Jewish Characters on TV: The Best of 2009

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There are lots of characters on TV that happen to be Jewish. Like the emergence of African Americans into mainstream American television in the 1960s, where many shows had a token black character, it now seems to be in vogue for every television show to have a token Jew. The following are the characters who in 2009 rose above the rest — the characters who, instead of merely being Jewish, did Jewish.

Ziva David, NCIS (CBS, Tuesdays 8 p.m.)

NCIS is the number one show on television these days. For some reason no one believes me when I tell them. Trust me, there’s good reason. Cote de Pablo‘s character, Ziva David, is no small part.

Ziva David started at NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) a few years ago as a liaison from the Mossad, where her father is the director. This year, after her partner Tony kills her boyfriend (a Mossad agent working in the US), Ziva returns to Israel in an episode call “Aliyah.” Her father questions whether she is loyal to the Mossad or NCIS and if it is even possible to work for both countries at the same time.

NCIS‘s entanglement with the Mossad began in 2004, but this year for the first time, questions of the relationship between America and Israel — and the dual loyalty that American Jews sometimes feel — were at front and center of the show.


Rachel Berry and Noah “Puck” Puckerson, Glee (Fox, Returning April 13, 2010)

Glee, the musical-comedy-drama following an Ohio high school’s show choir, has made a splash this fall.

From the get go, viewers were suspicious that Lea Michele‘s Rachel, the over-achieving star of the show choir and daughter of an interracial same-sex couple, was Jewish. This hunch was confirmed when Rachel vies for the spot of Maria in West Side Story, arguing that: Natalie Wood was a Jew, you know. I have had a deep, personal connection to this role since the age of one.

Noah “Puck” Puckerman (played by Mark Salling), the Mohawk-sporting football player also reveals his Jewishness, when he flashes back to his family’s annual Simchas Torah screening of Schindler’s List. He says, “It makes my mom feel connected to her Jewish roots.” While offering Puck some sweet and sour pork, his mom begs “Why can’t you date a Jewish girl?

Later that night Puck dreams that Rachel climbs into his window, wearing a massive Jewish star necklace. It’s not 24 hours later that the two are making out.

While this storyline was fantastically absurd, it expresses the very real pressures that young Jews face to date Jews. And I thought that the Puckerman’s holiday celebration might just be hyperbolic expression of the way families create new rituals.


Howard Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Mondays 9:30 p.m.)

The Big Bang Theory is quite possibly the funniest show on TV these days. Argue with me if you want. You will lose. One of the great characters on this ensemble sitcom is Simon Helberg‘s Howard Wolowitz. Wolowitz is a nerdy Jewish aerospace engineer, who lives with his overly stereotypical Jewish mother (at least vocally, we only know her through the things she yells to her son through his bedroom door).

Wolowitz is best described as a gastronomical Jew. When the price of moo shu pork from the group’s favorite Chinese restaurant increases, he complains, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a bad Jew.” His mother makes Turbriskafil every Thanksgiving–a turkey, stuffed with a brisket, stuffed with gefilte fish.

While some might scoff at a Jewish-food Jew, we at MyJewishLearning know that food can be a powerful force in shaping Jewish identity. Just ask the more than 33,000 people who receive our recipes e-letter every week.


Cyrus Rose, Gossip Girl (CW, Mondays 9 p.m.)

It’s somewhat surprising that there are no major Jewish characters on Gossip Girl, which calls itself the “one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.”

However, Blair Waldorf did gain a new Jewish stepfather, Cyrus Rose (played by Wallace Shawn). In the spring, Cyrus and his family and friends celebrated Passover, and the Jewish customs confused Eleanor Waldorf, Cyrus’ wife: I don’t even know how to say half the words in this prayer book named after Joe Lieberman’s wife. She’s informed, “She’s Hadassah. This is a Haggadah.”

While some people find the show superficial (they are wrong), its inclusion of one of the most popular Jewish rituals is significant. Even if it is in the outlandish Gossip Girl way.


Stevie Ray Botwin, Weeds (Showtime, Returning in 2010)

Weeds has had some heavily-Jewish plot lines in the past including a family sitting shiva and the quest of one man to enter rabbinical school (even if only to dodge the army). But this season we face Nancy Botwin’s pregnancy and her son’s subsequent bris, with an intermarriage twist.

Though the drug-dealing suburban mother of the newborn isn’t actually Jewish, her late husband was. And when she employs her former brother-in-law Andy to be the adoptive father, he demands a bris–complete with bagels and whitefish. “Wait, he’s Jewish now?” Nancy asks. Andy replies, “Reform, but yeah.”

Since neither of baby Stevie Ray’s parents are Jewish, his bris might seem a bit out of place. That being said, in today’s society the question of “who is a Jew?” is a growing complexity.

Posted on December 27, 2009

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4 thoughts on “Jewish Characters on TV: The Best of 2009

  1. Mitch

    Meredith does a great job of highlighting how these shows at once can entertain us and legitimately confront issues affecting Jewish people in American society. I hope more Jewish educators and rabbis will use these shows as jumping off points to engage their students in important discussions and learning about the issues Meredith pointed out. These shows are particularly powerful in their dealing with Jewish issues, as the characters exist in the not-all-Jewish world of America, like most American Jews. These shows and characters are also especially compelling for modern Jewish students of all ages and levels because they take place in contemporary America. For these reasons, these TV shows could be used as serious education tools in addition to shows and movies that are explicitly Jewish and more frequently used in Jewish educational settings (i.e. Fivel Goes West, Brooklyn Bridge, Northern Exposure).

  2. Meredith

    Mitch,
    Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful comments. We’d love to hear if you’re using these shows as educational tools!

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