“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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  • Avatar photo Rebecca Klempner says on January 29, 2015

    This was such a treat because I like both Allison Josephs and Eric Kaplan’s work so much…

    I have to say I have to disagree with both sides, though, as a writer, and as an Orthodox Jew.

    I believe that Orthodox Jews should be included in works of art neither as targets of condemnation nor as part of an intentionally “pro-Jewish” agenda, as Allison suggests. I also disagree with Eric that there’s no reason to introduce such a character into a work of fiction unless that show/story/novel/theater piece is about The Big Questions.

    I think there’s merit to the idea that Orthodox Jews should be represented, particularly in fiction that takes place in NY, NJ, Baltimore, or L.A., where Orthodox characters makes sense because of setting. Representing diverse cultures in our diverse society with an even hand can introduce empathy and sensitivity to the public.

    However, a Jewish character should be there to serve the plot and themes of the story, just like any character. They shouldn’t be stereotyped in either bad ways or in good ways. They should have both the strengths and flaws of normal characters.

    There are some good examples of this. I think I remember a book by Walter Mosley (who is Jewish) where the lawyer is a MO Jew. He’s a normal character, not a stereotype. And back when I watched TV (we’re talking 15-plus years ago), I think I remember an episode of Homicide which was pretty accurate about the community there and the characters were there for the story, not for any particular agenda. Some of the other episodes also had Jews in them, I think, which makes sense, as Baltimore has a disproportionately large Jewish population and that’s the show’s location.

    As Eric said, there’s art, and there’s propaganda. Let’s make art.

    P.S. I’m not sure that my kids know who Mickey Mouse is, and they live 75 minutes from there…and their Savta lives just a few minutes away…does that mean we’re freaky or insane? Just sayin’.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 29, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. Glad you enjoyed! Just to clarify – I don’t believe that the Orthodox characters should be faultless or flawless. What I’m hoping for is for nuance to be shown and humanity to be shown and for some likable and relatable qualities to be shown (but they need not be perfect!). I think Rama Burshtein did a masterful job at showing the Orthodox world in Israel. We saw beauty AND we saw warts and the flaws helped us to believe the positive parts. So that’s what I’m looking for.

      Also – in terms of Mickey Mouse – knowing who Mickey is is certainly not something that matters in life or in being a good person or a good Jew! I do, however, think that most Lubavitch kids are plugged in enough to know Mickey and so I wished that a typical Chabad family was shown. Oprah’s crew also had the family spontaneously dancing the horah in their living room as part of the b-roll. 🙂

  • Avatar photo Isaac says on January 30, 2015

    Sheldon doesn’t like when you sit in his makom kavuah (but apparently this slight does not violate the roommate agreement)

  • Avatar photo Phylis says on January 30, 2015

    Eric was so right. I’m sorry Allison . I really respect your work, but it will not change the media. Media is about extreme. The creators and writers work to arouse people’s senses, to humor them, enlighten them and at times anger them. I am a Charedi girl and the way I view modern Orthodoxy is that it is somewhat bland. I respect modern Orthodoxy, yet I see no reason for it to be represented in the media as Eric stated, “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”. That is the struggle of Modern Orthodoxy, you want to be recognized for your ability to blend in to the secular world, quite paradoxical. Oprah had no interest in interviewing a family that mirrored a typical secular family ( with kippot on their heads) that would make a boring show. And personally the way you look at the those families seems pretty closed minded to me. I know the Ginsbergs and watched the show, they are not and did not seem to be the freaks that you paint them. Ironically your comments mirror that of the media on modern orthodoxy. As for Shteinzaltz and Saks, yes they are critical of the modern world to some extent, all orthodox Jews are. You may see yourself as part of the secular world. The secular world however, will never view you that way. I’m sorry Allison we are kadosh, separate and holy. Be proud!

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 30, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Phylis, but I’m not expecting that JITC will change ALL of the media. The question is, can we change *some* of the media? At our recent Orthodox Jewish All Stars event, we had a secular reporter who had not been too keen on Orthodox Jews up until our party. After hearing from our All Stars and seeing what we’re about, this reporter told me that she now has a newfound interest in capturing the Orthodox community in an accurate way and that she became a journalist to tell the truth and realizes that most reporting on religious people is done with an agenda. If we say “we can’t,” we never will. If we give it a try, who knows?

