“Big Bang Theory” Producer Chats About Orthodox Jews on TV
I first heard about Eric Kaplan, senior writer and producer at The Big Bang Theory (and author of the new humorous philosophy book “Does Santa Exist?”) several years ago from my friend and Partner in Torah Mayim Bialik. Eric was doing a fair amount of Jewish learning with Orthodox Jewish rabbis and had started a weekly chaburah (learning group) with Mayim Bialik and TV writer and producer David Sacks. I had “met” him via some emails a while back. But on a recent trip to LA where I hung out with Mayim and watched her TV show being filmed (pic above), Eric and I finally met in person.
Since our mission at JITC is to break down stereotypes people have about Orthodox Jews, I, of course, wanted to schmooze with a TV writer and producer about the way Orthodox Jews are depicted on TV to make my concerns known and to hear any feedback he had. Below is an excerpt of our conversation after I got back from LA:
Allison: In TV and movies, I think Jews are depicted in one of two ways – super secular, involving every stereotype (think Fran Drescher) OR – the super serious hasid who never smiles and is very extreme. I think the Maccabeats made such a splash a few years ago because we saw a group of guys who were clearly sincere and committed to their Judaism but were goofy and fun and didn’t take themselves too seriously. I feel like the “Orthodox” character that comes in for those token episodes (most shows have one eventually) is just a caricature and I think TV is doing better than that these days – showing blind chactacters and people on the spectrum and people in wheelchairs and gay characters. People who are *people* who have something that makes them atypical, but ultimately we see their humanity. I’d love to see a chactacter on a show – who is nice and likable and “normal” but then he says “Oops, I gotta run, Shabbos is starting soon.”
Eric: Since Orthodox Jews have a particular set of answers to the Big Questions any writer who includes an Orthodox Jewish character in a story is going to be doing that in order to engage with that set of answers to those questions — unless they’re just tokens or scenery. And that’s going to be very personal — either they like those answers, or they don’t like those answers, or they sometimes do, or they think x, y, z about people who like those answers. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing that can or should be addressed by a campaign.
Allison: I guess I see the Orthodox community as more diverse than just “one set of answers.” Some people believe in answers, yet they struggle with them. I guess I’d like to see more complexity. I find that traditional media likes to show the MOST extreme examples of Orthodoxy. Like Oprah went into Crown Heights, but showed the women who weren’t trendy (even though most Chabad women are super stylish) and spoke to a family where the kids had never heard of Mickey Mouse, which I couldn’t understand, since most Lubavitchers are quite worldly. Not that you must be a worldly, trendy person to have value (the families on the show seemed like very lovely people), but rather, why can’t the media show that those elements of Orthodoxy exist too?
Eric: Don’t you think that statistically Orthodox people cluster around certain answers even if they struggle with them? So you can make valid generalizations about what an Orthodox Jew is likely to believe that a reform Jew or an episcopalian or a Confucianist won’t?
Allison: Well – the biggest division is between the the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) camp and the Modern Orthodox camp – though even those groups are quite nuanced. The first is by and large creationist (with, of course, exceptions), the second believes in science and in the Torah. But you’ll never see the latter shown on TV. It would be great to see Charedi characters shown with depth but as a starting point, I’d love to see Modern Orthodox Jews represented. It’s like they don’t even exist.
Eric: How many Modern Orthodox Jews are there?
Allison: I think it’s a third of the Orthodox population with is a tenth of the Jewish population – though even those numbers may be misleading because some people call it “Modern” Orthodox, other’s say “Centrist Orthodox.” But either way, I know – it’s not huge. Maybe 400k. But there are Modern Orthodox CEO’s and chairmen of big law firms and nobel laureates. It’s not like Modern Orthodox Jews are not contributing to the world. Why shouldn’t they be represented?
Eric: I think what you will have to figure out how to get across is to talk about a position that is defined by a very particular set of religious beliefs — a very particular attitude towards the proper relation between revelation and science — but then say you don’t want a discussion of these people to be engaging with those particular controversial positions but just about them as people. If it’s just about them as people why worry about whether they’re Charedi or Modox? It’s like someone says how come there are no unitarian universalists on TV and I say but there was a presbyterian character and they say “oh that’s very different.” I’m sorry if that seems unsympathetic — I’m trying to figure out a non bs way of responding to you.
Allison: I don’t know if the topics of science vs Torah need to be raised. More like the well-dressed modern Orthodox guy who has a great job but needs to get home early for Shabbos to be with his beautiful family. It’s not discussing theology – but just showing him existing – in the world but also observing. As it is now – the hasidic character is the one-off character written in to convey the “extreme sect” where the murder took place. It’s just so fake. Even showing a hasid who laughs or is goofy – we never see that even though there are plenty of hasidim with wonderful personalities.
