The Jewish Representation Problem
Recently, NBC’s newest show Nurses promoted some very big lies about the Ultra-Orthodox community. This reignited the ongoing debate surrounding Jewish representation in media and how things need to be fixed. Being a Modern-Orthodox Jew, this sort of situation is nothing new.
A Little Backstory
The first time I saw a Jew on television was an animated monkey on Arthur. Her name was Francine Frensky, and an entire episode was dedicated to her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, called “Francine’s Split Decision.”
Being from an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island, I was curious how they’d show a synagogue and hear the familiar tunes of Shabbat on Arthur. This show reaches millions of people and shows a diverse cast of characters.
What I saw instead was something entirely different. The Bar Mitzvah boy wasn’t called up to the ‘aron,’ the table in the center of the synagogue, but to the pulpit. He stood there and read a portion of the Torah, and the Jewish Character was willing the break the Sabbath for a bowling game. When they show the Bar Mitzvah again, he’s shown being lifted in a chair while “Hava Nagila” played in the background.
My head tilted in disbelief. That wasn’t how a Bar Mitzvah goes, at least not where I was raised. I didn’t even think that a Jew would break the Sabbath.
Now, to some Jews, that’s the way things are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, there seems to be a dilemma in popular culture about how to represent Jews in media.
There certainly isn’t a shortage of us in the industry. There’s a lot of Jewish representation in various media. It’s the kind of representation that’s gotten stale. It always seems to be the same kinds of Jews, present only to do one thing- be Jewish.
I asked a question on Facebook and Reddit to the Jewish community: “do you have any pet peeves regarding how Jewish culture is represented in media? If so, what are they?”
Here are some responses.
It’s Either One Extreme or the Other
In modern culture, there are only a couple of Jewish flavors: The Ultra-Orthodox man, with the ‘Streimel ’(fur hat) and ‘bekesha’(black overcoat), or the completely-unaffiliated, bagels and lox, neurotic, culturally-Jewish man. If a producer wants to put a Jew into something, it’s either a “Jerry” or a “Yankel.”
If a producer wants to put a Jew into something, it’s either a “Jerry” or a “Yankel.”
One participant said this: “it’s so rare to see religious Jews from liberal movements, or people who are only somewhat observant. It’s even rarer to see orthodox religious jews who are 3-dimensional characters and don’t end up leaving Judaism.”
Another stated: “Almost every show with a character is more Jewish on a side note and not religious, outside of gimmicks, hating their upbringing, or a sappy prayer scene. Yes, there are exceptions, but overall there isn’t much accurate religious Jewish representation in media, even in books.”
A third participant mentioned this about the Orthodox Jewish characters specifically: “Orthodox [Jewish] characters are always the most extreme Haredim (ultra-orthodox) possible, where the community is this cold, oppressive, cruel force, and someone is trying to flee. I’m not saying there are no issues with those communities; there are people who do struggle in them, but there’s also so much good, and it would be nice to see something more balanced.”
Finally, one echoed the same sentiment, but in a harsher tone: “The only reason characters are Jewish in media is to make a token bar mitzvah joke and a token Hanukkah reference. Or to be ultra-religious villains.”
Zero Commitment to the Jewish Identity
The Comedy Central show Broad City focuses on two Jewish women, Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abrams, living in Brooklyn. In a short clip, they call each other on Skype while laying limp in their beds, weak from fasting on Yom Kippur. They then mention the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich in front of them, ready to eat at sunset. After some weak logic, they break the fast early by eating the non-kosher sandwiches with zero regrets afterward.
To them, Judaism is a burden, not a living religion. Instead of exploring the rich and fulfilling lifestyle of Judaism, it’s usually played for laughs or to add obstacles to the characters.
As one participant mentioned: “[The Jewish characters] don’t eat kosher, they don’t keep Shabbat, and the only time anything gets brought up is when there’s a funeral or a conflicting holiday, like Chanukah instead of Christmas, or Pesach (Passover) instead of Easter.”
In this instance, Yom Kippur is far bigger than just fasting. It’s an intense, ceremony-driven experience that allows us to pray for ourselves, our communities, and our families. We connect to G-d through song and prayers, even shouting at the end, to ensure that we together can live another year with prosperity and joy.
Having lived this religion for years, it seems rather lazy for producers and creators to only show the surface level of Judaism for the sake of a quick laugh. Jewish life is so much bigger than that, and it’s far more enjoyable.
