Cloistered in a Great Barrington, Mass., rehearsal room earlier this year for the first read-through of Before and After, the upcoming Disney adaptation of Rosellen Brown's 1992 novel, screenwriter Ted Tally looked over at Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep and knew something had to give. Although the actors had, in the past, convincingly played New Englanders and Southerners, Germans and Poles, Danes and Australians, Tally just didn't buy them as the Reisers, New Yorkers who move to New Hampshire and later find their teenage son accused of murder.
He feared movie audiences wouldn't either. ''It looked silly,'' says Tally (The Silence of the Lambs). ''They're wonderful actors, but they just didn't look Jewish at all. I had wanted to preserve that, and they were written that way in the first couple of drafts, but we couldn't cast anybody who was or seemed Jewish. Dustin Hoffman didn't want the part. Liam did. It seems to me you can't present the audience with that kind of confusion unless you're going to make a point of it, and I thought it was going to cloud the issue.''
In the next draft of Before and After, the Reisers became the Ryans.
What's most surprising about Before and After's before-and-after transformation is not that the film's characters were ultimately made non-Jewish but that they remained Jewish as far into the process as they did. In movies these days, ''Jewishness'' is often excised after the first draft. There's a different excuse every time Judaism is left behind on the page when it comes time to transfer it to the screen: The actors who are cast don't appear sufficiently Semitic; audiences will feel alienated; religious identity will somehow distract moviegoers from the plot. Whatever the rationale, the result is the same: As screen subjects, Jews are the unchosen people, and Jewish characters are practically nonexistent on screen.
The omission of Jewish characters in the movies seems to run against the grain of current pop culture. On television, Jewish characters can be found in shows as diverse as Murphy Brown and Beverly Hills, 90210. In fact, last season NBC's powerhouse Thursday-night lineup included three top-rated comedy series Mad About You, Seinfeld, and Friends with characters whose Jewish heritage is, if not overt, at least implicit in the way they are presented.
And in the movies themselves, the apparent reluctance to depict Jewish characters comes at a time when Jewish executives are running nearly every studio and films seem more open to almost every other minority than ever before. In the new Hollywood, Tom Hanks can win an Oscar for playing a gay man with AIDS; Terry McMillan's tale of four black women, Waiting to Exhale, is put on the fast track at Twentieth Century Fox; the all-Asian drama The Joy Luck Club can do brisk business; and The Brothers McMullen, about an Irish-Catholic family, opens to raves and prizes.
But in contrast to the Hollywood of 20 years ago, when the ''Jewish sensibility'' however amorphously defined of Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks dominated American film comedy, Judaism appears to be the only frontier of cultural identity that movies are unwilling to explore. When Jewish characters have surfaced in recent films, they've either been confined to historical contexts such as Schindler's List (which its producer Gerald R. Molen wryly notes is ''about a German Catholic''), or presented in contexts less illuminating than embarrassing: Witness 1992's inadvertently hilarious cop thriller A Stranger Among Us, starring Melanie Griffith as a detective on an anthropological expedition into a Hasidic community.