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.