Intermarriage on Television

Intermarried Jews became very common on television in the 1990s.

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

As far as Jews are concerned, intermarriage has been the predominant theme of the 1990s. The trend toward mixed couplings of Jews on TV sets Jewish romance apart from those of many other racial and ethnic groups.

So pervasive has been intermarriage and interdating on television that it has been virtually impossible to find a Jewish couple anywhere on the screen. When the intermarriage rate in the population at large hovers around 50 percent, on television it is well over 95 percent, and growing. While most interfaith marriages or romances have been between Jewish men and non-Jewish women, two reverse couplings occurred during the 1997-98 season. 

mad about you

Mad About You featured
an intermarried couple.

On CBS's The Nanny, Fran Fine finally trapped her man, her blueblood employer, Mr. Sheffield, while over on ABC, the dippy Dharma Finkelstein married preppy WASP lawyer Gregory Montogomery. These plots may indicate that Jewish women now have the same right to marry non-Jews as do Jewish men, but they do not signal a triumph for the Jewish family.

Romantic Jewish Women

Only rarely is a specifically Jewish woman portrayed romantically on TV shows, as for example the character Elaine, the former girlfriend of Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, who appears in one episode merely to free Fleischman from the constraints of his New York past.

In a few Seinfeld episodes, Jerry dated an observant Jewish woman named Rachel whom Jerry's friend George tricks into unknowingly eating lobster. Examples of Jewish-Jewish romances are also infrequent, although there are a few older married couples (the parents of Paul Buchman in Mad About You, or Seinfeld's parents, or the Costanzas, as hidden Jews) whose portrayal does not suggest much joy in their unions. What in fact would happen if Jewish men and women would become each other's love interest, asks one critic. "Would the television explode in fireworks of obsession, compulsion and sharp conversation?"

Critics have given a variety of reasons for the current focus on intermarriage. First, shows that are "too Jewish" and, by extension, families that are "too Jewish" will have limited audience appeal-think Brooklyn Bridge. "What better way to provide cover for a character's Jewishness," writes one observer, "than to give him a non-Jewish mate?"

Second, the demography of TV Jews reflects the marriage patterns of the largely Jewish male group of producers, writers, and directors who develop these shows. Third, cultural clash and conflict, like that between Jews and non-Jewish spouses and lovers, create tension and heighten viewer interest. Television intermarriages thus become convenient-some say essential-plot devices that focus useful attention on the divisions and conflicts inherent in all marriages, not solely those based on religious background.

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Joyce Antler

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