TV’s New Prop: Jewishness

Suddenly, Judaism’s accoutrements, if not Jewish characters, are plentiful. What’s behind the trend?

A gang of ne’er-do-wells is sitting in a Queens Judaica warehouse, spinning dreidels as they plan the perfect heist. A physician in Seattle guides a bereaved colleague through the intricacies of sitting shiva. Juvenile gangsters in Los Angeles make a statement by tattooing Hebrew letters on their chests.

The catch? None of the abovementioned characters, collected from some of today’s trendiest television programs and films, are Jewish.

The would-be burglars, stars of ABC’s new sitcom “The Knights of Prosperity,” are Irish, Italian, black, Latino and Indian. The doctor, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), is the Korean-American star of the hit show “Grey’s Anatomy”; the rituals of Jewish mourning, she explains to her non-Jewish colleagues, were taught to her by her stepfather, whom she only sees on Yom Kippur.

Similarly, the L.A. gangsters aren’t Jewish either, at least not in any discernible fashion; the protagonists of the critically acclaimed film “Alpha Dogs,” starring pop prince Justin Timberlake, adorn their bodies with the Alef Bet, we are led to believe, simply because it’s cool.

Call it the Madonnafication of television: Like the diva’s much-covered foray into Jewish mysticism, a step that propelled everyone from Britney Spears 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.

It’s part of what might be termed the Third Wave of Televised Jews. With television writers and producers, many of whom are Jewish, initially wary of creating Jewish characters, Jews on TV enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 1990s, when such members of the Tribe as Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and David Schwimmer were free to be Semitic on prime time. Now, however, while Jewishness is still in, Jews are no longer mandatory.

But are Dr. Yang’s mourning, or the gangster’s lair, signs of a serious embrace of Judaism in pop culture, or merely an inclusive nod in an increasingly multicultural television environment?

Such visual signifiers, said David Zurawik, the television critic for The Baltimore Sun and the author of “The Jews of Prime Time,” a comprehensive historical review of Jewish characters on American television, operate as powerful though often shallow markers.

“They are superficial markers,” he said, “but they have assumed such a shared sense that you can now put them in a mass medium and everybody will recognize them instantly, and they will lend a certain kind of cool cache to the character who wears them.”

Still, Zurawik and others agree that the new, and by all means still elusive, trend is more multifaceted than meets the eye.

“I think there are two ways of looking at it,” said David Marchese, a writer for the online magazine Salon who has written extensively about Jews and pop culture. “One way is to see such gags- – the lackluster Knights of Prosperity and their dreidels, for example –as harmless empty signifiers. The show would have worked just as well if the gang was in an Irish factory, playing with shamrocks instead. The Jewish thing just tickled their funny bone a bit better.”

But fun aside, Marchese added, there may be another, more urbane side to the sudden influx of all things Jewish.

“Jewish culture is seen as urban culture,” he said, “and there’s a sophistication here, an association with city living and urban culture that comes from using Yiddishisms and referencing Jewish culture.”

Enter “The Class.” CBS’ new sitcom, created by some of the producers behind the dearly departed “Friends,” follows the lives of several 20-something young professionals living in Philadelphia who reunite nearly two decades after they all attended the same third-grade class. Although none of the characters is openly Jewish, and only one has a last name, Ellenbogen, that suggests a Jewish background, they still nonetheless use Yiddishisms liberally, shlepping and kvetching and kvelling to their heart’s content.

Such lingual flow, said Marchese, may suggest that “‘The Class’? classmates are haunted by the ghosts of Jewish comedians past and present, from George Burns to Woody Allen, using “connotations and significations” readily and instantly associated with Jewish wit and worldliness.

And yet, one question is unavoidable: Why now? What changes in the climate of the zeitgeist occurred to bring about the sudden storm of Jewishness? Several of the aforementioned shows’ creators, approached by The Jewish Week, declined to comment. But Marchese suggested the ultimate Jewish answer: hatred of Jews.

“It’s easy to argue that anti-Semitism is at a higher level nowadays,” he 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.”

Forward-thinking, and cool, too; the dreidel is not only a more poignant prop than the cross, but, said Marchese, a more exotic one as well.

“It’s easy to forget, especially for us in New York, that the actual number of Jews in the United States is extremely small,” he said. “Therefore, there’s just a faint whiff of exoticism you can get using a Jewish emblem that you’re not going to get with, say, a shamrock, because there are Irish people all over America.”

Other examples from television abound: A blond, blue-eyed contestant on VH1’s reality show “I Love New York” trying to score cool points by hinting that his refusal to attend church services may have to do with his being Jewish (he is not); Michael, the clueless boss on NBC’s “The Office,” entertaining Indian guests at a Diwali celebration by singing a Hindu-centric version of Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song, implying, however subtly, that comparison with Jews is the greatest compliment one could pay to an ethnic minority; and in the hospital sitcom “Scrubs,” a menorah made of ice materialized as a background prop more than once, a Jewish spin on a largely forgotten 1980s cartoon called “Wonder Twins” meant to reference the otherwise unmentioned Jewishness of Zack Braff’s character.

“I don’t know that I can say there was any direct intention to cash in on anything Jewish,” said an ABC executive familiar with both productions who wished to remain unnamed. “But this is the way it often goes; the creative people tap into something in the culture without even knowing it.”

That “something,” say some observers, is not distinctly Jewish but rather convenient shorthand for multiculturalism. Take, for example, Dr. Yang and her friends on “Grey’s Anatomy.” The show has been widely hailed as featuring one of the more diverse casts ever seen on network television: Its fictitious Seattle Grace Hospital has a black chief surgeon, senior surgeon and senior resident, as well as a mostly female staff that includes a Latina and an Asian woman.

Make that quasi-Asian; while the show’s Dr. Yang is Korean, she seldom references her ethnic identity without acknowledging that her stepfather is Jewish, and that the few rituals she does observe are those of the Chosen People.

And while it might be nice to see Oh, who recently won the Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Dr. Yang, talk Jewish, the gesture, to some, seems empty.

“I think that it’s a gesture toward multiculturalism that may or may not be kind of shallow,” said Willa Paskin, a New York-based writer and a television aficionado. Dr.Yang’s pseudo-Jewishness, she added, “is inclusive. It’s a shout-out to everything. The same goes for ‘Knights of Prosperity’ – they have a Latina, a black man, an Indian, all very diverse. On ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ the Jewish girl is Asian. It’s almost kind of absurd.”

The drive to represent as many cultures and ethnicities as possible, Paskin said, might result in meaninglessness. Just look, she suggested, at the cast of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“You have everyone there, and everyone is different, but they never talk about it,” she said. “For a place where everyone looks different, it’s a very racially harmonious place.”

In such an environment, she said, having Jewish motifs is not necessarily a signifier of cool, but rather another ingredient that gets lost in the multicultural stew.

“So Yang sits shiva,” Paskin said. “It’s nice, but it doesn’t mean anything. The Judaism of it isn’t important at all. It’s just a nice way to mourn.”

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