Jewish Series’ Successes Stave Off Complete Jew-Hatred

Who would have believed that Jews on TV would take so many minds off COVID-19?
August 13, 2020

If you’re searching for a consistent rhyme or reason behind anti-Semitism in the year 2020 — good luck. The breadth of violent incidents has been notably conspicuous. At the same time, Jews in popular culture have, arguably, never been this widely appreciated.

Go figure.


Television — mostly produced by the streaming services — has incubated a bounty of Jewish-themed programming, such as dramas “Unorthodox,” “Shtisel,” “The Plot Against America,” “Fauda” and “When Heroes Fly”; situation comedies including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Kominsky Method,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; and stand-up comedy in Tiffany Haddish’s “Black Mitzvah.”

While sheltering at home, millions have used this pandemic as an opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to observe Jewish life not stereotypically, but as authentic plot conceits. Who would have believed that Jews on TV would take so many minds off COVID-19?

“Unorthodox” and “Shtisel” concern ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Brooklyn, Jerusalem and Berlin. “Fauda” and “When Heroes Fly” depict elite Israeli commando units. The situation comedies are so unmistakably tribal, the actual Borsht Belt looks positively Episcopalian by comparison. “Maisel,” in fact, re-created the storied summer hotels and bungalow colonies where Jews once escaped the sweltering heat — but not one another.

A number of these shows dominated this year’s Emmy nominations—emmis!

Photo by Ohad Romano

Jews have always found success on the large and small screens but rarely, if ever, by playing Jews. Hollywood implicitly demanded Anglicized names and concealed ethnic identities.

Jews thrived playing gangsters, including did Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield; gladiators (Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis); space travelers (Harrison Ford, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy); cowboys (two of the four Cartwrights on “Bonanza” and half of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”); and screen temptresses (Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall).

The Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax may have refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, but no A-list Jewish actor dared to delay production on a feature film, no matter how much repentance he or she owed before the Book of Life got sealed.

Movies with Jewish themes, including “The Jazz Singer” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” ended happily — but only if you believed Jews should abandon their traditions. There’s a reason the “The Jazz Singer” wasn’t titled “The Cantor”; he wanted to swing in jazz clubs rather than sway at shul. And Jewish girls will invariably disappoint their fathers by marrying non-Jewish boys. Such are the concessions to modern life.

Nowadays, television has outed the once-undercover existence of authentic Jewish stories. The lives of Jews, acting as Jews, and even more provocatively, as Israelis, is officially binge-watchable. 

But how to reconcile all this adulation for Hollywood fiction when actual Jews are feeling more and more vulnerable while walking the streets where they live? It’s a paradox, but isn’t anti-Semitism the mother of all mind-boggling mysteries? After all, Jew-hatred always has been malleable, appropriate for any occasion — even if logically incoherent. Adolf Hitler spoke of Jews as if they were spellbindingly powerful, while at the same time reassuring Germany that they were lowly vermin.

Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism depicted Jews as conniving their ways into the mainstream, undetected. Quite a trick, since many believed Jews sported horns, tails, massive noses and mouths dripping with Christian blood. The powers of Christian detection are, apparently, very poor.

Some Muslims allege Jews or the Mossad (probably both) staged the 9/11 carnage, even as they celebrate that day as a momentous victory, bringing them one giant step closer to a caliphate.

What’s a conspiracy theory without Jews? At least one Southern pastor, Rick Wiles, believes the coronavirus was sweeping through synagogues across America as a punishment from God for “false religions.” One Jewish actress believes Israel had the vaccine all along, and is simply waiting until the infection rate will guarantee massive profits. 

Jews surely can’t feel safe these days. Instability comes from many directions. European Jewry experienced hideous acts of overt anti-SemitismChasidic Jews in America were targeted with violence. Synagogues in Los Angeles and Richmond, Va., were vandalized during some of the Black Lives Matter protests. Several Black sports and entertainment figures, and Jewish actress Chelsea Handler, favorably tweeted support for anti-Semitic cleric Louis Farrakhan.

Comedian-actor Seth Rogen’s solidarity with his people imploded when he pronounced that a Jewish state wasn’t such a great idea after all because Arabs have lived on the same land — a truth he claims was hidden. And just to prove that it isn’t just a poorly educated Jewish actor who believes Israel-bashing might be a beneficial career move, journalist and commentator Peter Beinart finally said what was really on his mind: It is time for Israel to call it quits as a Jewish state. Fortunately, he is able to reassure Israelis that Arabs will abandon their genocidal fantasies in joining a democratic binational state.

Apparently, the Middle East conflict finally has been solved from the Situation Room in Beinart’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Given all this anti-Semitic violence, scapegoating and backstabbing, how do we account for this golden age of Jews on television? These shows could have reinforced stereotypes about Jews and Israelis. Instead, they seem to be the only thing standing in the way of complete Jew-hating bedlam. The TV audience doesn’t need Netflix or Amazon as an excuse to hate Jews. Anti-Semitism, after all, goes way back — even before cable.

The cast of the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” at the 26th Annual SAG Awards. Terence Patrick/Getty Images

For those self-appointed deputies working incognito for the intersectional police, please don’t make a fuss that Rachel Brosnahan, who stars in “Maisel” as the Jewish nightclub comic, and John Turturro, who headlined “Plot” as a genteel Southern rabbi, are not Jewish. Jews do not regard such casting as cultural appropriation. Actors are free to act. And Jews are more than happy to have the night off.

They also know that “wokeness” cares little for offenses against Jews.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & SocietyHe is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”

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