It’s time to talk about how Jews portray themselves on television. With the release of “My Unorthodox Life,” once again Jewish bloggers and writers are up in arms – and rightfully so – about how Jews, specifically Orthodox Jews, are made into over-stereotyped caricatures of what society expects them to be. We can blame anti-Semitism all we like, but there is another side to this story that must be addressed – Jewish producers must take responsibility for damage they inflict on Orthodox communities.
As I’m a graduate student studying media history and culture, the question of culture comes up a lot. This past academic year, I had the opportunity to look at Jewish cultural portrayals on television. What I found was surprising. Is anti-Semitism driving the current wave of problematic portrayals of Jews on television? It is, but it’s not always the same type of anti-Semitism we’re used to. The perpetrators too often are our people, whether they realize it or not. This lack of realization stands to cause a significant amount of grief and pain in Jewish communities across the country. Some may argue that it already has.
As part of taking responsibility, one needs to understand where these sentiments may be rooted.
Let’s go back to the beginning for moment. No not “In the beginning…,” but when Jews first arrived on the shores of North America in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Much like other European immigrants that sailed across the Atlantic during this time, Jews shared a commonality, Ashkanazi Jews mainly had white skin. But our beliefs were foreign. We didn’t fit the Christian narrative that allowed us to feel right at home like many white protestants who we came across the ocean with us. We were closer to Irish Catholics. We looked like everyone else, but we didn’t believe like everybody else.
In his book, “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity,” academic scholar Eric Goldstein looks at how Jews have gone through cycles of creating a cultural perception about themselves where we claim our status as white Americans, but in a way that tries to make sense that we are not the majority, and that minority status allows us to stay who we are. Hollywood, and eventually television networks became a way for Jews to control the narrative about themselves and attempt to find a middle ground for Jewish culture to exist on.
There is a problem, however, regarding how Jews have used Hollywood to maintain control – we’ve allowed, again, whether we realize it or not, certain images of ourselves to become permissible in the mainstream, and rather than having an open dialogue about what it means to be Jewish in America, a monolithic, often sterile, filled with falsehoods vision of what it means to be an American Jew. Our image is one of American expectation, not one of Jewish reality.
Media Scholar Vincent Brook writes that through the early 2000s, our internal culture dialogues have not been part of media portrayals of Jews on television. Jewish creators have held fast to cultural stereotyping of their own people, with most Jewish characters being portrayed as lawyers, comedians, bankers, and doctors, or completely shed of their Jewish identity in all but name.
This isn’t about the old stereotype that Jews control the media and Hollywood. Jews had a very real role in creating the modern American pop culture machine. The debate we are having now, whether here on Jew in the City, or any other platform is not new, though, and perhaps the lessons learned from past events can help redirect the discussion that allowed more positive Jewish portrayals in the media.
In the 1970s, there was fierce backlash at television studio executives after the debut of Bridget Loves Bernie. That show featured a love-story between Jewish Bernie and Catholic Bridget. The hate mail that poured into executives at CBS from Jewish viewers Vincent Brook speculates is the reason why the show was cancelled after one season despite being one of the highest rated programs that year.
While some modern shows should face cancellation, there is much more of an ability now than ever with social media to change the course of conversation. To this point in time, narratives written about the Orthodox community have been universally controlled by former members of the community, often unconcerned with the bridges they might burn, and non-Jewish producers who are content with “community research” on the best ways to portray Orthodox Jews on television.
There needs to be a reckoning within the non-Orthodox Jewish world that Jewish identity in American culture cannot carry on monolithically. Orthodoxy exists as a distinct culture not beholden to stereotypes Hollywood has created for it. Every Jewish community regardless of its origin and belief has a unique identity, though we share a common history that binds us as Jews. It is this binding that should call us to hold our fellow Jews accountable for the productions they create, and the damages caused.
With more platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, telling new stories aimed at Jewish audiences, it is time for Jews to tell a Jewish story rather than relying on what the mainstream expects from us. With rising anti-Semitism once again in the world, Jewish media cannot be complicit in the cultural subjugation of its own people.