MTV’s Yadda Yadda sisterhood

Omigod, it’s, like, the story of the summer. It all started in April, during the spring quarter at UC Davis. The scene is a rush event for the fledgling Jewish sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi. A heretofore unknown presence on campus, the 4-year-old, 35-member sorority had adopted a policy of nonexclusivity, inviting the few interested girls each quarter to join the mostly Jewish organization.

But this time around, dozens of blonde and belly-baring upperclassmen had expressed interest in becoming a Sigma sister. Why is this quarter different from all other quarters?

The answer can be gleaned from three letters, that, depending on your perspective (read: age), incite love or loathing: MTV. The Sigma house was anointed by the youth culture-maker to be featured in the reality-based series "Sorority Life," which debuted on the network late last month. The show, created by Sergio Myers, documents the "real life" of six pledges, handpicked to live in a plush (and paid-for) pledge house and "make the journey from rush to initiation," according to the MTV Web site.

The show, filmed during 10 weeks in the spring, centers much of its plot on — surprise! — the girls’ bitchiness and astounding abilities to booze it up. But it has also sparked a surprising debate on Jewish identity politics, as sisters quiz potential members on their Jewishness, ask themselves if it matters and prompt viewers to criticize the whole notion of seeming Jewish exclusivity.

The girls wear tight tank tops and high-voltage makeup. They badmouth each other; they down shots; they dance on pool tables, and when alcohol is banned by the no-fun pledge marms, they hide vodka in the trunks of their cars. True to MTV style, the show features an endless stream of images, from homemade waterslides to thong shots to soccer balls flying and, oh yes, students studying.

Since the filming of "Sorority Life" ended and the kegs have been kicked, the girls have spawned the wrath of many in sleepy Davis. The word on the street is that the splash of glamour the girls have brought to town has driven up bar prices. Viewers, too, are tsk-tsking yet another public display of tight-torso titillation worthy of "Girls Gone Wild."

But most significantly — and perhaps inadvertently — MTV has flipped the whole Jew-as-the-other thing on its head.

Most Jewish sororities and fraternities were founded in the early decades of the last century, at a time when Jews were readily and deliberately excluded from Greek life on college campuses. Now, however, with assimilation all but complete, "Sorority Life" presents an ironic plot twist in which Jews hold the power and would-be sisters are jockeying for a seat at the table — or, at least, a shot for the 15-minutes of fame which MTV provides.

The first episode features the Sigma sisters worrying over the fate of their sorority’s future: Do they continue to accept anyone interested, even if there is another obvious lure? And how many "others" can the girls accept before the Jewish identity of the house is lost completely?

An example: Candace, a bubbly, party-hearty blonde, is shown on camera dishing to her roommate that she "felt like a dumbass" when she "found out last night that they don’t believe that Jesus was God’s son." Yikes.

Indeed, Pauli, the 19-year-old assistant rush chair, summed up the feeling of a large contingent of the house when she declared "Some of these girls aren’t right."

The wrath on an MTV message board was immediate and vengeful. Pauli was roundly accused of being a "bitch" by viewers. Accusations flew that the sorority was hateful and racist, despite the fact that they invited a non-Jewish majority to pledge the house.

Most awful of all, say observers, was that the sisters asked would-be pledges directly, "Are you Jewish?"

But Rachel, 22, the sorority’s rush chair, told Joe Eskenazi of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California that the portrayal is unfair. "It’s not true that if we find out you’re not Jewish we won’t talk to you," said Rachel, who like other sorority members won’t release her last name to the media due to security concerns. "If you’re not Jewish that’s OK, as long as you understand that this is a Jewish sorority and we’ll be doing Jewish things. If you’re interested in learning, that’s perfectly fine."

Between five and eight of the sorority’s 46 members are non-Jewish, Leah, 22, its president, told the Bulletin.