      In terms of Modern Orthodoxy being “somewhat bland” – I would say the vast majority of our Orthodox Jewish All Stars in the last three years fall somewhere on the spectrum of “Modern Orthodox” (though we have always been careful to include Charedim too), and I think people are quite fascinated with the idea that you can be religious yet so successful in the world. I think it’s FAR more surprising to show atypical people – not because (God forbid!) there’s anything wrong with “typical” people, but from an outreach perspective (which is much of what is driving us here), when you show a secular Jew someone who has a similar job or a similar fashion sense but also eats kosher, keeps Shabbos – the space between the two groups is less daunting and the possibility to envision oneself as a person who could eat kosher, keep shabbos, etc. is more possible. For me, as I was making my journey – I kept looking for people who had many aspects of the life I had been leading. Because I was never interested in flat out rejecting the secular world – just making the necessary changes halacha required of me.

      Also, you have seriously misunderstood what I was saying about the Ginsbergs. They seemed like LOVELY people, but not typical Chabad and my question is why couldn’t a typical Chabad family be shown? I think the most honest kind of reporting would be to show a range of people and I think there is a surprise element when an Orthodox Jew has an unexpected hobby, career, fashion sense, etc.

      Lastly – of COURSE of I am proud of my beliefs and my observance. I founded (with much hard work!) an organization to show the beauty of Torah learning and living to the world. But I think what keeps many Jews from ever exploring an Orthodox way of life is falsely believing that the differences as so big that they could never be overcome. I believe the more we show people the difference between basic halacha vs. stringency or community standard, the more people will see that basic halacha is not as impossible as they thought. There is, of course, something that will always separate us, and I’m not afraid or embarrassed about that. But when I speak to non-observant Jews the things that hold them back are: “I’d have to quit my job, I’d have to have ten kids, I’d have to dress frumpy, I’d have to eat gross food” when none of those things are part of Jewish law. So why aren’t we distinguishing that?

  • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on January 30, 2015

    Well, you fought the good fight, but this guy doesn’t like Orthodox Judaism. He is particularly upset about its challenges to some of his basic secular values and if he portrays an Orthodox Jew in a positive light he thinks he’s propagandizing for a view he totally disagrees with. You know — like would you have a “positive” view of a Nazi character where you see him at home playing tenderly with his children?

    It’s interesting in the interview to see just how intensely this guy dislikes Orthodox Jews and their values. I think you might have asked him, however, about whether he feels that everyone who shares any of these values should also only be portrayed only for the purpose of examining/debating (and ultimately disparaging) these beliefs. For example — should any character who is a priest be seen walking around condemning gays, divorced people who have remarried, and unbelievers? And then be refuted by other characters? Could their be a Muslim character that was included for any purpose other than to examine/condemn terrorism? Could their be a Mormon character who also doesn’t get asked his/her opinions on gay marriage? Could these characters be shown *neither* for purposes of promoting *or* refuting their beliefs, but just to make the universe of characters portrayed more diverse and more closely reflective of the real world rather than the imaginary world of Hollywood where everyone thinks the same?

    BTW, re: the Simpsons, you might have pointed out that there is a main character who is a Protestant pastor who is actual a total fundamentalist and a creationist and they make fun of him for this all the time, but he is also the kindest and most caring character in the entire town. So it is possible to add characters who are not identical in thought and to portray those who have opinions you don’t agree with as fully human.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 30, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Catholic Mom. I tried asking him that – I asked “could the Hasidic character be shown with a sense of humor?” Not so that everyone wants to be Hasidic but so that people see that these people are also people. I’m afraid religious characters (of all religions) are basically only shown to mock them. In terms of the “Simpsons” character – that’s an interesting point! I never thought of him as the kindest character in town. I feel like he is portrayed as a total idiot and extremist. You’re right, that is super kind, yet what always stuck out most to me about this character was his stupidity, simplicity, and fanaticism.

      • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on January 30, 2015

        Oops! Sorry! I made a major error here. I didn’t mean the minister. I meant Ned Flanders. [I haven’t actually watched the Simpsons since my kids grew out of it some years ago. 🙂 ]

        Ned is a complete fundamentalist (in the Simpson’s movie when the town is about to get blown up, he tells his kids “now kids, when you see Jesus, make sure you call him Mr. Christ”) . They then ask him “Will Buddha be there?” and he says loudly “No!!”) and he is always going on about “intelligent design” but… (this is from Wikipedia):

        “Ned is very honest and sincere in carrying out the Christian doctrines of charity, kindness and compassion to an extent unseen within the rest of the Springfield community. He is frequently shown doing volunteer work, and is rigorously honest and upright, even going so far as to spend an entire day tracking down a customer in order to give him the extra change that he had forgotten to hand over.”

        Ned is one of the few people who is not only kind to Bart but compassionate to everyone. And the reason for this is exactly the reason he’s mocked on the show — because he does take the Bible literally so when he reads in the Gospels how he is to treat others, he actually does it, unlike all the other nominal “Christians” in town.

        I really appreciate this character because the message that is being sent is: “There are people who you disagree with and may think are completely wrong, but they may be honest and sincere in their beliefs and they may actually contribute more to others as a result of those beliefs than those who mouth platitudes about making the world a better place but do little to make it so.”

    • Avatar photo Eric Kaplan says on January 30, 2015

      I’m not aware that I have secular values. Is love a secular value? Is justice?

      • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on January 30, 2015

        How are they “secular”??

        The OT says “let justice roll down like waters” and the NT says “beloved, let us love one another….for he who does not love, does not know God.” Some pretty profound secular change has been brought about by people inspired with these values. (See, eg: Martin Luther King)

        • Avatar photo Eric Kaplan says on January 30, 2015

          Catholic Mom —
          That’s my point exactly. You accused me of having secular values. What was it in my exchange with AJ that gave you the impression I have secular values? Since my values include love and justice, and as you correctly point out love and justice are emphasized in the Torah, I do not believe my values are secular
          .Best, Eric

          • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on January 30, 2015

            Well, then, you have a have a “particular set of answers to the Big Questions” which differs from the average secular viewer. Should a character such as yourself only appear onscreen for the sole purpose of highlighting those differences and then challenging or affirming them? Wouldn’t it be interesting just to have a few characters who are *different* from one another, rather than ideological/lifestyle identical twins?

            Heck, I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to spend my life surrounded only by Catholics. I wouldn’t be on this website if I did. 🙂 Does anybody really want to see just a reflection of themselves every time they turn on the TV? And if so, isn’t that one of the biggest problems our country has right now?

            BTW, if you read Mein Kampf (not that I’m recommending it) Hitler says that he always felt that religious anti-semitism was an attribute of small-minds, but when he first saw “ost Juden” (religious Jews from Eastern Europe) in full regalia, he was struck with the thought “these people are really not like us — they are aliens” and that’s when he decided that German must be purged of these foreigners.

            Portraying people who are, in fact, not like everyone else (by choice) but demonstrating that they *are* like everyone else in their basic humanity is not actually not a bad idea. Who knows — it might even lead Republicans and Democrats to consider each other as humans! 🙂

  • Avatar photo Goldie says on January 31, 2015

    Hi.I love Jew in the City it provides me with inspiration…..most of the time. What is bothering me is the attitude towards Charedi Jews. You are implying that they are negative when in fact they are a legitimate part or orthodox life. I am more modern….but I have friends who are chassidic who are very happy and good people (also have careers and are going to university)!! What needs to be shown is a complexity in Jewish characters across the board. Most chassidim work, litvacs are more inclined towards fulltime learning. Chassidic men in Melbourne run businesses, LOOK when they talk to women and those rare men who don’t, perhaps we should show some respect for religious beliefs. We should condemn rock throwing and sexual abuse. What we really should be doing is throwing away the label…we’re all just trying to be good frum Jews…aren’t we?!

