Macklemore and the Ugly, Surprising History of Jewface

Rushing to conclusions is easier than ever in this day and age. So, when I saw the first reports that Macklemore had donned a wig and prosthetic nose to appear on stage at an event in Seattle on Friday, I looked at the first of many links tweeted about the concert and thought to myself, “Yeah, this looks like a case of a whack-ass rapper being more whack-ass.” But I didn’t think, even as a Jew and a person who really doesn’t care for his music, that he was being anti-Semitic. I figured I’d wait for his response before coming to a conclusion, chalking this up to a celebrity being stupid and unaware.

Eventually, Macklemore said:

So I ended up with a big witch nose. I went with a black beard, because that’s the furthest color from my natural hair. Disguise was the intention. I personally thought I looked very ambiguous in terms of any “type” of person.

Here’s where things do get a little murky: as Gawker points out, the nose he purchased wasn’t a witch’s nose but a “sheik/fagin” nose, and as a lot of people know, Dickens’ crooked old Fagin was a Jew. Whether or not Macklemore knew that, we have no idea. All I can assume is that Macklemore isn’t so stupid that he didn’t think fake hook nose + suit + black beard + black wig would instantly get people fired up and calling him an anti-Semite for dressing up to look like what people have long held up as the image of the Jew. Is he really that blissfully unaware that people have been drawing caricatures that look exactly like the costume he wore for centuries? Does he realize he was a pair of horns away from looking like one of the Jews portrayed in the infamous image that overlooked Frankfurt’s “Jew Alley” from the 15th to 18th centuries? (The image of Jews eating feces out of a pig’s ass isn’t totally NSFW, but it still merits a warning.) Or that Leon Trotsky was constantly held up as the wicked Jewish devil with the big nose who wanted nothing more than to destroy Russia?

WhiteArmyPropagandaPosterOfTrotsky

I’ll give Macklemore the benefit of the doubt and guess that, no, he wasn’t totally aware of those things. I’m not going to hold his feet to the fire and say he was pulling a Ted-Danson-in-blackface stunt. I agree with Rachel Shukert at Tablet, who wrote that the rapper probably didn’t “put on that nose because he believes that Jews are a parasitic race infecting the Aryan gene pool, or even that he supports the BDS movement” — but that doesn’t make Macklemore any less of a schmuck for not thinking twice about what he was doing. It’s sort of hard to believe he’s never heard of Shylock or seen any of the many satirical, historic images of Jews with big noses doing something that signifies our supposed rule over the world.

Here in America, Jewface has a strange and twisted history. While the blackface minstrel shows of the post-Civil War days featured white people dressing up as and making fun of African Americans, as Jody Rosen pointed out in his compilation Jewface, a collection of songs from the early 20th century with names like “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars” and “When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band,” “Hebrew comedy was largely a Jewish enterprise in the first place.” Part of that weird Jewish tradition of making fun of yourself and your culture as a way to disarm potential enemies, Jewface in America was, strangely, an invention of Jews like Irving Berlin and Fanny Brice, who both have songs featured on the album.

Even though it might be a case of inadvertent bad taste, what makes Macklemore’s choice of costume uniquely cringe-worthy, in a way, is its cultural appropriation. Jewface (in America, at least) was how some Jews attempted to play the old, “they aren’t laughing at us, they’re laughing with us” card. Unfortunately for Macklemore, who should have known much better, we’re mostly laughing at him — not with him — after his latest shanda.