Was the Alex Rieger character in “Taxi” a Jew? There are a couple of allusions to his religion. What about Gabe Kotter in “Welcome Back Kotter”? He did say the Yiddish word word “yutz” once on screen so probably. While there might have been a reference or two to Jewish identity, it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of many of the shows back in the 70’s and 80’s.
Today, there are a slew of Jewish characters and storylines on television. Think “The Goldbergs”, “Transparent” and “Difficult People” (a show I found difficult to watch). As a Jew, I should be excited about this. But I wonder – in some of these shows is it symbolic of Jews being more mainstream or are they just easier to make fun of?
Let me pick apart one of my favorite shows, “Transparent”. I do love it but some parts irk me. “Transparent” depicts a culturally Jewish, yet non-religious family dealing with the patriarch’s revelation he is transgender. He has three grown children and an ex-wife played by the actually Jewish, Judith Light. Ms. Light does an extraordinary job of portraying the mother as authentically neurotic as my mother (sometimes I cringed when her acting hit so close to home). Yet, I started to get annoyed by her overuse of Yiddish words. She used “oy gevalt”, “fakakta”, and “mashugana” in one sentence (or some variant of those). It seemed overkill. Almost like a schtick to get laughs (pardon my Yiddish).
I loved the scene when the rabbi, Raquel, played by Kathryn Hahn (who isn’t Jewish but should be) has a conniption as the eldest daughter, Sarah, tries to prepare a makeshift seder. Raquel saw through Sarah’s quest for spirituality through Judaism as a sham and blows up at her, rightfully so. Her outburst was one of the most genuine reflections on Judaism in the show.
Although there are moments of Jewish cliches in the series, they do show holidays and traditions up close. I believe the religious facets are part of the story development, unlike some of the other series out there. I offer my advice to sitcom writers – ask yourself are the main characters purposely Jewish to create a well developed and nuanced character or a vessel for easy jokes? I don’t want to feel used by these writers the way Cindy from “Orange is the New Black” uses Judaism to get better food in prison.
A Jewish family at the holidays – a matter of time before the fighting begins.
Seriously, is there a Jewish Renaissance on TV or a ploy for cheap laughs? It just seems like it’s a more popular gag and people are getting on the bandwagon. Oh! The Jew thing works! Most shows focus on the Jewish kvetching and neurosis. Maybe I need to watch more television (although my waistline says “I think not”) to find a sitcom that incorporates the culture and traditions. Comedies thrive on neurotic characters. Perhaps that’s why writers are naturally attracted to that personality type and Jews seem to have a monopoly on that market.
I’m not sure if I’m offended or simply more curious about Hollywood’s interest in Jewish-ness. When I get curious about intentions, I tend to wander towards a negative train of thought which make me a skeptic. Oh, how Jewish of me!
While I don’t balk at exaggerating stereotypes for the sake of comedy, it would be nice to see more than just exaggerated stereotypes. It would be nice to see Judaism develop character and plot and not just be used to increase ratings.
You could say, I am slightly guilty of this ploy in my own web series, Mile High Nancy. In episode five my on screen mother is nagging me about finding a Jewish doctor before I’m all dried up and undesirable. In my defense, however, it was hardly an exaggeration. You’ll have to meet her.