Last year, some of our Hollywood contacts let us know that a TV series with a regular Orthodox Jewish character was in production. Much to our delight, they were using an Orthodox Jewish consultant (as opposed to a recent network show that used a Black Israelite “rabbi” or the numerous movies that have used ex-Hasidic consultants to advise on the Hasidic community). This is exactly what we’re advocating for in our Hollywood Bureau, so we were thrilled to hear that the non-orthodox Jewish showrunners, Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg, decided to do this on their own. The Modern Orthodox rabbi they used to consult, Rabbi Menachem Hecht (who works at YULA) is terrific. Rabbi Hecht was enthusiastic about how involved they got him in production and how motivated Fields and Weisberg were to tell an authentic and positive story of the Orthodox community.
I waited with anticipation for the show to come out. Then “The Patient” premiered on Hulu (which we don’t have) just as I was getting my kids back to school, followed by a very busy Jewish holiday season. Via previews, I realized that the patient in the show is a serial killer who seeks out a therapist, Alan Strauss (Steve Carell), to help him stop killing people. This seemed like a random show to insert an Orthodox Jewish storyline into, but, hey, I must admit that I was intrigued.
Our readers kept writing in to ask what we thought, as more and more episodes aired. There was unease in many of the messages we were getting. “Is it bad?” I asked. “Not exactly,” readers wrote back. “It’s interesting. Pretty authentic. Not exactly positive.” With the season finale airing this week, I did what any twenty-first century woman, who sometimes has to watch television for work would do: I binged-watched the entire 10-episode season over these last couple days, so I could finally weigh in.
A couple years ago, screenwriter Yael Levy approached us to create –The JOSEPHS Test For Accurate Media Portrayals of Orthodox Jews. We developed these questions together to help guide writers and producers to craft the kind of Orthodox stories we want to see. You can keep them in mind as I describe the episodes below.
Let’s start with the good. First off, it’s a very well done show. The writing, the acting, the premise – it’s all quite gripping. It wasn’t hard to binge-watch the series in two days. It’s also quite dark and violent, but surprisingly clean in terms of sexual content. Often times Orthodox Jewish characters come to a show for single episode, to act as a Jew prop of sorts. So having recurring Orthodox Jewish characters, in the form of a baal teshuva adult son (Ezra) and his family, was great. The prayer scenes were quite authentic. Rabbi Hecht explained that a lot of work went into getting pronunciations as accurate as possible. The Orthodox extras were most authentic. The other actors had reasonable Hebrew pronunciations. There were no cartoonish Orthodox Jews or major flubs, and thankfully, no one ran from their observance. Ezra’s rebbi in yeshiva is described as someone cool and “athletic-looking,” which was a nice detail to include. From a larger Jewish perspective, the concept of shiva and kaddish are shown in a positive and meaningful light. There were poignant scenes throughout related to the Holocaust, which I think many Jews can relate to. And the show ended on an especially positive Orthodox Jewish note, which I’ll come back to later.
Now for the less positive parts:
From the first episode, we learn that Ezra has become an Orthodox Jew. He’s referred to as an “extreme” Jew. His way of life is called a cult. His yeshiva is compared to a Scientology Center. And Alan explains that Ezra “got in with one of those black hat rabbis in college.” Alan seems more open-minded than his recently deceased wife, Beth, who was a Reform Cantor and insists on singing at Ezra’s religious wedding, even though she’s told that she shouldn’t, due to kol isha (the prohibition of women singing in front of men).
As someone who became Orthodox from a Conservative family, I remember the judgment I felt from my non-Orthodox family and friends. This judgment and friction is given over with a lot of authenticity. It would be pushy for anyone to sing at a wedding if they weren’t invited to do so. But because kol isha seems sexist, to have her stopped without getting to unpack the issue in a nuanced way, could easily leave viewers to side with Alan and Beth: Ezra is an extremist who joined a misogynistic cult.
Even with Alan being the “open-minded” one, he still disparages many Jewish practices throughout the series. He calls kosher food “just like regular food, but with a lot of annoying laws.” He complains that Ezra’s family won’t eat the food they cook or eat off their dishes. These awkward moments play out visually when Ezra’s then fiancé brings a cake and plastic knife that isn’t able to cut it. There’s also a cringeworthy scene where Beth serves ice cream to her non-Orthodox grandchildren at the dinner table, to spite her son, while the Orthodox ones look on sadly. (If the Orthodox grandchildren had just had eaten meat, they wouldn’t be able to have dairy, but Beth could have easily gotten a dairy-free ice cream and served it in paper bowls.) “Orthodox Jews and ice cream” spiked as a Google search after this episode aired because media is powerful and representation matters.
About 85% through the series, Alan starts to see Ezra differently and begins to see his own judgments of his son. Episode 8 begins with more Orthodox negativity. Ezra tells Beth that he doesn’t respect her relationship to God. Although Ezra started out in college, we understand that he dropped out and now works for his father-in-law at a shipping store. The stereotype that Orthodox Jews can’t be professionals is reinforced here. (More on this later.) We also learn that Ezra doesn’t think his parents are Jewish enough and sees them as second class citizens. In fact, when his mother decides to undergo euthanasia, because her cancer is so painful, Ezra tells his family that it’s illegal and he won’t fulfill his mother’s dying wish to be by her side. Alan explains that Ezra’s Orthodoxy is a form of rebellion, since he has to individuate from his mother and that he can only see things one way, which is why he became Orthodox. Alan also accuses Ezra of breaking up the family and humiliating his mother.
