Judaism according to Hollywood and Netflix

Ever since I reclaimed my spiritual birthright as a teenager, I’ve been very annoyed (to say the least!) at how Jewish characters and Judaism are depicted on the vast majority of TV shows and films. Historically, it’s pretty rare for a film not about the Shoah to depict the religious side of Judaism as The Jazz Singer (seen above) does. While the film clearly champions a secular identity over a religious one, it doesn’t denigrate religiosity as 100% incompatible with modern life either.

Jewish subjects on film in the silent era frequently played on ugly antisemitic stereotypes, but there were occasional positive depictions, such as Hungry Hearts (1922), based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives; a few early D.W. Griffith shorts; and the German Golem trilogy (of which only the last installment is known to survive in full).

Unfortunately, many Jewish characters are played by non-Jews, and 99.9% of the time they’re Ashkenazic (of Central and Eastern European descent) and therefore white-presenting. This feeds harmful stereotypes and disgusting slanders, like claiming we just Magically appeared out of thin air in 18th century Poland and later immigrated en masse to the Middle East as part of a white supremacist, colonialist project.

No acknowledgment at all of how we’re an ethnoreligious tribe indigenous to Israel, with a continual presence tracing back thousands of years! Nor do these Ashkenazocentric portrayals depict the full rainbow of Jewish peoplehood. Eighty percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrachim, from North Africa and the Middle East. And even white-skinned Ashkenazim aren’t ethnically European.

There are also Sephardim, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians, Romaniotes (Greeks), Ethiopians (who completely disprove the racist lie that all Jews are white!), Persians, Indians, and so many other Diaspora communities.

It’s not as though there are barely any Jewish actors, the way it’s difficult to find real disabled people to play disabled roles. But more often than not, a Jewish character is played by yet another Gentile actor.

Fictional Jewish families are also almost always intermarried, secular, and assimilated, unless the film is about the Shoah. Then it’s okay, because most of them will be dead by the end anyway. There’s a reason Dara Horn titled her 2021 essay collection People Love Dead Jews.

Nowhere in the majority of Hollywood and Netflix productions do we find a warm, accurate, nuanced, sensitive depiction of Jewish life. People are either secular and assimilated or cartoonishly stereotyped members of an ultra-Orthodox enclave, from which some poor oppressed woman is desperate to escape so she can achieve liberation with bikinis, high heels, crotch-high skirts, and lots of casual sex.

Never mind the fact that many women have made the conscious, educated choice to leave the secular world for Orthodoxy! I’ve known so many Orthodox women, and they’re not at all oppressed, unhappy, or abused. There are legit criticisms of the more extreme corners of the Orthodox world, but even the fanatics who do things like throw rocks at men and women praying together at the Western Wall are NOT representative of the majority of people in those communities.

If there is an Orthodox character in a non-Shoah story, odds are s/he’s portrayed as an out of touch bigot who needs to learn a lesson and become dutifully secular and assimilated, or accept intermarriage as the modern American way. The world Jewish population still hasn’t recovered from the Shoah, due in huge part to intermarriage and assimilation!

And speaking of intermarriage, the real-life statistic is only about 33%, NOT the constantly bandied about 52% figure. There were significant flaws in the data collection of that survey. But according to Hollywood, it’s 99%! There’s also the storyline that makes me cringe every time, “Ooh, I’m getting married, I have to convert!” Cue a quicky, insincere conversion and Judaism never being mentioned again in any serious way.

The obligatory Chanukah episode falsely portrays this holiday as a Jewish Christmas, though it’s a minor holiday and only rose to prominence as a way for people to demonstrate they were just as American as their neighbors in postwar suburbia. There might be an episode with a Pesach Seder or mention of the High Holidays, but never will you find holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, or Purim, let alone fast days like Tisha B’Av.

Compare the nonsense of Hollywood and Netflix to Israeli shows and films like Shtisel and Srugim, where the full range of Jewish life is depicted honestly instead of being reduced to cheap stereotypes and offensive slander.

