Haven't we suffered enough?In his newest pop culture article in the NY Jewish Week, Liel Liebovitz identifies several characters in prime time who have invoked Jewish images and ideas, without them being Jewish themselves. He proposes we call it “the Madonnafication of television”:

Like the diva’s much-covered foray into Jewish mysticism, a step that propelled everyone from Britney Spears [who is now wearing a Magen David–EDK] to Demi Moore to tie a slim red bracelet around his or her wrist, pop culture is showing signs of embracing Judaism’s hip value. Which does not necessarily mean embracing Jews. Real Jewish characters are still scarce on either the big or the small screen, at least as fully-fleshed, well-rounded protagonists vocal about their identity. But the accoutrements of being Jewish — the accessories, the rituals, the visuals — those are hot commodities.

Liebovitz asks Salon writer David Marchese, who has written extensively about Jews and pop culture, about why this is true, and why now. The answer to those questions respectively, says Marchese, is “Jewish culture is seen as urban culture,” and “hatred of Jews.” So we’re back at one of my favorite topics: Jews in Hollywood acknowledging and then, almost in the same figurative breath, deriding their heritage.

“It’s easy to argue that anti-Semitism is at a higher level nowadays,” [Marchese] said, “and maybe [the surge of Jewish symbols in pop culture] is a subconscious reaction to that. There is no better way to show forward-thinking, open-mindedness and ease than to show a non-Jewish character wearing Jewish emblems. That says more about a character than if they were just wearing a cross around their necks, which is mundane.”

I’m not sure the presence of religious iconography, in as specific a dramatic medium as television, is mundane. (What about Scully’s cross, indicating a faith that defied the very reason by which she lived her life?) What I do think it is, is funny. Not always in a ha-ha way, but in a quirky humor-type way. (Quick quiz: Who’s funnier? Christians or Jews?)

How many TV characters use “oy vey” when they encounter a difficult situation? And then there are the obscure references that make their way into a show like “House.” One paraphrased exchange from Season 2, while administrator Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein, a Jew playing a Jew! Alert the media!) is pondering which numbered sperm donor to choose, announces she’s leaning toward 613. Hah, that’s funny, I think. Like the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Now, I’m pretty sure I can’t communicate with characters inside the TV. And yet, here’s the next line of dialogue: “Sure,” Dr. House grunts. “Choose the Jewish number.”

That’s not a dreidel. That’s not shiva. That’s not a magen David around Britney’s neck. That’s a pretty obscure reference. How many people outside the Jewishly educated or Orthodox circles could hear the number 613–without any type of Jewish context–and immediately identify it as a Jewish number? It’s unexpected. Which makes it funny.

Is the appropriation of Jewish symbols, icons and phraseology a sign of anti-Semitism? Self-hatred? Assimilation? Or is it a move toward sharing some of our cultural cadences with the world, education couched in a soothing and non-threatening blanket of entertainment? I’m not sure. But it’s fascinating.

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.

10 Comments

  • Hence the term “assimilation.” Isn’t this what we mean? It’s not only reflected in higher intermarriage rates for Jews with non-Jews, but in our presence within the larger society becoming ubiquitous so that Jewish elements still seem a little unusual but natural. Then again, I would argue that pretty much the same thing has happened with gays and elements of African-American culture. Slowly but surely, we are becoming one big blob of a society.

  • Sue Fishkoff, a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, who has written about Jewlicious, said in a talk on new trends in Jewish identity given to young professionals, that Jewish culture is becoming a part of mainstream American culture.

    It’s personally annoying to me, but if this is what is happening, we have to be able to understand it, a decide what it means for us and how we should move forward.

    For example, some people thing Jewish people are cool. Especially in the dating world — I personally am a member of JDate.com and have spoken to guys , non-Jews, who have joined JDate because they felt Jewish women were more educated and classy. A stereotype of sure, but a good stereotype, yes.

    Again, I personally am annoyed with non-Jews purposely seeking out Jews to date and develop relationships with based on stereotypes, but this is something I have to learn to deal with as it’s a part of the changing times.

  • Middle’s right. However, the issues Esther raises may have very different resonance specifically for Jews– they seem part of a conversation Jews are having among themselves within the broader culture at the moment. It’s a measure, I suppose, of how distant I feel from this as a gentile that “anti-semitism” or Jewish self-loathing in this context strike me as startlingly left-field. But, again, there’s a layer of meaning here that’s specifically Jewish, and beyond my highly limited ken.

    (Hmm, are Jews are generally funnier than Christians? Y’all have cornered the market on dark humor, that’s for sure.)

  • Depends on whether you consider Seinfeld or Borat funny. We certainly have some deep representation in comedy and this has been true for the past century of live comedy, cinema, radio, literature and theater. Does that mean we’re funnier? I’m not funny…

  • Middle’s right; he’s not funny. So if we compare just Middle and Tom (a limited sample, I know) Christians are way funnier than Jews.

    Not sure if Jewish things becoming more mainstream is necessarily evidence of assimilation. More like acculturation, it seems to me. One can acculturate while not assimilatiing.

    Sounds like I should start watching House. I loved Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, and Lisa Edelstein is easy enough on the eyes, even though she appears to be a militant vegetarian.

  • “How many people outside the Jewishly educated or Orthodox circles could hear the number 613–without any type of Jewish context–and immediately identify it as a Jewish number?”

    I’m imagining the writers’ meeting, everyone sitting around and the one wearing the yarmulke says “how about 613?” and the ones not wearing yarmulkes feel stupid because they stopped going to shul after their bar mitzvot and don’t get the reference. And the one non-Jew is pissed because he didn’t come up with 316 first.

    And while this doesn’t relate to the Leibovitz article, non-Jews in the entertainment industry wearing Magens and mezzuzot is nothing new. In the ’70s many of my non-Jewish friends were wearing them. More often than not they were gifts from Jews. Like old blue eyes…

    http://new.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=1458

    Then there’s Mickey Rourke writing himself as a tough Jew in:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115781/

    Only worth watching for Mickey’s amazing prison-made blue Magen David tat. And Adrien Brody as his younger brother? If only he were a tribesman!!

    Like Tom I don’t see the glaring religious subtext. If Willa Paskin sees these little homages to multiculturalism as kind of shallow, well we are talking about tv sitcoms here. A writer may throw in a reference to their religion the same way they may make a character a fan of their favorite baseball team. Or name a character after their grandfather. Why was Mickey’s character Jewish? After sitting through that mess I realized it was because he was just a stereotypical junkie ex-con. So use another stereotype (that Jews aren’t junkie ex-con types) to divert our attention. I was, like Paskin said, lipservice. Not the way Aranofsky creates Jewish characters. Or Tim Roth in “Little ODessa”. But still a damn good call on Adrian Brody.

    Imbuing a little Jewish reference into a script or character doesn’t mean anything much deeper than the need to give the character or script a little twist. What’s should be, and has been, debated is how Jews write and portray Jews – Larry David being the latest example of Woody Allen.

  • Ephraim, just admit that you’re my biggest fan and be done with it. It must be so painful for you to have kept your feelings bottled up all this time.

  • Those Jewish references in house that only someone with a strong connection to judaism would know put me on a mission to find out what’s going on. I think it may be the show’s creator, David Shore. But I don’t know for shore, I mean sure. (Ok, that was a bad joke, sorry.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Shore
    “David Shore was born on July 3, 1959 in London, Ontario, Canada. He is the only member of his family involved in television, as his twin younger brothers—Philip and Robert—are rabbis.”

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