But then Alan has a change of heart. Midway through episode 8, he acknowledges that he did look down on Ezra and blame him. He realizes Ezra must have felt his contempt. In a moment of honesty, Alan realizes that he was more compassionate to a serial killer than to his Orthodox son. And that, by the way, kind of sums up how hostility and judgment between Jewish denominations can tragically look at times.
From Alan’s turning point of self-honesty, the Orthodox representation gets better. We see Ezra searching for Alan, showing compassion, worrying that the did not do a good enough job honoring his parents. And we get to see a Shabbos dinner with joy and smiles and jokes and singing, much how we’d want Shabbos to look on television. By the end, we see that Alan respects and is proud of Ezra’s life. And Ezra and his sister, Shoshana, sharing tender moments. So while a large part of the series has negative depictions, it does allow both characters a chance for growth. And resolving conflicts is what television is meant to be about.
Technical Questions That I Needed To Follow Up On With The Consultant
A common complaint I have with Orthodox characters in Hollywood is that they sometimes seem to have a hodgepodge of communities mixed into one character. When the show started off, I thought I knew what community Ezra was part of: baal teshuva yeshivish (that’s ultra-orthodox/haredi but not Hasidic) who became religious through a campus rabbi. Now even this story was slightly off, because he quits college, marries a religious from-birth woman and works at his father-in-law’s shipping store.
The blackhat campus outreach rabbi storyline is pretty specific. It typically goes like this: women and men in college go to campus programming, some become observant and finish their degree. Often they go to Israel to learn in yeshiva or seminary during or after college. Then they marry someone else who is part of this network and work as professionals. Rabbi Hecht said that he flagged some of this in the script but that the showrunners didn’t only want to make the story about religious judgment, it was also supposed to be about classist judgment. What does it say when educated professionals look down at their son who works a blue-collar job? Dara Horn touches on this topic in “People Love Dead Jews.” Are people only worthy of respect or saving if they look and act like you? While this storyline is less accurate and more stereotypical than I would have liked, I see the artistic point Fields and Weisberg were trying to make.
The couple other visual details that confused me about Ezra’s Orthodox community (because our communities are diverse) is Ezra’s son’s long hair. For some reason, long hair on Orthodox Jews is not infrequently done in Hollywood. (Maybe costume designers are thinking of peyos.) The hair is not long long, just a lot on top. You could find a modern Orthodox boy with the haircut of Ezra’s older son, but it would be less common in Ezra’s community. Same goes with Ezra’s wedding ring. And on those questions, apparently Rabbi Hecht wasn’t there when they cast the actor with the long hair and no one noticed the wedding ring. There was also a strange amount of vests in the show for the Orthodox characters. Yeshivish characters typically wear black and white. I don’t know who wears vests. It’s not wrong per se, just more on the nerdy side. So less vests, please for the vest department in Hollywood who might be dressing future Orthodox characters.
The Shabbos scene at the end is joyful and mostly accurate. There is no table cloth and it’s light outside when they sit down. Why did no one go to synagogue? Why is no one wearing a suit? Why are the candles still lit at the end of the meal? For this scene, it seems like some details were flagged and forgotten, but since it ends up being a dream sequence, the showrunners decided that Alan might not have remembered all the details correctly. I’m OK with that. When we filmed our mikvah video, people were shocked that I was wearing makeup in a scene where you only see my face and I’m supposed to be in the mikvah. We don’t wear makeup in the mikvah but that detail escaped us. That’s my way of saying, we sometimes forget details when we film.
I’m grateful that Fields and Weisberg wanted to show our community and wanted to give over joy and authenticity and used an Orthodox Jew to consult. I don’t know if this has ever been done for a show before that aired. I do have a fear about people writing about a community that they’re not part of without the help of a writer who’s in the community. The negativity around the Orthodoxy exists for most of the show, so anyone who didn’t finish it would be left with only negativity. A viewer could see Beth and Alan as stubborn and unwavering in not letting their child self-actualize. My fear, though, is that most viewers side with Beth and Alan and see the Orthodox way of life as crazy, until those last few episodes.
Perhaps what bothers me most in the depiction are the constant glum faces of the Orthodox characters. While not cartoonish in a minstrelsy-sense, always having Orthodox Jews look sad, whether it’s because they faced antisemitism or hate their life and want to escape it, the negative emotion is so overdone. Of course there are sad Orthodox Jews, but we rarely see their joy, and that’s a serious problem. Yes, the tension and fighting and judgment and glumness allow for there to be a meaningful resolution, but back to the Josephs Test at the top – does the problem always have to be Judaism? Can religious Judaism be the proud identity of a story of people who struggle with other human problems? I hope so. I applaud this initial effort and believe it can lay the way for even more authentic storytelling from our community. That means that Orthodox writers will need to be OK sharing something so personal. It will only happen when studios welcome those kind of projects. Fortunately, the JITC Hollywood Bureau is talking to many studios!