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 1, 2015

      thanks for your comment, Goldie, but i think you have very much misunderstood me! i have many Charedi friends too and was in no way trying to bash them! i first asked for Chasidic Jews to be shown with depth, nuance, senses of humor. it was when the producer told me that Orthodox Jews believe things that would be offensive or illogical to the rest of the world (and i realized that trying to explain creationism, for instance, might be hard to do on TV), that i asked as a start – since MO Jews get NO representation – why can’t we have an Orthodox Jew shown who believes in science? that was all i was trying to say. we already know the flavor of Jews with peyos who don’t know much about the secular world. why can’t Orthodox Jews who are integrated yet also devoutly observant also portrayed some times?

  • Avatar photo Kaye says on January 31, 2015

    This is an interesting exchange – and I have to say I didn’t come out of it convinced there should be more representation. I don’t think the role of tv is to promote, and perhaps I’m not exposed to the same media as you (I’m in Canada sans tv, only watching online) but it seems to me there is a lot of Jewish representation on tv including representation of religious aspects (though not necessarily Orthodox). I have seen bris, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, etc. Matisyahu did plenty of smiling with and without a black hat. Being Erica would be an example of a Jewish character (with a somewhat observant father) where that was just part of who she was as a complex character. I actually think that there is likely more representation of aspects of Jewish religion than most other faiths (though again we likely get less Christian programming where I am than where you are). Little Mosque on the Prairie is the only Muslim-featuring show I can think of, for example.

    It also seems to me that asking for specific representation for 400,000 people is asking a lot – not that you shouldn’t see yourselves and tell your stories – but perhaps it is your responsibility to tell your stories and draw others in. I certainly would be very interested in watching that. I guess also, where I am, there are so many numerically larger groups that are never represented or, in the case of us 35 million Canadians, are almost exclusively mocked on US tv (though frankly, we mostly love that). I can’t think of an instance of a Cdn character on US tv not involving massive stereotypes, beer, moose and over the top accents (think how I met your mother, though again, I’m not offended, nor am I afraid of the dark). What we try to do (and struggle due to lack of funding and being a very diverse country with many internal issues of representation)is to tell our own stories. I understand what it feels like to not have your reality reflected, I think for those of us who experience that part of our duty is to being telling our own stories. But we do want to be honest, and represent full flawed and marvellous people, not ideal types.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 1, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Kaye. I also usually just watch TV online (who has time to watch a show when it’s actually on!) I’m not familiar with “Being Erica” – will check it out. There certainly IS a lot of Jewish representation in TV in movies. It far outweighs the number of Jews in the world. Jews happen to be a very influential group. The frustration for me is that these Orthodox characters do always seem to show up on most shows, but they’re always so over the top, unrealistic, and never have much human qualities to them. We are certainly doing what you said and creating our own content. I just think that more care could be given to at least get the Hasidic characters more accurate and at some times, at least, to show something about them that is relatable (even if not all their values are agreeable).

  • Avatar photo Chavie Weisberger says on January 31, 2015

    I was raised Hasidic, my children attend Hasidic schools, and I know Chareidi Judaism “with nuance and depth”. I, too, wish that Orthodox Judaism be portrayed on TV with accuracy. And although I get the impression from this interview that Allison would love to be my PR spinmeister to the secular media, I am taking the liberty to comment without her filter.

    It’s sad and ironic that while discussing the lack of depth and accuracy with respect to Orthodox representation on TV, Allison is advocating just the opposite: censorship, silencing and, as Eric politely hinted, sheer propaganda.

    Allison seems to be advocating giving a stage and a voice and better representation to those who already enjoy having the loudest voice, i.e. white, culturally integrated, privately educated, college graduated “Modern Orthodox” Jews who enjoy the privilege of being the “CEO’s and chairmen of big law firms and nobel laureates.” As Eric aptly responds, this group according to Allison’s portrayal blends into and navigates the secular world so seamlessly that aside for an occasional oy vey I must go eat gefilte fish remark on a Friday afternoon at the fancy executive office, are not unique. Bizarrely, Allison compares her advocacy on behalf of this class to that of social justice advocates on behalf of underprivileged “blind chactacters [sic] and people on the spectrum and people in wheelchairs and gay characters.”