Sigma founding president Alycia Seaman, a 24-year-old administrative assistant for Camp Ramah in Los Angeles, told The Jewish Journal the show’s controversial scenes are "being created through cut-and-paste tactics. Words and images … are being twisted because MTV needs someone to be the bitch."

Seaman believes the house is being depicted out of context: "The sorority filled a hole in the UC Davis Jewish community," the 2001 Davis graduate said. "There wasn’t anything like it when I arrived on campus as a freshman, and as someone who grew up in the Valley and lived an openly Jewish life … I was lacking the level of comfort that organizations like it back home allowed me. Now I hear [the sorority’s] racist or ‘it’s elitist’ or …’why is it relevant today’ when in fact, we’ve … accepted non-Jewish members dating all the way back to when it was founded, and proven its relevance by its ability to consistently attract members who want a college sisterhood experience with a Jewish emphasis."

According to the "Sister Statement" on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi Web site, their house was chosen by MTV, in part, because it is new, has a small membership and "we are a local sorority and thus are capable of making all our own decisions independent of a national headquarters."

Indeed, in a nationally chartered sorority, asking the "are you Jewish" question "would just be totally unacceptable," said Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority –that’s Phi, not Pi. Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi sorority is a sister of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the national Jewish fraternity. The Davis chapter of Alpha Epsilon Phi closed in the early 1990s due to lack of interest, Wunsch said. As for the organization she represents, "Yes, we are a Jewish sorority. But we do not dictate the makeup of our membership beyond the fact that they understand that they’re joining a Jewish sorority and they need to honor and respect our heritage."

"’Sorority Life,’" Wunsch said, "is harmful to sororities in general." Even worse, she said, "I believe there will be a backlash against the Jewish religion and the Jews. I think it will be harmful. Hardest hit will be sororities with a Jewish affiliation."

MTV’s choice of a Jewish sorority "seems to be a convenient vehicle for conflict," said Dan Kurtzman, a San Francisco-based freelance writer and UC Davis alum. "From the outset, it creates a drama of sorts. It seems to highlight the issue of whether or not there’s something exclusionary going on."

The network’s treatment of the conflict does hint at a setup. After the first rush event, for example, pledge master Becca, 21, notes that although the interest of "pretty, tall, blonde" girls was "great, it was kind of different from the majority of the girls we have right now." Cut to shot of sorority president Leah’s message board, featuring a prominently displayed Star of David and photos of dark-haired girls.

MTV fan Debbie Nachmann, 24, was offended, too, by the sisters’ actions. "It comes off as these Jewish college students who are running this sorority are running this exclusive, Jews-are-better-than-non-Jews organization," the public relations associate said. "It makes them look shallow and superficial. It looks like they’re passing judgments on non-Jews."

Others were more pragmatic. "There’s different ways of looking at it," said Raphael Moore, president of the board of Hillel at the Davis and Sacramento campuses of the University of California. "If it’s an interest that the sorority has, I don’t see much different between that and asking a prospective member of a sorority that emphasizes nature or being vegetarian, ‘Are you or are you not?’ They want to have people with the same ideals, mission. In the case of Judaism, you can have that and not be Jewish. They’ve had non-Jewish members in the past."

According to Sigma materials, the purpose of the sorority is "to promote unity, support, and a Jewish awareness, as well as to provide a Jewish experience for ourselves, our members, and the community as a whole." Hillel rents the house to the sorority and is involved to the extent "all Jewish organizations on campus operate under the Hillel umbrella," Moore said.

"If the sorority stopped presenting the mission that Hillel has, then they won’t be funded by us," he added. As the plot of the show shifts away from Sigma’s Jewish identity and toward the wild antics of 21-year-old rushees Candace — who is not Jewish — and Jordan — who noted in the first episode that even though all of her grandparents are Jewish, she had a very secular upbringing — we’ll wait and see if the check is in the mail.

A Jewish ‘Sopranos’?

