“Are you watching your Jewish show tonight?” my husband asks as I turn on the telly, as they call it here.
I’m not settling down to watch “The Goldbergs,” or the quirky challah-centered British sitcom, Friday Night Dinner.” No, I’m tuned to a show many of us would have described in its early seasons as one of the least Jewish shows on television — a show that has transformed itself, in Season 5 at least, into one of the most. I’m watching “Downton Abbey.”
When we were first introduced to the show, Yiddishkeit was the last thing on our minds. The Crawley daughters came to us as latter-day Bennet sisters, with an entailed estate and a need for a male heir (or marriage to one). Soon, their lives took us on a journey through history, affected, as they were, by the sinking of the Titanic; unrest in Ireland; women’s rights (and harem pants); World War I; the Russian Revolution; the Spanish influenza pandemic; the advent of the wireless; the popularity of jazz music; and the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.
And yet: when viewers learned that Cora’s father’s name was Isidore Levinson, a dry goods merchant from Cincinnati, a wave of speculation grew over Lady Grantham’s Jewish roots, and in this season (SPOILER ALERT) Cora confirms our suspicion.
Cora’s discussion of her heritage, which limits her eligibility for successful nuptials on the home front, is noteworthy on its own, but more significantly, it presages the larger plot trajectory in the season involving Lady’s Rose’s latest love interest, handsome Atticus Aldridge, son of Lord and Lady Sinderby, and yes — a Jew (like Rose’s earlier beau, black Jack Ross, anything to devastate Mean Mummy). Atticus’s blond good looks and name give nothing away, but his family’s history of immigration from Odessa reveals his secret. When Lady Rose tells exiled Russian Prince Kuragin that Atticus is a compatriot, that his “great-grandfather came … in 1859 … and then the rest of the family followed in — ” Prince Kuragin, who has never before met the Sinderbys, cuts in and exclaims, “1871,” to Rose’s plain amazement.
Atticus Aldridge, courtesy of iTV
The prince is no clairvoyant. He’s just an anti-Semite, and he remembers the good old days of the big pogroms well. He might be a stranger in a strange land now, but he once claimed citizenship. Not so the Wandering Jew, who stands outside the national body politic. “He is not Russian!” roars the prince, and to Rose’s confused, “No, he’s not Russian now—” Kuragin emphatically adds, “They were not Russian then!”
Of course, Rose’s Mean Mummy, Lady Flintshire, is no better, suggesting the British are little different from the Russians regarding the alien Jew. “Do you have any English blood?” she asks the Sinderbys snidely. The comment is the least of her nasties (spoiler spared). Needless to say, Lady Flintshire is not keen to see her daughter marry a Jew and become, in her words, an “outcast.”
Mean Mummy has her match in Disdainful Daddy, who, too, disapproves of the union between Jew and gentile (neither are fans of “The Melting Pot” by British Jew, Israel Zangwill, it would seem). It’s hard to like Lord Sinderby; he spends most of his screen time scowling and growling. He gets especially poor marks in the nice guy department when he uses the most dreaded of Disdainful Jewish Daddy words to describe sweet, happy-go-lucky Rose: shiksa.
We’re not meant to sympathize with Disdainful Daddy Sinderby, who says all the wrong things (he sympathizes, for example, with General Dyer in the Amritsar Massacre). Really, it’s hard to feel bad for the man — if he wanted his son to marry a Jewish woman so badly, he probably shouldn’t have changed his name and bought land in a county where Jews think there’s a cherem on them. He shouldn’t have eaten the pork chops or glazed ham or whatever treif the Granthams served him at Downton Abbey. He raised his son to be an assimilated Englishman. If he really wanted his son to keep and pass on the traditions that were so important to him, maybe he should have raised his son with those traditions.
And still … I wanted to like Disdainful Daddy Sinderby, because when I first moved to the UK, a British man smiled patronizingly at me when I said I was sending my children to Jewish dayschool, and told me, “My grandfather was originally Jewish. But that doesn’t really work around here, and he gave that up quickly enough.” Lord Sinderby might have made all the wrong choices, but he could hardly help it in a country that didn’t look kindly on those that strove to differentiate themselves, particularly if they could afford not to (with honeyed malice, Lady Flintshire asks Lady Sinderby if she finds it difficult to hire staff. Lady Sinderby replies, “Not very. But then we’re Jewish, so we pay well.”). The Sinderbys pay well to overcome the barriers they face because of their Jewishness, and what they succeed in doing is overcoming their Jewishness. In many ways, the shiksa Lady Rose and their future shiksa/sheygetz grandchildren are the crowning glory of their success, as Lord Grantham and the Crawley girls are Cora’s.
Now then, get thee to the Christmas Special (oh, and don’t forget to watch for George Clooney) !
The “Downton Abbey” Christmas Special will air on iTV from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. GST. The fifth series will premiere on PBS on January 4 in the U.S.