    In actuality, the ones that desperately need a voice, Hassidim/Chareidim are not “trendy” enough for Allison. We’re too backwards and primitive and an embarrassment, so Allison wants us censored out of TV and condemned to silence.

    The Hasidim/Chareidm/Ultra Orthodox in NY, or as Allison labels us the “MOST extreme”, raise our children systemically uneducated (most men don’t speak English above caricature levels), are comically uncultured, and paralyzingly sheltered. We raise our children in a culture of racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. (On Oprah’s segment featuring the Hassidic community, a woman who serves as a media producer for Chareidim proudly declares that we don’t have gay people in our community). Women in our community are oppressed, and denied most roles and forms of expression. There are constantly new restrictions being imposed, from the style of our dress to the use of cellphones in public and everything in between. These restrictions are issued by men who get to determine whether our underwear is clean enough for us to have sex, and whether and we are allowed to go on birth control. They are also the ones sucking our babies’ freshly circumcised penises. Creationism is the least of our problems; we harbor a general animosity towards science and information. We are denied access to TV, secular movies, books and libraries. The internet is shunned and in most cases banned, and in few cases controlled through rabbinically-sanctioned filters. The few who manage to educate themselves or rid themselves of bigotry are doing so despite and not because of Chareidi society, and usually at great cost. What I describe is not a caricature, rather it is the lived experience of a large segment of Orthodox Jews today.

    This oppressed group deserves exposure on TV. Instead of romanticizing our plight and sugarcoating our experience, people like Allison should be fighting for our accurate representation on TV.

    Instead, ashamed to identify with the primitive Hassidim, it seems that Allison is on a mission to have the media crown her community as normative Orthodox Jews. She would prefer that the media not remind us of the existence of the insular Hasidim because that complicates her mission of “outreach” to non observant Jews.

    Allison discloses two of her ambitions with this blog: To land a lucrative job as a consultant to Hollywood on accuracy and nuance on matters of Orthodox Jews, and b) to rebrand Orthodox Judaism into a “love and kindness” brand for outreach and missionary purposes. Those two do not go together. Allison must choose either outreach propaganda or brutal accuracy. Her ambitions are not only blatantly selfish, but also a perpetuation of the oppression for those of us who don’t have the luxury or approval of the Rabbis to go on TV and meet producers of shows to speak about our experiences. Perhaps Allison might consider using her abundant privilege to speak up for those who need to be heard most.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 1, 2015

      Chavie Weisberger thanks for chiming in. I have no interest in filtering you, though i think you have misunderstood several things about me and Jew in the City which i’d like to clarify – many of the issues you have raised above greatly bother me too which is why i realized in the last couple years that Jew in the City can’t just be about showing the positive side of Orthodoxy – we also need to be helping to fix the problems that exist. we have dedicated posts addressing abuse in the Orthodox world , as well as extremism (like throwing rocks, beating people up, modesty patrols). i did some investigative research about the Chasidic men not sitting on planes and spoke out about it. we are a team of only volunteers, but we have gotten involved in some issues beyond simple blog posts including: spreading the halachic prenup to the charedi world as it could mean an end to the agunah crisis. we have also launched Project Makom so that there is a community of support for Jews who want remain observant but also want access to education, media and opportunities in the larger world. i am in touch with some formerly Chasidic Jews who are working on improving secular education in the Chasidic world and am trying to work as bridge builder. the modern Orthodox world is far from perfect, but the areas that this community falls short is more with bein adam l’Makom, where are many of the problems in the Charedi world are bein adam l’chavero and there are many people who are hurt by this. i have several Chareidi friends and also ahve several formerly Chasidic friends and they have helped me to understand the problems in the worlds from which they come from. i am, in many ways, an outsider, but i believe to truly be Jews who follow Torah, we need to be first and foremost good people. but just to clarify something else – all the problems you describe above is EXACTLY what the rest of the world associates with Orthodox Jews and Judaism and i think it’s only fair for the people who live with open-minds and in nonjudgmental balanced ways ALSO get represented. i don’t think it has to be one or the other. i think we can work to fix the problems while we simultaneously showcase people who live their lives to be kind and nonjudgmental. in terms of the “selfish lucrative” stuff – i was a happy secular Jewish kid, who had a classmate murdered by her father when i was 8 and this tragedy (the dad killed both kids and himself) sent me searching for a greater purpose to life for many years. i ONLY knew orthodox judaism to be about extremists and had no idea that there was a possibility to live as a balanced, open-minded person AND have beautiful things like shabbos. so this is not a “missionary” endeavor – it’s trying to reclaim a brand from crooks, creeps, and extremists who have hijacked it. i believe that all people should live self-actualized lives, but most Jews have no idea this option even exists and that limits the options they can choose from and for the 8 years that i struggled to find purpose (through insomnia and minor panic attacks) i wish that someone had let me know (which is why i have volunteered the last 7 1/2 years to make this information known.)