Why I love mechanical and early electronic televisions

(This is edited down and revised from a post I wrote for my old Angelfire website, probably around 2003. The non-public domain images are used to illustrate the subjects and are consistent with fair use doctrine.)

octagon

1928 General Electric television

To the untrained eye, antique TVs look like cabinets or radios with little glass screens. Thus, it’s suspected many more mechanical TVs exist than are accounted for in personal collections and museums. To date, there are at least 100.

About 7,000 early electronic televisions (1938–41) were made in the U.S.; 19,000 were made in Britain; and 1,600 were made in Germany. A handful were made in Italy, Russia, France, and The Netherlands. Altogether, there are about 200 verified, surviving American and British sets.

If you know what to look for, you might stumble across one of these beauties in an attic, a flea market, or an antiques shop.

first_picture

There were dozens of TV stations (all classified as experimental) from 1929–33, and again after broadcasting officially resumed on 30 April 1939. (However, the DuMont 180, the first electronic television, went on sale the year before). Most stations were in New York, Chicago, or New Jersey, with a few from states including Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Missouri.

Some stations were created by avid hobbyists and not credited as official experimental stations, but the frequency travelled for hundreds of miles. Thus, someone in the middle of nowhere could pick up signals from the nearest properly-equipped city.

Decades before TV Guide appeared, there were programming guides issued. Programming tended towards sports, music, variety, plays, and public speeches. Future President Herbert Clarke Hoover and Queen Mary of England also appeared on television in the late Twenties.

30line

Sample 1930 image

There were troubleshooting manuals, instructional guides, and how-to books for building one’s own television. In my second Russian historical, The Twelfth Time, Katrin’s husband Sandro assembles a television set during the annual summer-long vacation to a rented five-story cottage on Long Island in 1928. WRNY is the closest broadcasting station. The assembled viewers see a dancing puppet, followed by moving faces.

When the Konevs are quarantined on account of their children’s whooping cough some months later, Sandro sends over the materials for Ivan to assemble a television set for his own family. My Atlantic City characters, many of whom are rich, also have television sets during this era.

1931_Picture_goes_Blooey

The 1932 Jenkins Universal Receiver (which needed a TV set to go along with it) cost $79.50, and came with a set of eight matched DeForest tubes. It only provided “the sound and electrical signal to drive a separate R-400 display unit,” which “housed a motor-driven pinhole scanning disc and neon lamp.”

1932_Jenkins_Ad

A second universal television receiver from Jenkins was billed at $69.50 for the tubes and $13.45 for the tube equipment. Another 1932 television, from Hollis Baird, cost $39.50 for the entire get-up.

baird_ad

Early electronic televisions tended to be much more expensive, such as the $595 top-of-the-line model from Andrea. This beauty featured a phonograph and radio. Andrea’s cheapest sets started at $80.

andrea

DuMont models were $395 and $435. RCA went from $199.50–$600. Chicago’s Western Television Co.’s gorgeous 1929 model, with a 17-inch scanning disc (pictured below), cost $88.25 for the basic kit, another $20 for the actual cabinet, $85 for the companion receiver, and $20 for the consolette table. Also known as an echophone, between 250–300 were made, “probably more than any other mechanical set in the U.S.” At least 20 have been accounted for.

visionette-hd

Mechanical television ultimately failed because of the poor picture quality. Often the reception suffered from fading and ghosting, and only hobbyists and the rich had time for it. With early electronic TV, it was both the high price and the abrupt halt to the television industry caused by the war. However, injured GIs had TV in their hospitals.

rawls

Some other beautiful models I’d love to have:

dumont_180-hd

1939 DuMont 180. At least six are verified.

rca_60_line-hd

RCA 60-line, early Thirties. At least five are accounted for.

dumont_183-hd

1941, DuMont 183. At least five have been verified.

jenkins_jd30-hd

1932 Jenkins receiver kit. At least two have survived.

Baird_Televisior-hd

Model 26 Televisor, Baird receiver (1929–32, England). At least three have been accounted for.

Early Television Foundation and Museum
Television History
The Dawn of TV

Do you like antique TVs? Do you own any? Have you seen any in person? If you had one, would you attempt to restore it, or just use it for decoration?

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