Why there needs to be an Orthodox episode of ‘Queer Eye’
Picture this: A woman, her hair covered with a scarf, watches as Jonathan Van Ness, the hair and makeup expert for Netflix’s “Queer Eye” styles her sheitel. While he works, they chit chat about wig maintenance and the religious meaning of covering her hair. Finally, she puts it back on. “Yas, queen,” Jonathan says. “Slay!”
This did not happen; there’s never been a visibly Orthodox Jew featured on an episode of the makeover show. But I think there should be.
The newest season of “Queer Eye,” which came out on New Year’s Eve, would have been the perfect time. When the show started in 2018, it hewed to the basics of a makeover show: the “Fab Five” team styling people with no taste. But it’s grown up a lot since then, and the hosts now use their platform to highlight diversity and preach tolerance in addition to self-care and a French-tucked shirt.
This time, the “Queer Eye” team focused on helping “heroes” of the pandemic year — founders of homeless shelters and free clinics and people who have been the targets of racism or homophobia. They helped a trans bodybuilder reconnect with her father and redid an Asian bakery that was graffitied with anti-Asian hate in the wake of the virus’s spread.
Antisemitism, unfortunately, would have fit in well with the themes this season; during the pandemic, it has risen along with other forms of intolerance. But I also think highlighting a visibly observant Jew would make for a fascinating episode, full of chances both to discuss the nuances of discrimination and explore a new set of cultural norms and constraints — the perfect combination of an unfamiliar character and a feel-good message. Plus, Jonathan Van Ness already styled a woman’s wig this season when she was too self-conscious about her hair loss to take it off, so we’re halfway there!
I realize there are reasons this hasn’t happened in real life yet – many of the seasons have taken place in cities without major Jewish populations. And it’s incredibly unlikely that, say, a Satmar man or woman would go on a Netflix makeover show hosted by five queer people. But I think plenty of other visibly observant Jews would – a Modern Orthodox man living on the Upper West Side, maybe, or perhaps a Chabad woman.
Imagine it. Let’s say the featured person is an Orthodox woman with three kids; we’ll call her Tamar. She runs a successful kosher catering business and the family is loving and happy — we don’t want another entry into the Netflix annals of Hasidic Jews leaving the religion. They throw gourmet, boisterous Shabbat meals each week, but Tamar is having trouble finding time for herself amidst cooking for work and cooking for Shabbat, and is even starting to dread sunset on Friday nights, once her favorite time of the week.
So the team swoops in to help Tamar reconnect to the oneg Shabbat she used to enjoy.
Tan France, who handles clothing and wardrobe on the show, isn’t shaken by Tamar’s need to keep arms, collarbone and knees covered; he just wants her to do so without relying on the old crew neck shirts she’s gotten used to wearing in the kitchen. He encourages her to play around with different cuts and patterns, and finds pieces with details such as ruffles or puffed sleeves and embellishments. She tries on tailored shift dresses and flowing skirts and learns a model strut as Tan cheers her on.
Next, Antoni Porowski, who teaches about cuisine, tries to rejuvenate Tamar’s love of hosting and cooking. He studies up on the laws of kashrut and helps Tamar learn how to make some kosher-friendly versions of Thai food to try to spice up her repertoire. Together, they figure out how to recreate the tangy umami of shrimp paste sans shellfish.
While Jonathan styles Tamar’s sheitel, they experiment with creative ways to wrap a collection of colorful scarves Jonathan has found to use as tichels, both of them giggling while trying to follow along a Youtube tutorial. In a big reveal, Jonathan presents Tamar with an expensive new sheitel from Crown Heights’ hip wig shop Zelda Hair.
Of course, changes can’t all be cosmetic, and Karamo Brown, the show’s “culture expert” sits Tamar down to talk about the struggles she has faced. Viewers listen as she discusses the rising antisemitism in her neighborhood – graffiti, slurs shouted by passersby, and the fears she faces sending her kids to walk to school in their tzitzit and kippahs, or walking down the street herself as an observant, visibly Jewish woman. Karamo takes her and her kids to a self-defense class taught by a frum woman to empower her to feel safe on the streets.
Finally, dressed up in her new clothes, Tamar returns home to see the work done by Bobby Berk — each episode, while the others give an hour-long cooking class or haircut, Bobby remodels guests’ entire houses (it’s insane). She had been nervous about him touching her kosher kitchen, but when she walks in, we see that Bobby has done his research; he walks viewers through why there are two sinks, the enormous new hot plate to keep food warm on Shabbat and the creatively color-coordinated cabinets to make it easy to store the meat and milk dishes. The family’s sentimental collection of inherited Judaica gleams, polished and displayed on a custom built shelf. Thoughtfully, Bobby has installed timers in every outlet in the house so they don’t have to juggle which lights or appliances can remain on over Shabbat.
The kids run through, oohing and aahing, her husband shakes everyone’s hand and Tamar cries — everyone on the show always cries — while thanking the team. She and the family host their first Shabbat meal in the new house and invite the “Queer Eye” team, explaining the holiness of the day and the meaning of each blessing. They push the cameras out before sunset, but not before we catch a glimpse of the perfect loaves of challah coming out of the oven.
Will it happen? I doubt it. But it would make for compelling viewing, stretching the styling skills of the crew. And, for once, there would be a mainstream narrative framing observant Judaism as something beautiful and fun and rewarding instead of repressive.