    • Avatar photo Mindy says on February 8, 2015

      Chavie, I understand that there are many things about the chareidi world you do not like. I come from that world, and it was not for me, which is why I currently live what would be called a “Modern Orthodox” life.

      Portraying the negative parts of chareidi culture on TV would not help people in that culture at all. TV watchers aren’t the movers and shakers in the chareidi world. The culture would need to be changed from within, not by portraying people negatively on TV.

      Additionally, many chareidim do NOT feel that their culture is negative. They feel that most of the things you describer above are the correct way of doing things, and do not feel oppressed.

      Also, as Allison pointed out, we have begun Project Makom for those people who *are* unhappy in the chareidi world.

  • Avatar photo Concerned Observant Mom says on February 1, 2015

    A blind person “is what he is”? This is a cruel
    generalization. Just as there are a variety of
    Orthodox Jewish movements, ie modern Orthodox, black kippa, etc. there are many disabilities.
    Each individual has their own issues, i.e. legally blind, &/or other disabilities. Each individual has
    their own method of dealing with his/ her disability.
    One difficulty that occurs when Hollywood includes a blind character, is that the character represents a whole range of people and issues, just as the Orthodox Jewish character in a movie
    (unintentionally) represents Orthodox Judaism.

    It is challenging to fairly represent any group via one person/ character in a movie or other media.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 1, 2015

      thanks for your comment, Concerned Observant Mom. i didn’t mean to say that we could sum up “all blind people” with one character on TV. what i was trying to get across is that by watching Oggie on “Covert Affairs” – a great guy who became blind in war – it has helped me to understand some of the human experience that is part of being blind. it certainly doesn’t capture every experience or all blind people, but taking the time to include such a character makes the show more than just entertaining – it forces me to understand a little more what people who live like this go through and i think it helps to create more aware and compassionate viewers. so my question was, why couldn’t this new trend of including characters that are not vanilla also include someone orthodox who’s more than just a punchline or stereotype but rather a complex human being.

      • Avatar photo Chavie Weisberger says on February 1, 2015

        Allison, what I don’t get is your pretending to be speaking for a repressed minority. You act like you are advocating for a group that is the equivalent of other seriously oppressed groups. I don’t see why you feel the need to promote a spoiled, free-thinking group of people whose lifestyle speaks for itself. Maybe you should use your platform to actually support those who are stuck in a life they have very little way out of. Maybe you can do so without any agenda or hope for them to join your ideal of a “perfect Judaism”. If you did, I might respect your work. Because right now, all I see is a one percenter crying at not getting enough attention

        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 1, 2015

          i don’t know what you mean by a “one percenter” – are we talking about economics now? let me clarify some more things, as i believe you are still not following. i don’t believe the “poor,” “oppressed” modern or centrist Orthodox Jew is “suffering” by not being shown on TV. i DO however, believe that for Jews who have never personally experienced what you called “my ideal Judaism” lose out when they’re not aware that shabbos observance can and does come along with people who strive to be kind, and honest and open-minded. i started JITC to share that information with the world. because after i was exposed to Orthodox Jews who were both living spiritual lives AND tolerant lives, i felt like i had been robbed of knowing about that path. i have heard similar sentiments from other Jews. in terms of the people who are “stuck in a life they have very little way out” – the truth is that i had not been aware of this contingency until i started hearing from such people a year plus ago. i had only met Charedim who were happy in their lives. the way we have responded to this is through jewinthecity.com/project-makom and Foosteps actually reached out to us to congratulate us on filling a void that had not been filled before.

