She’s the beautiful, mild-mannered über-WASP on HBO’s smash series “Sex and the City.” He’s her lawyer — short, round and Jewish — who is hairy everywhere but atop his head.
Despite the odds, Charlotte York (played by Kristin Davis) and Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler) fall in love. But in a classic case of boy meets goy, last week Harry reminded Charlotte that he will only marry a Jew — words spoken over a dinner of pork tenderloin, no less.
It’s not often that the complexities of modern Jewish identity are aired — literally — on television. But, as “Sex and the City” premiered its sixth and final season last Sunday, the show touched on the panoply of issues ascribed to the modern Jewish experience: ethnic loyalty, the pick-and-choose approach to religious observance, the “who is a Jew” debate and, of course, intermarriage.
“I never thought a shiksa goddess like you would fall for a putz like me,” Harry says with a shrug, explaining to his beloved how he let the ill-fated romance become serious.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, the contradictions of American Jewish identity have finally hit prime time — on television’s sexiest sitcom, no less. And, judging by the come-hither-yet-confused looks on Charlotte’s face, it’s a sort of convoluted territory that even a Smith-educated, upscale Manhattanite finds confusing.
“I think it’s validating for Jews to see their private discussions in the mass media,” Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Forward. “It indicates that the discussions are indeed important, relevant and worthy of attention.”
“Sex and the City” — for those who’ve been living under a rock — is the saucy series about the love lives of four fabulous Manhattan women. Starring Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker as sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, Cynthia Nixon as cynical lawyer Miranda Hobbes and Kim Cattrall as seductress Samantha Jones, the show has been a runaway (and runway-inspired) hit, spawning a nation of Manolo Blahnik-wearing, Prada bag-toting, cosmopolitan-sipping independent women.
This season, however, as the ladies mature, so do their problems. Charlotte has recovered from her failed marriage to pedigreed, picture-perfect Trey MacDougal (played by Kyle MacLachlan), yet still grapples with a possibly infertile and lonely future. Having fallen for the anti-Trey, Harry, Charlotte attempts to lure him to the altar with logic. “I’m conservative, too!” she declares.
“Yeah, well, my Conservative doesn’t have anything to do with wearing pearls,” comes the reply.
As Charlotte realizes her “perfect” man may reside in a shape similar to that of Telly Savalas, she considers — gasp! — conversion to Judaism in order to placate her mate.
“For Charlotte, meeting someone like Harry, a down-to-earth guy who’s not necessarily as refined as she is, it’s a funny, comedic thing,” said Amy B. Harris, the series’s executive story editor. “But it also reflects a reality. What kind of choices and sacrifices do you make when you’re in love?”
The response to the interfaith romance on HBO’s “Sex and the City” message boards has been lively and overwhelmingly positive. In between the fans’ observations about everything from Carrie’s overuse of bobby pins to Samantha’s hunky neighbor “with privileges,” most die-hards seem to support Charlotte’s forbidden love.
“Harry isn’t physically perfect but in all other manners he’s great,” reads one post.
“As for Charlotte, I hope she does convert,” reads another. “She’s not getting younger and she is in love. Harry is perfect for her and to her.”
Yet others are more hostile. “Charlotte is pathetic in my eyes,” writes another woman. “If Harry truly loved Charlotte, then he would compromise on the religious/ethnic issue. Isn’t the most important thing about a relationship compromise?”
“Sex and the City,” said New York Magazine “Naked City” columnist Amy Sohn — who also wrote “Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell” (Pocket Star, 2002) — “has always been on the forefront of the kinds of dating issues everyone is talking about.”
And, indeed, dating a Jew is something that, statistically speaking, almost everyone is talking about — in New York City, at least, where, according to numbers gleaned from the UJA-Federation-sponsored 2002 Jewish Community Study, 35% of non-Hispanic whites are Jews.
Said Cohen: “The marriage market in New York is actually very favorable to in-marriage.”
“No one who lives in New York can say there aren’t enough Jews here,” Sohn concurs. “But we’re living in a culture where more and more people have a shopping cart mentality to dating. Our generation is very, very picky.”
Four of the seven “Sex and the City” writers are Jewish, said Harris. “We all hear stories of Jewish men ending up with non-Jewish women, and vice versa. We all have stories of dating within and outside of our faith,” she said. “If you live in a city like Manhattan, it seems natural that one of the women would date someone Jewish. So we were thinking, if you got serious with someone Jewish, what kind of questions would be brought up?”
One of the most difficult dilemmas addressed in the show is which customs and traditions Jews choose, seemingly arbitrarily, to observe — Harry, for one, seems more comfortable choosing chorizo over Charlotte. “The major part of being Jewish today is voluntarism,” Cohen said. “People pick and choose the way they want to be Jewish, or not. They choose whether, where, when and how to be Jewish.”
The UJA-Federation survey gives insight into this bizarre buffet. While 65% of respondents said being Jewish is “very important” to them, 72% said they fast on Yom Kippur — suggesting that tens of thousands are willing afflict their bodies for a day, but won’t call it important.
Further, 76% light Chanukah candles and 77% attend Passover Seders. But — take note, Charlotte — only 28% keep kosher.
“It seems that there are a lot of single Jews whose only way of acting Jewish in their life is to search for a Jewish partner,” Sohn said, suggesting hypocrisy. “I think Jews should stop being so religiously against intermarriage and start being more religious.”
For Harry — who promised his late mother, a Holocaust survivor, that he’d marry within the tribe — as for many single Jews, “there’s that guilt, that pressure from the parents,” Sohn said. “People think, ‘I don’t have to feel guilty about the other things I’m not doing as long as I do this one thing right.’”
And yet, in that respect, according to Cohen’s 1997 survey, Religious Stability and Ethnic Decline: Emerging Patterns of Jewish Identity in the United States, Harry is an anomaly. “Ethnic attachment is in decline,” he said, citing rising intermarriage rates, decreased emphasis on Jewish friendships and the dispersal of Jews across the country.
Charlotte — despite her distaste for gefilte fish — seems willing, at least, to explore embracing Jewish culture as her own. “We didn’t want to put her in a position of sacrifice just to get a guy,” Harris said. “She’ll be considering Judaism much more seriously in the upcoming episodes.”
“Sex and the City” executive producer Michael Patrick King has said that at least one of the ladies will wed by the series’s end; and just last week, Parker told The Chicago Tribune that “Charlotte consciously makes a fundamental change and moves forward in her relationship with Harry.”
With that in mind, we’re predicting Charlotte’s delicate, well-heeled feet will stand under the chupah and dance the hora soon.