Vienna, fights with Leo—his cousin and a stand-in for Stoppard. Leo left Vienna for England as a young boy right before the war. Now a posh Englishman, he remembers nothing of his previous life and his Jewish family—and isn’t sure how their story relates to him anyway. “No one is born at eight years old,” Nathan scolds him. “But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”

Perhaps that’s why so many people wanted to talk to Malina after each performance. During its Broadway run, they came to the stage door to tell him about their relatives, those who perished and those who got out. They are acknowledging the shadows behind them. The play, Malina says, leaves people with the desire “to find a closer connection to their own family and their own past.” This is what drew Malina to Leopoldstadt in the first place. “It’s not a Holocaust play. It’s a play that deals with family, identity, history—and how just over the course of a few lifetimes, we can lose touch with the people who came before us.”

Top image: Eight times each week, Joshua Malina plays the role of Hermann Merz, the patriarch of the sprawling Viennese Jewish family in Leopoldstadt, for a Broadway audience. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

5 thoughts on “Joshua Malina Is a Proud (((Jew)))

  1. Beatrice Werden says:

    What a great article! I remember you from the Yoing Isreal of Scarsdale. I know how important Jewishness was and is to your family

    1. Judith Halevy says:

      Your Rabbi is so proud of you, as always

  2. Penina Gould says:

    fabulous article!!!! can’t wait to see the play!!

    thank you!!! thank you!!!

  3. Debby kanner says:

    I can’t get to NY in time to see the play

    Will there be a road company and will it come to Philadelphia or anyplace close

    I hate to miss it

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Though I am aware of Jewish relatives/ancestors in my past, I was brought up in traditional “Christianity” (did you know that word is not in the Bible?) I knew nothing else and certainly had no knowledge of Jewish religion or Jewish life. However, when I became “born again” through a direct encounter with the God of Israel, He directed me to all things Jewish! Why? Because I was entering a Jewish faith, not a Gentile faith. Even a casual reading of the New Testament attests to this fact…from beginning to end. If we understand the words…they are plain enough, we can see clearly the Jewish connection and connotation. Why do so many miss this? I can’t answer that question. People talk, look around and observe, read and write, and are clueless to this fact.
    Talk about coming against anti-Semitism…this is of huge importance in that endeavor. Why are there not more people speaking up on this? You decide!

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