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Why Netflix’s Jewish Matchmaking Is Historically Positive Jewish Representation

About a year and a half ago, I got news that a reality TV show about Jewish matchmaking was getting made. We may have even gotten an inquiry for casting. I was immediately alarmed, because reality TV makes everyone look bad, dating brings out the worst in people, and as it is, Jewish representation is almost always awful.

Sometime after that, I discovered that an Orthodox Jewish woman who I know who’s worked on TV before (Ronit Polin) was consulting for a Jewish matchmaking show, and I wondered if it was the same thing. Then a month plus ago I found out that the matchmaker herself  was a lovely religious Jewish woman (Aleeza Ben Shalom) I started to become less nervous and more hopeful of what this show might be.

I got a press screener and watch the entire season on Yom Hashoah of all days. It was oddly fitting to watch it that day because the show was full of Jewish pride, and three dimensional characters. It did not dabble in tropes and showed something even more unusual Jewish people falling in love with Jewish people.

We are building a fact sheet with a wonderful nonprofit in Hollywood, to give language to tropes we’re tired of and what we want to see more of. This fact sheet will be sent to all major studios. We looked at the other minority fact sheets to help us crystallize some of the tropes that might be out there for Jews. Something struck me on the Black fact sheet. They describe wanting to see Black women being loved. It occurred to me that we rarely see Jewish women being loved on the big screen, because we either see religious Jewish women being trapped or abused by their religious husbands or we see secular Jewish men passing over Jewish women and choosing a non-Jewish woman instead.

Since the founding of Hollywood by Jewish immigrants, escaping persecution, the message given over has been clear – intermarry and assimilate to be accepted as a Jew. But if acceptance includes self-erasure, are Jews actually accepting themselves? In an age where other minority groups are leaning in and being proud, Jews continue to hide their Jewishness in most spaces.

The first talkie film ever produced was The Jazz Singer, where the son of a cantor marries Mary, his non-Jewish love interest and leaves the fold, becoming a jazz singer. This story of intermarriage and assimilation has been repeated over and over and over again, via Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, You People, and nearly every television show with a Jewish character: Mad About You, Seinfeld (and its coining of the term “Shiksappeal”), to present day, Wallowitz and Bernadette on Big Bang Theory and Devi and Ben on Never Have I Ever. If Jews never choose Jews on screen, what does that say about our perception of our own self-worth? How do we hope to combat antisemitism if we ourselves have not come to see the beauty in ourselves and our fellow Jews?

Jewish Matchmaking is the first show I’ve ever seen where couple after couple are all Jewish and many of them find themselves falling in love with other Jews, or at least, finding admirable qualities in them. This allows the audience to see beautiful qualities in the participants. When shortcomings and foibles are shown, they are not based on tropes or stereotypes, something that is also quite unusual in Jewish representation. This show lets the viewer know many endearing and diverse Jewish people and promises Jews continuity and hopefully some cute Jewish babies down the road!

What happens when endearing Jewish characters are on the screen and Judaism is shown as a beautiful way of life containing wisdom? Viewers come to love Jews and their traditions. In comments under a Rolling Stones article on the show here’s what people had to say:

Such a great show!!! Loved the content, loved how it creates a learning opportunity and deeper look into ideas from Judaism and I LOVED the diverse representation!!!

I learned a lot about Judaism.   

I love the show. Aleeza is wonderful. She could negotiate for world peace.

Aleeza is so wonderful and charming.

I’m not Jewish but I love you and I love your show.

Thank you for teaching the world what LOVE is!

In an Instagram post, announcing that Shaya, the one blackhat Jewish man on the show got engaged, here’s what people had to say:

Oh I knew he was one of the ones to get married! He’s def marriage material. Very nice guy, so is the woman.

Mazal tov! Seems like a great guy met a wonderful girl.

So happy for him for all of them! His wife is beautiful and charming too.

Aleeza, you are amazing! I’m not Jewish, but would love to have someone like you to help me.

Compare this feedback to how a viewer described Julia Haart’s youngest son, Aharon:

He has observed the behaviour of men in his community and is just mirroring what he sees. Disdain and contempt for women because they are not equal in those mens [sic] eyes.

Here are other commenters giving feedback on
My Unorthodox Life:

Ultra Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists. When you have a religion that makes contact with secular education and the secular world off limits, you are in a fundamentalist group. What is wrong with Jews that don’t call out the UO for who they are?

ANY religion that seeks to control women, while accepting that men won’t be perfect, is a problem. I find the orthodox Jewish community especially fascinating because it’s not just their women that they control.

Some Orthodox Jews have complained that Jewish Matchmaking has some not clean conversations, music and immodest beach scenes. While this is a content warning for anyone who is careful about what they watch, this doesn’t detract from the fact that this show is groundbreaking in showing Jews and especially Orthodox Jews, and our traditions, in a positive light. With increased determination to combat antisemitism, the Jewish community should be supporting efforts to encourage Hollywood to make more content like this. If you’d like to support those efforts, please consider supporting the JITC Hollywood Bureau today!

If you found this content meaningful and want to help further our mission through our Keter, Makom, and Tikun branches, please consider becoming a Change Maker today.

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  • Avatar photo Nathaniel Wyckoff says on May 11, 2023

    This article is truly refreshing! My wife of nearly 25 years and I did not meet each other through the traditional Jewish matchmaking process. However, we have a son who met his bride-to-be that way. From the eyes of a parent, I can honestly say that traditional Jewish dating is beautiful thing to watch as it unfolds. It focuses on the young couple’s shared life goals and vision, and it eliminates the emotional baggage. Once the engagement happens, it’s nothing but joy for both families and for the whole community.

    It is really nice to know that many more people are now learning about this wonderful way of bringing people together. Thank you for sharing this bright bit of news!

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Deebee says on May 11, 2023

    Some of the complaints from Orthodox people about the show not being clean is not based in reality. There are Jews of all different degrees of religiosity. Some have more challenges than other while they may or may not be working on themselves. For example, the Sephardic guy from Miami mentioned that he was kind of religious but also wanted to get it on before Shabbos. While there is a more observant way of living, there are fluid levels of religiosity and secularism in reality. On another note, I’m disappointed that Shaya and Fay didn’t have a 3rd date in front of the camera. While they can be a lot more open away from the cameras, the thing is, the world and also other Jews, should be able to get insight into what more observant shidduchim is really like.

    Reply
  • Avatar photo SDK says on May 23, 2023

    I am a huge fan of this show and am distressed that most of my Jewish friends are not watching it. Aleeza is a gem – positive, nonjudgmental, full of wisdom and empathy. I love that it shows Jews from absolutely across the spectrum in a positive light. I love that she is able to work with people from completely secular backgrounds and still validate their desire to connect to Jewish tradition. I love it’s about Jews being ourselves and that it doesn’t try to fit Jews into anyone else’s categories.

    So many people I know are afraid to watch Jews on TV – particularly if they are *being Jewish* on TV. Because there’s always a stereotype, always something weirdly off (we do not BOW OUR HEADS when making kiddush or motzi – WTF), always something reductionist or WE ARE BEING ETHNIC NOW. There are so many scenes in this show that are VERY VERY JEWISH but they don’t involve bagels, jokes, fake accents or yarmulkes. It’s just full of real Jewish people being themselves. Despite the fact that the media industry is populated with real Jewish people – this seems hard to do.

    This show sets a new bar for how it’s done. RECOMMEND.

    Reply

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