Oy Gevalt: An examination of how modern TV normalizes and secularizes Judaism

NOSELL

HBO

 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 7:02pm

The first time I really felt like I saw myself — or rather, my Jewish identity — on TV was in the 2003 Disney Channel Original movie, “Full Court Miracle.” The story centered on Alex Schlotsky (Alex D. Linz, “Max Keeble’s Big Move”), the young, precocious leader of an inept Jewish basketball team, who recruits an ex-college basketball star to be their coach.  

At the time of its release, everything about this movie screamed modern day Jewish culture to me. Alex’s reticence to learn Hebrew spoke to my own struggle with understanding the intricacies of the language. The predominantly Jewish city of Philadelphia, my dad’s hometown, felt like a perfect backdrop for the story. Jewish lingo and rituals were exchanged among characters, and above everything, the Eight Days of Hanukkah made for a clever storytelling framework. And in typical Disney fashion, the climax of the film saw the mighty young Jewish defeating their much more imposing opponents, mirroring the victory of Judah and the Maccabees against the Hellenists from the actual Hanukkah origin story.

Even though I had seen these themes and images explored before in other TV movies like the “Rugrats” Passover and Hanukkah specials, there was something different about “Full Court Miracle.” Unlike “Rugrats,” “Full Court Miracle” wasn’t a simple retelling of Jewish oppression in the Bible. It captured the spirit of Jewish culture by interweaving it into a regular, underdog story. Through normalizing Judaism, TV helped validate my identity.   

Since “Full Court Miracle,” television has continued to broaden and unfold the complexity of the Jewish community beyond religious holidays like Hanukkah. Current shows like Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and Amazon’s “Transparent,” both starring, written and created by Jews, each have their distinctive depiction of Jewish life and culture, but they both encapsulate the essence of modern day Judaism through the mannerisms of their characters.

On “Broad City,” best friends Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson, “BoJack Horseman”) and Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer, “The Night Before”) engage in their Jewish identity in a way that, more or less, reflects the current state of non-practicing, more culturally attuned Jews in America. They have difficulty fasting on Yom Kippur, attempt to go on a Birthright-like trip  to Israel and face distractions while sitting Shiva. Since the show caters toward such a wide, diverse young audience, these moments help shift misperceptions of Jews in the entertainment industry, portraying them as vibrant and care-free as every other young adult.  

As a much more explicitly Jewish alternative to “Broad City,” “Transparent” also finds a way to show Jews as ordinary members of society while recognizing the religious aspects of their identities. In each of its four seasons, “Transparent” explored the rich, complicated history behind the rich, complicated Pfefferman family. The show’s beginning skimmed the surface of modern Jewish family life. It introduced a rabbi character (Kathryn Hahn, “I Love Dick”) and depicted scenes of a Shabbat dinner and an unsuccessful preparation for youngest child Ali’s (Cleo Fraser, “Chronic”) Bat Mitzvah. The second season expanded on the first season’s religious themes, tracing Maura’s transgender identity all the way back to her aunt Gittel (Hari Nef, “Let Me Die a Nun”) in Nazi-controlled Europe.

The third and fourth seasons took on more current issues in the Jewish community, covering topics ranging from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to synagogue bureaucracy. Though the show occasionally drifts into problematic territory — the Pfefferman matriarch Shelly (Judith Light, “Ugly Betty”) plays into the Jewish mother stereotype almost to a fault — “Transparent” is a standard example of how modern day Jews navigate the everyday world, confronting the traumas of their own history in order to come to terms with their present.  

In contrast to the relatively accurate representations of Jews in “Broad City” and “Transparent,” other Jewish-themed shows like HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Hulu’s “Difficult People” — both of which are also starring, written and created by Jews — have a tendency to make Jews seem unlikable.

“Curb” creator and star Larry David is no stranger to causing controversy among the Jewish community, given his sardonic, neurotic humor and pointed, sometimes offensive observations on Jewish culture. While his most popular work, “Seinfeld,” was a huge success and a primary catalyst for Jewish representation on TV, David reinforces the worst possible tropes of Jews on “Curb.” He yells at crying widows at funerals to shut up, chastises unruly children and their overbearing parents during Passover seders and doodles Swastikas in textbooks. Then again, David make fun of himself throughout the show  — a character calls him a “self-hating Jew,” and David responds, “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.”  

Hulu’s “Difficult People,” too, satirizes some absurd facets of Jewish culture. Billy Eichner (“American Horror Story: Cult”) and Julie Klausner (“Bob’s Burgers”) play two struggling writers who constantly make fun of other people, as well as their own Jewish heritage. The two venture to Friday night services as an excuse to network with Jews in the entertainment industry, make Adolf Hitler a character in their TV pitch to NBC and attempt to avoid their stereotypically insufferable Jewish families. Similar to “Broad City,” “Difficult People” tackles various trends in Jewish life and the increasing disillusionment toward religious practice among Jews today, though arguably to a much more provocative and exaggerated degree.   

Despite how these four shows differ in their views toward Judaism, they each incorporate an honest depiction of Jewish life. In some ways, the stereotypes in “Difficult People” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” do illuminate some truths about the attitudes and beliefs of Jews today, but they don’t always get at the root of what makes Judaism so complex and compelling like in “Broad City” and “Transparent.” Part of what makes TV so entertaining as a medium is being able to not only see ourselves portrayed on-screen, but also to see the subtle nuances of our identities in those portrayals.