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.

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.

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