Intermarriage on Television

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

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Diverse Attitudes

In their detailed analysis of intermarriage on television, Jonathan and Judith Pearl observe that the history of interfaith couplings on TV reflects diverse attitudes-"both vehemence against and praise for it"; almost always, however, intermarriage is presented "within a Jewish framework" and as a problematic issue that must be dealt with. They cite several dramatic shows, e.g., thirtysomething, in which an intermarried Jewish character begins to explore his religious identity, particularly after the birth of a child, often ending in a "kind of return to Judaism." Sometimes, conversion of the non-Jewish partner is an option.

The Pearls see the prevalence of interfaith couples on TV as a mirror of the social milieu, and conclude "that intermarriage as it appears on television is not negative in and of itself, given its widespread existence in reality." Indeed, they feel that the many TV presentations of the issue have become "a dynamic part of the ongoing debate on this vital issue."

Despite this positive effect, because the rate of television intermarriage is nearly double that of real life intermarriage, the cumulative effect of such portrayals is more dramatic, and damaging, than may first appear. Television shows need not replicate the exact demographic, economic, and social patterns of the real world; nevertheless, the medium forecloses creative options by making intermarriage ubiquitous.

Because it is almost impossible to find any love relationship between young Jews, both men and women absorb negative messages about each other's attractiveness and appeal. Moreover, while the dramatic shows that the Pearls cite might offer a hopeful vision by provoking characters to reconsider their Jewish identity, the same is not generally true of sitcoms, where there has usually been little consideration of the impact of the intermarriage on the Jewish partner's religious or cultural identity.

There are some indications that the formulaic plot of interdating and intermarriage is expanding into new directions. Examples include the final episode of The Nanny in the spring of 1998, when Fran finally married her employer in a wedding conducted by a rabbi and minister and replete with Jewish customs; a Christmas episode of Frasier where the non-Jewish lead character dates an attractive, intelligent Jewish woman, Faye Moskowitz (Amy Brenneman), whose quarrel with her mother points to the underlying strength of Jewish mother-daughter bonds; and an episode of Dharma & Greg the same season that depicted a multicultural bris-with rabbi, minister, and Native American shaman.

But cliched intermarriage shows continue to be introduced- a recent but fortunately short-lived one was You're the One, a Warner Brothers sitcom about a newly engaged couple consisting of a young woman from an ultraconservative Southern family whose fiancé is a Jewish man from a liberal background. And while the Kathy Griffin character, Vicki, on Suddenly Susan, seemed to be a "historic breakthrough," in the view of one observer, since Vicki began to explore, and deepen, her own Jewish identity after her romance with and marriage to a rabbi on the show, the possibility of an enduring prime-time relationship between two vital Jews was dashed with the TV rabbi's fatal heart attack.

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Joyce Antler

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