Too Much or Not Enough? Examining Jewishness on the Small Screen

By Michael Bronski

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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The Jews of Prime Time

By David Zurawik

Brandeis University Press (Published by University Presses of New England), 256 pages, $29.95.

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Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the “Jewish” Sitcom

By Vincent Brook

Rutgers University Press, 240 pages, $60.

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Was “Seinfeld” too Jewish or not Jewish enough for you? Did you hate Fran Drescher in “The Nanny” because she was, well, such a stereotype? And what side were you on in the bitter 1972 cultural war that emerged after “Bridget Loves Bernie” became the fifth most-watched television series, only to be canceled because Jewish religious groups alleged it was soft on interfaith marriage? “Is it good for the Jews?” has been the habitual — and, for some viewers, inescapable — question that doggedly haunts discussions of representations of Jews and Judaism on stage, film and television. On some level, it’s a valid question; popular culture is an expression of, and often an influence upon, popular opinion. But as two new books on Jews and television illustrate, this may not always be the best question, and when it is asked, may yield some complicated answers.

Discussions of cultural representation are always engaging, sometimes even tense, because most of us have (whether we admit it or not) very deep connections to mass culture. Movies and television, even those we know are silly, mean a lot to us, and when we find ourselves depicted — or not depicted — on big or small screens, we all usually have an opinion. One of the best things about David Zurawik’s “The Jews of Prime Time” and Vincent Brook’s “Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the ‘Jewish’ Sitcom” — and they are quite different in their approaches and their conclusions — is that they provide us with a wonderful overview of how Jewish themes and characters have been portrayed on television from the late 1940s to the present. While there is, of course, some overlapping material here, read together the books present a complete history of television’s portrayals of Jews.

There are many points on which the two authors agree, especially with regard to the resistance to portraying Jews on television, which was most often the result of Jewish producers and network heads such as William Paley, David Sarnoff and Leonard Goldenson (an almost identical conclusion to the one about the film industry demonstrated by Neal Gabler in his groundbreaking 1989 book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood”). Both books are also filled with fascinating anecdotes. A personal favorite is the fact that The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally conceived of and written by Carl Reiner as a show about a Jewish family and workplace; Morey Amsterdam’s wisecracking “Buddy Sorrell” was the only character whose Jewishness survived the “Americanization” the show had to undergo to make it onto the air.

The significant difference between Zurawik’s and Brook’s analyses is that the former is far more concerned over the questions of “positive” and “negative” images of Jewish characters. In chapter after chapter, Zurawik charts how Jewish women and men, over decades of prime time, have been saddled with blatant stereotypes — from the constant “feminization” of Uncle David on “The Goldbergs” to Grace, of “Will & Grace,” an “incredibly neurotic” woman, “constantly on the verge of hysteria.”

Zurawik is not un-nuanced in his critiques — these characteristics have historically been a hallmark in the representation of Jewish characters — and his insightful interviews with actors, directors and producers involved in these productions give us both an understanding and even, at times, an appreciation of why this happens. He is also excellent in describing and critiquing the economics and politics of network television. But reading through “The Jews,” you have the feeling that Zurawik’s lens, while valid for his concerns, is limited.

Brook’s “Something” approaches this same material from a slightly different angle. He is less concerned with Jewish characters and content per se — although this is the main theme of the book — than he is in examining how “Jewish-themed” shows fit into the broader scope of American popular culture. He writes quite insightfully, for instance, on the relationships of Jewish performers and material — from Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker’s use of blackface in the 1920s to the connection of the characters on “Brooklyn Bridge” to black music — to African-American culture. While Brook never denies that the struggles of Jewish identity vis-à-vis American assimilation are not unique, he is always mindful of the fact that they do not occur in a vacuum. His chapter “Gayface (and Jewface) on Will & Grace” is a fine example of the merits and pitfalls of what he calls the “multiculturalist project.” Brook’s argument is less concerned with whether a particular show is “good for the Jews” and more focused on charting the perils of assimilation — so Jews no longer have to “fight to be American,” but rather could “struggle to be, and to define what it means to be, Americans and Jews.”

Although “Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the ‘Jewish’ Sitcom” and “The Jews of Prime Time” are academic books, they are written with considerable wit and in nonacademic jargon. As surveys of the place of Jewish images in contemporary popular culture, they are indispensable. And while Zurawik’s “Is it good for the Jews?” is an important place to begin this discussion, Brook’s more multicultural approach is an important, vital continuation of these ideas.

Michael Bronski writes about culture, sex and politics for The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice. His latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martin’s, 2003).

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