In my house last Sunday evening Tony Soprano easily defeated Anne Frank as “must-see TV.” Yes, even in the home of committed Jews, the rancid affairs of a New Jersey Mafia family beat out the young girl of the Holocaust. The question is, why?

All season long my friends and I, Jewish boomers, have followed and then avidly discussed the gangster Sopranos, whose patriarch, Tony (James Gandolfini) endures the slights of his own mother, suffers panic attacks and sees a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) while conducting his nefarious business at the Bada Bing Club.

For a week or two, after Dr. Melfi’s graphic rape and the particularly hideous murder of a pregnant prostitute by one of Tony’s low-lifes, we swore off watching the HBO series, protesting its gratuitous violence. But we came back, as did much of upscale America, in time to see Meadow Soprano’s gloomy affair with a Jewish African-American student and Uncle Junior’s struggle with chemotherapy.

It never occurred to me to forego the season finale, though I didn’t expect its competition to be an updated realistic portrait of the Jewish girl with the diary in which Anne’s father, Otto, is played by Ben Kingsley.

Yet after watching the conclusion of “Anne Frank” on ABC Monday night, a story that concludes with a heart-breaking descent into the concentration camp, I see the truth behind my own instincts. In such small choices we discern the changing nature of Jewish life and the meaning of our history in America today.

First, I was struck by the superficial similarities between the Frank and Soprano domestic situations.

The Franks are hidden from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic and soon are part of a new extended family, rife with suspicion, hysteria and misunderstanding. So too are the Sopranos in hiding, not only from the FBI and police but from non-Mafia Americans who might mistake their ethics; in their extended clan betrayal is the name of the game.

Otto Frank and his wife, Edith, don’t get along much better than Carmela and Tony. Anne is just as attracted to her attic-mate Peter as Meadow Soprano is to Jackie Jr., son of Tony’s late friend Jackie Aprile.

Otto is guilt-ridden over not getting his daughters to freedom. Tony, likewise, is beset with how his own crime career affects his wayward son, A.J.

Of course the Sopranos are fiction and guilty. The Franks are real and innocent. But those are not the telling differences. One is old-world drama fearing big government; the other is new-world drama, in which life’s problems come down to class and self.

Of course we must continue to retell the story of Anne Frank, as each generation learns the horror of the Holocaust and the death of innocents, with the caveat “never again.”

But if Anne Frank, great, sweeping and tragic as her story is, is the only story about Jews that TV understands, then we’ll all be victims of the remote control.

It’s not only out of respect to the Six Million that television continues to rely on Holocaust dramas for Jewish life, it’s a failure of nerve and the imagination. We can ask if our community would tolerate stories in which the Jewish religious world duels with the realities of government and/or business as the Sopranos must. The dearth of Jewish characters on television today suggests otherwise, that we have painted ourselves into a corner called self-righteousness.

Not so long ago, Isaac Bashevis Singer won a large audience by portraying the dramatic conflicts of the religious life, including the passions that push devout people to go over the line. His stories were populated by ghosts of destroyed Eastern European Jewish worlds, but they were deeply rooted in the now.

If we want to get to the contemporary moment, we have to be ready for the bombshells. Jewish crime did not end with “Once Upon a Time in America.” The newspapers tell us that we are not removed from the human dilemma: a rabbi is charged with a murder for hire; another is accused of sexual abuse; a religious husband traps his wife in a loveless marriage. Certainly we understand that commitment to a religious life does not end one’s fight with temptation, but in a way it only begins the battle. In our fictions we can know ourselves.

I’d love to see a weekly script dealing with the conflicts between an observant family and contemporary life. How do we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then handle labor negotiations? How does a patriarch, knowledgeable about the laws of Leviticus, control sexual jealousy? Last week, in the portion Behar, there is a warning about dealings in real estate, with the warning repeated, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God.” There’s a plot device right there.

Are we ready for a Jewish “Sopranos”?