Religion on Television: Negative Portayals

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

Print this page Print this page

Is Religion Funny?

"Religion is funny" agrees Matt Stone, co-creator of the animated show South Park, which includes an identifiably Jewish third-grader, Kyle Broslovski, whose father wears a yarmulke. Several episodes have focused on Jewish themes, including the well-known "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo"- where a lonely Kyle spends Christmas singing the dreidel song and his friends learn that "Jewish people can be cool" and "Ike's Wee," a show about Kyle's brother's bris, in which Kyle's friends wind up wanting brises of their own. In addition to these cartoon themes, Jewish religious characters are sometimes shown as attractive and engaging.

One example was the character of Ben Rubenstein, Vicki's husband on Suddenly Susan. While the relationship between Vicki and Ben briefly pointed to a new development in portraying religious Jews as lovers, another episode of Suddenly Susan presented a young, attractive, but quite oversexed female cantor who dated a non-Jewish character on the show. When alone, the cantor enticed him into sex, only to break out into a Hebrew-esque operatic (her Hebrew is unintelligible and only by circumstance and intonation do we recognize it as a prayer). These sexual exploits caused her to lose her voice before a very important weekend at her temp le. Although she is portrayed as a regular person, not at all stiff and formal, the cantor's sexual desire, and her relationship with this non-Jewish male, thus affects her ability as a religious leader.

Religion in a Serious Light

A few shows have explored Jewish religion, or a character's spiritual nature, in a more serious manner. Northern Exposure, for example, held a seder in Cicely, Alaska, with the townspeople of this multicultural community helping Dr. Joel Fleischman explore "the existential questions of the universe, including his relationship to his own religion and culture." According to Robin Green, co-executive producer and writer, "Jewish rituals were very much a part of Dr. Fleischman's character, and that's how he expressed himself Jewishly."

More New York--than Jewish-identified at the outset of the show, Fleischman searched to adapt as a stranger to a new community and is aided by his exploration of his own religious background. "We wanted Joel [Fleischman] to have a direct experience of the Almighty" adds producer Andrew Schneider. "We wanted him to go on a journey, to tear down boundaries and view God in an all-embracing way." While there were no inherent religious motives for Fleischman, his Jewishness---enhancing the original "fish out of water" theme--grew integrally out of the character, making him "the most complex Jewish character" ever presented on network TV, according to some critics.

Other well-received treatments of Jewish religious themes were the character Michael Steadman in thirtysomething; an episode about a mother's unveiling, complete with rabbi and the recital of Kaddish at the cemetery, on Relativity; episodes called "Kaddish" on both Homicide and The X-Files, and the wonderful bar mitzvah episode of The Wonder Years, in which the bar mitzvah of the lead charac ter Kevin's best friend, Paul Pfeiffer, shown as rooted in meaningful family and religious tradition, causes Kevin to ask quest ions about his own family's roots and beliefs.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Joyce Antler

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