Eric: I think somebody would only write such a character if they were trying to say something about God or Judaism — otherwise why not just make him a garden variety person? Maybe the solution is for the Modern Orthodox community to tell its own stories and make them so compelling/interesting/funny that the larger culture wants to come to the party.
Allison: Ah – so that’s some of what we’re trying to do at Jew in the City. Not that we’re saying “you must become us” (or that we’re only featuring Modern Orthodoxy) but rather – “understand us”and “judge us as we are, not as caricatures.” So here’s a question – why has TV (to its credit) started making blind, special needs, and on the spectrum characters? I think it’s to show us the humanity behind the label and I think it’s awesome. The first time I saw a guy in a black hat smile (and mind you – he was part of Yeshiva University, so technically Modern Orthodox) – I almost fell off my chair. I had never seen a man in a black hat look happy!
Eric: I think there are very important differences between being an Orthodox Jew and being blind, don’t you? To me the Orthodox Jewish case seems closer to vegetarianism — it’s actually a social movement with a particular take on what is important about life, and what is right and wrong. To me it’s okay to write a book saying that people should not eat meat, and it’s okay to write a book saying that it’s fine to eat meat, and by extension it’s okay to have a television show where a person is a vegetarian and that’s good, and it’s okay to have a television show where you make fun of somebody for being a vegetarian. I think it’s quite different with blindness or disability — it would be despicable to write a show making fun of somebody for being blind.
Allison: OK – I hear that. But these “vegetarians” only get made fun of. They’re basically never shown in a positive light.
Eric: It almost takes away from the seriousness of the Orthodox Judaism criticism of modern society to want to be just “shown in a positive light.” If you have a serious criticism of how people are living their lives you should expect some push back. Most of the Orthodox Jewish writers I’ve read (Jonathan Sacks, Steinsaltz) are quite critical of the values of modern society. They’re not just an ethnic group like Welsh people — they are vocal critics. I think it’s cool that they tackle the big questions (I don’t agree with their answers personally), but I think it’s not quite fair to say the targets of that criticism should just portray them positively. It’s an exciting debate.
Allison: I haven’t read Steinhaltz -only Jonathan Sacks – but Rabbi Sacks also embraces many aspects of the larger world, no? I guess I don’t see myself (or my community) as being these super critics of modern society. I am much more about trying to find the positive stuff that unites all people.
Eric: I hear you but don’t quite understand your position. So maybe I don’t hear you? Maybe I am not approaching your concern from enough of a tree of life position. But I keep knocking up against the puzzle — either Orhthodox Jews are different in some important way from regular secular Americans or they aren’t. If they aren’t then why bother representing them? If they are, then isn’t it fine to criticize their position? I’m not trying to be a pain, but I don’t quite get it.
Allison: Well – can’t we be different, but in an admirable way? That’s the feedback we get from many fans. It’s “I’m not Jewish, so I don’t do shabbat, but it’s a beautiful idea.”Or “i’m not observant, I don’t do modesty, but you’ve shown me it can look stylish and beautiful, and I can respect where you’re coming from.”
Eric: You might be admirable or you might be condemnable — that’s up to the individual writer to decide. But you are making a move which is different from a blind person who just is what he is.
Allison: OK fine – so compare me to a vegetarian. But surely sometimes the vegetarian should be shown in a positive light? Yes, he can be mocked, but doesn’t he get to be shown as the guy who loves animals and even though you and I don’t hold ourselves to that standard we can say “it is admirable to sacrifice for animals in that way?
Eric: Sure the Simpsons did a positive episode about vegetarianism which included mockery of both sides of the position but that’s because David Cohen was interested in the ethics of vegetarianism.
Allison: That’s awesome! Any writer that adds in an Orthodox “token hasid” character must have some interest in the topic, but I think enough care and knowledge is not given to do the character with nuance and depth and I wish that could change. (We’d like to help make that change.)
Eric: Sure, but their interest could be entirely critical, as I think David Chase was when he presented hasidim on the Sopranos. Like if I created a character who was an Orthodox Jewish Dad I would have to portray how he responds to premarital sex or homosexuality. I couldn’t just have him be a wonderful admirable guy who got great joy from his Shabbos table. That would be propaganda, not art in my opinion. But good luck to you! There’s nothing wrong with nuance and depth.
Allison: But couldn’t the dad have a beautiful Shabbos table, and then if homosexailty came up have him say “The Torah says the act is forbidden, but the Torah also tells us its forbidden to judge. So it is my job to pursue loving kindness and I’ll leave the judging to God.” I know lots of Orthodox Jews who live like that. They believe what the Torah says but they struggle at the same time. That wouldn’t be propaganda – it would be showing a complex individual who maintains an ancient tradition even as he feels challenged and maybe even angered by it. I feel like just showing the Orthodox Jew throwing the rocks (and of course there are the insane extremists who do) is propaganda and not fair to all the people who lives their lives striving to do acts of loving kindness and not judging others.
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