    • Avatar photo Eric Kaplan says on February 1, 2015

      I would like to avoid the cruelty of the generalization of saying a blind person ‘is what he is”, but I’m not sure how since I can’t help thinking “every person is what he is” because if he wasn’t what he was he wouldn’t be what he is.
      How would you suggest stating the difference between a disability and a religious affiliation? Or do you believe that there is no difference?

  • Avatar photo Charnie Feldman says on February 2, 2015

    Pardon me for dragging this discussion back to the original topic – the portrayal of observant Jews in the media. With regard to Modern Orthodox Jews being included in a story, to most people watching they would be invisible as anyone different then every other person in the plot. Perhaps someone might notice a yarmulke on a male character, but probably not unless the shot is from behind them. And I’ve discovered that outside of Orthodox circles, no one is at all aware of sheitels, so scratch that also (especially since most wigs are manufactured for theatrical usage anyway). Therefore, if Mr. Observant Guy comments in the conference room that it’s getting late on Friday afternoon, the vast majority of viewers will either ignore that or say “so what”. I think this is what Eric is trying to say, that just because someone is (perhaps) noticeably Orthodox, does that have anything to do with the plot?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on February 2, 2015

      Thank you, Charnie for “dragging” the topic back to the topic! 🙂 Yes, MO Jews blend. But they are still different in some ways. And I think those difference could be explored. For instance, if a character loses a family member – how they mourn. If someone gets married – how that works. I think there could be opportunities to add more flavor to an otherwise “bland” character. Not to make this character perfect, but to show them as human, with lovable qualities and flaws and just included them as people who exist in the world.

      • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on February 2, 2015

        Exactly! Think about how many people can instantly identify the words “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together today …” as the opening words of the marriage ceremony? Even if they’ve never been to a religious Christian wedding in their lives? But they’ve seen it over and over again on TV and in the movies. Or how about “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”? How many people instantly recognize that as a funeral? Have they really been to that many Catholic funerals? These words are not said during the funeral mass, only at graveside when the body is committed to the ground. Have most 20 somethings stood at that many gravesides? But these will be the words you always here or see in the movies to communicate that somebody has died and the grieving family is standing around the grave. Couldn’t somebody be getting married under the chupah? Couldn’t a family be sitting shiva? Or would that require too much imagination? (Or possibly knowing what chupah and shiva mean?) Why does every Ford have to be black and every ice cream cone vanilla?

  • Avatar photo Charnie Feldman says on February 3, 2015

    There are concepts that could be incorporated in a script that are much more viable, IMHO, with “visibly” frum Jews. For example, perhaps a man could be wearing a black hat as he enters or leaves the office which may generate comments from coworkers, especially in warmer weather. How about a woman who doesn’t readily shake hands with others during a meeting? At water cooler gatherings, the frum characters aren’t up on what’s nominated for an Oscar this year, or even, what movies or TV shows are currently popular. (Those are all aspects of my own life in the secular working world!) In terms of media, it is a way to differentiate between the secular Jewish or non-Jewish characters and the Orthodox ones, be they MO or Charedi (a expression Allison knows from previous discussions I detest as it is was coined by the likes of the NY Times – along with “Ultra Orthodox”, and has a negative connotation). How they’d respond to all of the above would be the telling point. And that includes Chabadniks, who while they are quite worldly compared to Satmars, do guard their young children from secular influences – especially those who live in Crown Heights. Those who are in shlichus obviously have to be more aware of the secular world, although they still shield their children from them, even to the point of sending them to school in Crown Heights.


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