December 8, 2005 - Has TV been good to the Jews?2005-12-23 10:49:47
By MARK MIETKIEWICZ
Is TV good for the Jews?
I’m not talking about how much TV you should – or shouldn’t – be watching. Or about job creation in the TV industry. Rather, has TV been good for the depiction of Jews?
Several books have dealt with the phenomenon. In “Over the Top Judaism,” Chicago's Rabbi Elliott Gertel says sometimes Hollywood acts as if it’s doing Jews a favour by including them in a TV show. But without realizing, Hollywood may be doing more harm than good. Gertel cites an example of a (thankfully) short-lived TV series, “Skin,” that depicted an ethical Jewish pornographer. On the other hand, Gertel says that sometimes TV can get it right. He mentions an episode from Little House on the Prairie in which a little boy meets an elderly Jewish craftsman. Another, “Homefront” says Gertel, “dealt seriously with conversion and Jewish identity.” http://tinyurl.com/e4bfe
I was most interested by Gertel’s survey of how the depiction of Jewish characters has changed over the years. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Jewish characters who typically appeared on Bonanza or Magnum PI were looking for some help to get out of a difficult situation. In the 70s, “the themes were primarily the Holocaust, with survivors battling Nazis who were lurking about” as well as plots dealing with mixed marriages. Then in the 80s and 90s, you had a period of Jewish self-mockery or Jewish angst in programs like thirtysomething and Seinfeld.
Ah, Seinfeld. That show has probably generated some of the strongest debate over the Jewishness of a TV show. Some critics called it “self-hating.” (Elaine is told she has “Shiksappeal” because Jewish men like her because she’s not Jewish.) Others welcomed a show like that portrayed Jews as typical Americans. “The Jews have arrived,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis. “We no longer are asking, ‘What will the anti-Semites say?’” http://tinyurl.com/c6ks3 You can read through entire Seinfeld scripts with Jewish themes and decide for yourself. http://tinyurl.com/7jukp And then find out what the Jewish characters in Seinfeld and South Park say about Jewish life in America today. http://tinyurl.com/czm8u
In 1990, the American Jewish Committee along with the Norman Lear Center of the University of Southern California produced a 150-page report titled “Jews in Prime Time.” http://tinyurl.com/cg33o (The Lear Center http://tinyurl.com/7dxf2 says you can receive a free copy if you email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org) The report concluded that although the treatment of religion in general was “woefully represented” in prime time, the “vast increase in the numerical representation of Jews on the TV screen in the last decades must be acknowledged as a unique and hopefully positive force.”
Judith and Rabbi Jonathan Pearl agree. The Pearls are authors of the book, The Chosen Image, and founded the Jewish Televimages Resource Center to monitor Jewish themes and portrayals on TV. The Pearls argue that Jewish characters actually do retain their Jewish identity on television. Critic Michael Medved acknowledges the benefits of a growing Jewish presence on TV. But he says that presence is invariably of an assimilated Jew who is intermarried. He says that it’s as if TV Jews have an 11th commandment handed down on Mt. Hollywood that says, “Thou shall not be attracted to someone of a Jewish background.” http://tinyurl.com/8kkxa
I don't think Medved or the Pearls would be fans of “Chrismukkah,” a mishmash of a holiday made famous by a character on The OC who has a Jewish father and Christian mother. You can listen to an interview with Josh Schwartz, the program’s creator and executive producer, and find out why he’s been popularizing this fabricated celebration on network TV. http://tinyurl.com/cpmoz
With all that Jewish (and pseudo-Jewish) content out there, is there an audience for a Jewish TV network? John Odoner thinks so. Odoner is founder of JTV, a proposed American cable network that hopes to serve 6.7 million Americans as well as “13.3 million who are a quarter or half Jewish.” Critics are skeptical and say that many people have tried - and failed - to create a Jewish network. http://tinyurl.com/dq8k2 Regardless, Odoner says “the time is right” and one day he hopes to bring you this lineup right into your home:
- “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” a Crossfire-type show;
- Jewish televangelism, hosted by “a hip, provocative Gen X rabbi”; and
- “Nice Jewish Boyz” … which will smash the myth of the over-mothered Jewish male. http://jtelevision.com/
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Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at email@example.com.