Chanukah is Not as Big as You Think
I got multiple responses regarding Chanukah being the Jewish version of Christmas:
“Chanukah is not our big holiday of the year. It’s portrayed as such because it’s portrayed as the ‘Jewish Christmas,’ but nobody ever mentions Pesach (Passover), Rosh Hashanah, etc., that arguably are more important holidays.”
The Lack of Research
One participant mentioned an ongoing problem with the lack of research done for Jews: “There is a Canadian mystery show named Murdoch Mysteries which takes place in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. There was an opening scene of Jews in the synagogue on a Saturday, and they were wearing tefillin (phylacteries, which are only worn on weekdays). Also, one person was reciting “Hebrew” in some Kabbalistic dialect.
Talking about the concept of kosher foods, one mentioned the times “[When people on a show or film] say that kosher food is ‘blessed by a Rabbi.’ Just… It’s so damn easy to say ‘approved’ or ‘certified’ at the BARE minimum.”
Someone else mentioned a problem that these shows make for educating others about Jewish practices: “I remember someone here speaking about a boss of theirs that thought Jews light a menorah on the 25th. [The lack of research by producers on Jewish practices]is the sort of thing perpetuating that level of ignorance and misinformation.”
Too Much Hava Nagila
I remember seeing my Dad’s face during a religious concert. The singer played melody after melody that brightened his eyes. He grinned from ear to ear.
Then the singer began to play that song, and you could see his face fall to the ground.
“Dad,” I began asking on the way home, “Why do you hate Hava Nagila so much?”
He looked at me with glazed eyes and a slow shake of his head. “The song screams ‘look at me. I’m the Jew song. Get it? I’m the one Jewish song everyone knows.’”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s the stereotypical Jewish song with that Jewish clarinet. Imagine if the only song people thought Australians sang was “Down Under,” or the only Irish song was “Seven Drunken Nights.” It’s insulting to see that the only song of our culture that’s reached the zeitgeist is a melody that’s been stripped of its charm and only lives on as the “Jewish song.” This movie delves more into it.
Some of the responses also mentioned some stereotypes that perpetuate lies about Jews and are also just boring and repetitive. Here are some examples:
The “Lecherous jew”- One response mentioned Simon Helberg’s portrayal of Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory: “He taps into an anti-semitic tradition of the lecherous Jew. I can understand Wolowitz intermarrying, but his constant horniness before and afterward is a stereotype and not a positive one.
Jews Distrusting “the Goyim”- There is a tired cliche of either older or more religious Jews distrusting outsiders, mainly non-Jewish people. This can be due to multiple reasons, but paranoia is a tired conflict that has run its course in modern media.
“The Jewish American Princess”- This trope, famously portrayed by Lea Michelle on Glee, is the Jewish girl's typical caricature in High School. A character like this is a rich, preppy, spoiled, Jewish girl, usually from the Tri-State (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) area. While I’m guilty of living around there, I can safely say that not all of them are that spoiled.
“The Upper-West-Side Jewish Mother”- Now, these mothers do exist, but not every Jewish mother. For those who don’t understand, I’m talking about the overly-naggy helicopter mother that keeps herself up at night with constant worry for her kids’ well-being and lack of boundaries when taking care of them. While the exaggerations are not just a Jewish thing, it is a tired trope to see that all of the time for Jews.
Some “New Jew” Ideas
After all of those criticisms, here are some improvements you can make for your Jewish characters.
- There are Different Ethnicities. Most Jews portrayed in media are Ashkenazi (Eastern European-descent). However, there are multiple kinds of Jews out there, including Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Sephardi (Jews of Spanish-descent), Russian, Bukharian, Greek, and Italian Jews with their special customs and prayers styles.
- Sick of the Ultra-Orthodox or Unaffiliated varieties? Here are a few other types of religious Jews: Traditional, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Conservadox, Yeshivish, Convert, or Chasidish (this is Ultra-Orthodox but of a certain sect). Each one has its own set of values and ideas, so please research each of them before putting them down to paper.
- Make them multi-dimensional. Aside from ethnicity and religious affiliation, now there’s one more element. You have to make the Jewish character have more problems than just about religion. Make them have real-world problems that don’t make Judaism a burden or an exaggerated element of their personality.