It’s Time to Rethink How We Jews Portray Ourselves on Television

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. 

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  • Avatar photo Luftmentsch says on August 17, 2021

    Part of the problem is that the frum community does not encourage writing or film-making as creative endeavours. As a community, we place far more emphasis on learning, chessed, prayer and so on than on creativity. If we do not nurture our own creators, inevitably outsiders will be left to tell our stories.

    Moreover, no good artist wants to write propaganda. Emotionally real art will doubtless involve talking about the difficult side of the community, but creators fear being accused of “attacking” other Jews if they do this. Again, we have to accept that if our community is portrayed, it has to be a rounded picture.

    (Full disclosure: I spent the last two years writing a novel set in the Anglo-Jewish frum community. I’m currently looking for an agent. And, yes, I do worry about how it will be received in my own community.)

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 17, 2021

      The centrist and modern orthodox Communities encourage creativity. And no depiction of a person will be without warts. But it should at least be human and nuanced. And there’s plenty to celebrate.

      • Avatar photo Luftmentsch says on August 17, 2021

        I can only say what I see in the UK, but I don’t really see that encouragement here, nor have I seen much of it online.

      • Avatar photo moshe shoshan says on August 18, 2021

        unfortuately there are many forces in the MO community which discourage kids from pursuing creativity especially in career paths. One is the crushing burden of tuition costs an other is the “pan halachist” and authority oriented worldview dominant in YU. Both of these factors are less prominent in the RZ community in Israel, which is why there is a lt more creativity here.

        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 18, 2021

          There is always a challenge in being a “starving artist.” Many creative types have a day job and a dream hobby. No reason MO people can’t do that.

          • Avatar photo moshe shoshan says on August 19, 2021

            Do your creative type friends have $100K tuition bills? Did they get married in their early 20’s and have 4+ kids? My sense is that in America, to be an MO family you need two people with day and night jobs. The MO community needs to address these issues for many many reasons. squeezing out creativity from the community is one of them. My grandfather, Aaron Rosenbaum was one of the architects of day school education in New Jersey and worked tirelessly to keep tuition down. He remained committed, body and soul to day school education to his dying day, but in his later years, having moved to Teaneck to be near his kids, he was deeply distressed by financial monster which he had failed to tame.

          • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 19, 2021

            This is why I said “day job” and dream hobby. Yes, modern Orthodox life is expensive but regular life isn’t inexpensive. It is difficult to be an artist. That’s why they call them “starving artists.”

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