Why Jewish culture dominates TV shows

  • TheMarvelousMrsMaisel
“Are you going to answer my question with a question?” “If not here, where?” This exchange in shul on Yom Kippur on The Marvelous Mrs Maisel exemplifies the distinct Jewish flavour of many popular current international television series.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Dec 05, 2019

“There’s a strong trend towards Jewish-themed stories on television,” says social commentator and journalist, Gus Silber. Whether you’re watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, or even DStv, you’ll see many shows that are explicitly or implicitly Jewish.

In recent decades, Seinfeld set the tone for mainstream Jewish TV series. The comedy, in which York-based comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends were put in hilariously awkward situations that they discussed (to death), was famously called “the show about nothing”. It exudes Jewish humour, yet its universal appeal makes it part of celebrated mainstream television history.

“Absolutely a Jewish series, Seinfeld is engrained into popular culture,” says Silber. “Curb Your Enthusiasm by Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld, is actually much more Jewish though. You’re constantly aware of the lead character, Larry David, being a Jewish prototype, and in many ways a Jewish stereotype.

“He’s perpetually troubled, and largely immune to the chaos he causes in the world around him. An interesting character, he’s thoroughly unlikeable, but he’s hilarious because of that. I can’t think of one episode I’ve seen that doesn’t in some way weave his Jewishness into it.”

Yet there’s never been a Jewish TV show quite like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Set in the late 50s, it’s about Miriam “Midge” Maisel, who discovers her passion and flair for stand-up comedy when her husband Joel leaves her on the eve of Yom Kippur. And, it’s just when the rabbi is set to attend her family’s breaking-of-the-fast feast, the ultimate act of forgiveness after the horror of Midge’s wedding speech years before, where she joked that there was shrimp in the egg roll. The show celebrates the New York Jewish comedy scene of the time, but puts a feminist twist on the era with the introduction of an often underestimated and unwelcome woman to the fold. All that amidst divorce, disappointed parents, feuding in-laws, religious faux pas, and annual trips to the Catskills – where everybody knows your business.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino describes her relationship to the humour which inspired the tone of the show. “My whole cadence is from my father,” she says. “He was Borscht-belt, Bronx-Jewish, Mel Brooks’ 2000-Year-Old Man. So, for me, Jews created humour. At that time, they really created humour. That inflection, that rhythm. The … ‘oy’ and the ‘thing’ – it’s New York, and it’s Jews.”

Having already won multiple awards, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel recently topped the comedy nomination list for the 2019 Emmy Awards with 20 nominations, testament to its widespread appeal. The show ultimately took home eight awards, including best supporting actor and actress wins for Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein. Borstein, who plays Midge’s agent Susie Myerson, honoured her grandmother in her acceptance speech, revealing how she escaped being shot during the Holocaust by literally “stepping out of line” – something she encouraged all women to do.

“There are also many series out there that are deeply Jewish in theme, yet you don’t immediately think of them as Jewish,” says Silber. Enter Transparent. Following the Pfefferman family, the show starts with a 70-year-old divorced father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, announcing his impending gender transition to his kids.

Transparent is a classic Jewish family drama with a massive difference,” says Silber. “After a while, you forget about the somewhat radical theme, and become involved in the classic family story of how the father deals with his transition, and with his children and ex-wife. It’s modern, contemporary, and not something you would have seen on TV 10 or 20 years ago, but it feels relevant. It’s warm, it’s quirky, it’s full of anxiety, and it’s absolutely 100% Jewish.”

Silber also references lighter Jewish family comedies, namely The Goldbergs, about creator and writer Adam Goldberg’s childhood, and Schitt’s Creek created by well-known Jewish comedian and actor Eugene Levy.

“Those series will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever been brought up in or interacted with a Jewish family,” says Silber. What’s interesting about all these Jewish TV series, he says, is that while they cover different themes, they all have similar elements.

Transparent is very different to The Goldbergs, but they’re almost interchangeable in the way they depict family drama. A lot of this seems to happen around the table. Eating is where the drama breaks out. That in itself is Jewish.”

Boasting worldwide popularity and critical acclaim, these shows all have massive appeal beyond their Jewishness.

“You don’t necessarily have to be Jewish to enjoy them or to be touched by them – they resonate. Every Jewish family has its own kinds of troubles, frustrations, celebrations, and crazy characters, and that’s universal. That’s why you can watch a show like that set far from where you live, with people that you’ll never come across, yet it feels like home. It’s part of why you tune into shows, and even obsess about them.

In analysing why Jewish shows are so prevalent, Silber points to the Bible. “There’s not really much difference between the big biblical family dramas and family dramas on television,” he says. “There’s a big Jewish family tradition going back thousands of years, and TV writers play on that, put it in a modern environment, and have fun with it. The original biblical Jewish stories translate into modern stories well, and they’re almost always about relationships between people, especially between children and their parents. Transparent is a good example of that. There are also stories about people being taken from one circumstance and thrown into another, like Schitt’s Creek, where a well-off family loses everything and suddenly, they’re ‘in exile’ in this ramshackle town. These themes are ancient, but simultaneously very modern.”

Speaking of how Jewish shows handle religious and cultural sensitivities, Silber argues that it’s all about how it’s done, and who it comes from. For example, one of the world’s greatest Jewish comedians, Sacha Baron Cohen, deliberately crosses the line playing fictional satirical characters. More recently he’s turned his hand to dramatic acting in another Jewish/Israeli series, The Spy, about top Mossad spy Eli Cohen. Yet he’s on form comedically in his 2018 show Who is America? “Here, he plays on stereotypes and people’s perceptions of Israelis, pretending to be a hardcore Israeli operative. He pushes things too far, almost challenging his victims to say, ‘You can’t be real!’” Silber says.

“The basis of Jewish humour is self-deprecation. It comes from a long tradition,” he says. “It says that no matter how hard you try, you won’t be as deprecating about me as I am about myself. If somebody else does that about your culture, it can be seen as offensive, but when it’s done internally, usually that’s not the case. Ultimately, what characterises these shows and what makes them worth watching is their warmth – that’s what draws you in.”

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