Religion on Television: Negative Portayals

When religion is brought up on television, Judaism is more often than not portrayed in a negative light.


Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Television tends to depict Jewishness in secular, cultural terms rather than focus on any religious dimensions of Jewish identity. Although this in itself is neither surprising nor necessarily problematic, what has troubled members of the Jewish community is the frequent ridicule with which religious themes and characters are portrayed when they do become subjects of TV shows.

A case in point are Seinfeld episodes that depicted a rabbi and a mohel in decidedly unflattering and–according to many observers–“intolerable” ways. The mohel episode (“The Bris” Oct. 14, 1993), showed a mohel per forming a brit milah in a manner that one reviewer called a “cruel caricature.”

matt stone and trey parker

The creators of South Park have covered
Judaism on their show numerous times.
Courtesy of ensceptico.

Jonathan and Judith Pearl, who find that Seinfeld has been unfunny, and even hostile, on Jewish issues, described the episode as “tasteless, humorless, and embarrassingly bad: if one could imagine the notorious wedding scene of Goodbye Columbus combined with a scene from Woody Allen at his self-disparaging worst, all transformed to a brit milah, this would be it.” But Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer disagrees. “It’s a funny idea to have a mohel who’s jittery…It’s not making fun.”

Two years after presenting the mohel as a “greedy, whiny shlepper,” a Seinfeld episode introduced a new character, Rabbi Kirschbaum, whose “nervy mannerisms and conduct unbecoming a spiritual Leader” as one critic described it, resulted in over 100 angry calls to the Anti-Defamation League. The story line involved Jerry’s friend Elaine, who seeks counsel from the rabbi, her neighbor, to deal with some problems that have made her depressed.

Played by Bruce Mahler after a character he developed in his comedy act, the rabbi listens to Elaine’s problems but then betrays her confidence with other neighbors, Elaine’s friends, and then later on his cable talk show. Seinfeld’s sister and manager, Carolyn Seinfeld, replied to those who protested the depiction that no harm was meant and that “the greatest Jewish tradition is to laugh. The cornerstone of Jewish survival has always been to find humor in life and ourselves.” The show’s defenders do not believe that Seinfeld is “self-hatingly Jewish,” in the words of Tom Shales, writing in the Washington Post; they argue, instead, that it is an equal-opportunity offender of many different kinds of groups.

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Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.

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