November 16, 2018

Doing Jews right on TV — for better or worse

In the AMC drama “Mad Men,” about the male-dominated advertising world of 1960s New York, an early episode features Jewish heiress Rachel Menken soliciting the services of ad firm Sterling Cooper to boost sales for her family-owned department store.

Eager to secure her business, the ad execs find Sterling Cooper’s only Jew — David Coen in the mailroom — and bring him to the pitch meeting, supposing that his presence will earn the woman’s confidence.

But when it is suggested that another company might be more suited to her needs (subtext: a firm run by Jews), Menken becomes incensed and insists on a high-end image in which “people like you” (subtext: non-Jews) will shop there precisely “because it’s expensive.”

“I’m not going to let a woman talk to me that way,” Don Draper, the agency’s creative director, declares before walking out of the meeting.

What the scene lacks in offensiveness, it makes up for in subversiveness in the depiction of what the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, calls “casual anti-Semitism.” Because this woman is attractive, lacks any discernable accent and therefore any ethnic specificity, she is identified as an assimilated Jew and is instead, assaulted for her gender.

“I was surprised that no one talked about it,” Weiner told an assembly at Friday’s panel discussion, “Fair or Foul: The Portrayal of Jews on TV,” part of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference, which took place in Los Angeles last week. “Law and Order” producer Rosalyn Weinman and former Los Angeles Times’ television critic Howard Rosenberg joined Weiner in discussing the evolution of the Jewish character on television.

“The sexism was talked about,” Weiner continued, “and that the show was so racist — but casual anti-Semitism?”

Because, as he admits, Jews are prevalent in Hollywood and have a legitimate cultural sensitivity to Jewish discrimination, there is both interest and concern regarding images of Jews disseminated through entertainment media. As old as the medium itself, the depiction of Jews on television tells a story of ethnic identity, and therefore an acute responsibility is ascribed to the storyteller who decides what language, images and styles become associated with being Jewish. Thus, the underlying theme of the panel discussion became whether producers, writers and directors are conscientious in their depictions of Jews, and, if so, what are the boundaries?

“I’m very conscious of my depiction of Jews,” Weiner said. “When I said to my casting people, ‘Can you get me a Jewish actress?’ they said, ‘Well, we can’t really ask for that,’ and I was, like, ‘Well that makes sense; I just violated, like, 80 laws.'”

Since the advent of television, the medium has been a vehicle for defining aspects of American identity. Ethnic entertainment emerged to portray various aspects of the immigrant experience and explored relationships among ethnic subgroups.

For her part, Weinman talked about an episode of “Law and Order” dealing with black anti-Semitism that aired during its first season, just after the 1991 Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn.

“There were still raw nerves in the City of New York about these issues. And I think that it was very useful in at least elevating that conversation from the New York Post to somewhat of a higher plane, a plane that was more intellectual and hopefully a little more healing,” Weinman said.

“But in order to try to do that — and that was the goal — the language was rough. The language about the blacks and the Jews in Crown Heights at that time was reflective of what was happening.”

The “Law and Order” episode dealt with subject matter otherwise being ignored by mainstream television. Weiner traced the history of ethnic entertainment, citing examples from “All in the Family” to “The Jeffersons,” but, he said, the emphasis on ethnic specificity has diminished over time, in favor of a melting-pot philosophy of entertainment.

“I’ve always thought, you know, ‘Think Yiddish, write British,'” he quipped.

“I think that multiculturalism and political correctness have been very hard on Jews, because we don’t want to be seen as a minority … we don’t want to call attention to the fact that we’re immigrants,” Weiner said, adding that the presence of openly Jewish characters with accents has disappeared from television. “It’s embarrassing for executives and for a whole generation of people that that’s our past.”

The result is the Jewish character becoming the American Jewish character, disassociated from an ethnic history and assimilated into American culture. And the assimilation hasn’t only been for Jews. Blacks and even Italians have preferred a more Americanized identity, as well. “We became less politically interested in [ethnic identity]; we became more bland, more everyman, with less ethnic identity for everybody,” Weiner said.

Weinman recalled her days as an executive at NBC, when “Seinfeld” was thought to be “too Jewish,” and there was great debate over whether the show would air. It wasn’t until the addition of the Elaine character, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, that the show was considered more acceptable for a wide audience.

The 1999 debut of “The Sopranos” on HBO constituted the return of a fully formed ethnic identity to television, said Weiner, who was a writer for that show.

Yet, when ethnic identities are being played out onscreen for purposes of entertainment, the problem of stereotypes inevitably arises. During the Q-and-A portion of the panel, some audience members expressed concern over some representations of Jews that could be seen as offensive. One woman cited an episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he scalps High Holy Day tickets. Another man said he is bothered by the Ari Gold character on “Entourage,” a Jewish Hollywood agent who engages in some of the most “horrific anti-Asian, anti-gay slurs.” These examples brought up the deepest worry of most Jews in the room: Should Jewish storytellers depict Jews in any kind of negative light?

“I think there’s a distinction between hate language and doing something in the spirit of comedy,” Weinman said of cutting the phrase, “don’t Jew me down,” from a show she oversaw. She cited an episode of “Law and Order” in which Chabad members were in cahoots with Hells Angels distributing ecstasy on the streets on New York, a story, she said, that was based on fact.

Both Weiner and Weinman agreed that even controversial Jewish depictions can be appropriate, if rendered in the spirit of comedy or truth. Whether their audience agreed or not, the choice of how Jews are represented is ultimately in Hollywood’s hands, and people like Weiner and Weinman have significant influence and control over what images network television promulgates.

Jews, Weiner said in conclusion, “are represented in this industry in a very big way.” “We are in every aspect of it — the creative part; we’re behind the camera; we’re in front of the camera — [Jewish] people have been attracted to [Hollywood], and America enjoys our product.”