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Culture

Why was 2022 the year TV turned really, really Jewish? 

Jews have always had a presence on the small screen. But this year, their stories took on new nuance

It could just be us, but didn’t TV this year seem really Jewish?

Not in that superficial, out-of-focus-mezuzah-visible-in-the-distance, someone-said-”schlep” kinda way. We mean the deep stuff.

The stuff where Reform Jews’ attitudes toward the Orthodox are given a whole subplot. The stuff where a superhero dashes his kippah to the ground in grief, then lifts it tenderly to his heart. The stuff where a group of young American Jews, sipping from Solo cups, make fun of their friend for claiming his Israeli hookup knows who killed Rabin: “Yeah, everybody knows.” 

It’s the sort of stuff Jews are made of, and in 2022, TV seemed to graduate from small references and stereotypical jokes to an entire Jewish ethos. 

The Patient, Fleischman Is In Trouble and season two of Russian Doll and siphoned off the period schmaltz and hammy one-liners of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and refined them into, respectively, a grim thriller, a tour of ancestral trauma and a buoyant sociology lesson of Upper East Side Jewry.

Nathan Fielder’s experimental, unscripted comedy, The Rehearsal, somehow — almost accidentally — delivered strikingly deep insight into Jewish parenting and politics, especially in rural America. Marvel brought us a Jewish superhero in Moon Knight, and Peacock delivered a prime-time crime procedural starring a Talmudic detective with The Calling

The shift isn’t completely new. In recent years Transparent, The Shrink Next Door, Broad City and a clutch of other shows cleared the way for representations of Jewish ritual, both religious and secular. Somewhere along the way, the need for explanation — to make the Jewish world intelligible for those outside it — was sidelined. 

So the Forward’s intrepid team of culture writers sat down to figure out what exactly changed — and why.


PJ Grisar: Streaming has allowed for such a glut of material. Something like Transparent cleared the way for things that maybe wouldn’t make it on network TV because executives would be afraid that it would be a little too alienating or weird.

What do we think it does, ultimately, when Jewish creators are fine to include things like references to kashrut or Jewish summer camps or the Talmud and just say people will either get it or they won’t, or they’ll look it up? Is that like the kind of representation that we want — something that just doesn’t explain itself? 

Steve Carell as Alan Strauss, Domhnall Gleeson as Sam Fortner in FX’s “The Patient.” Photo by Suzanne Tenner/FX

Mira Fox: It’s definitely the representation that I want. But I do see a danger in it. In the same way that Hasidic escape stories make Judaism feel foreign and strange, and thus off-putting, I think someone misunderstanding an unexplained piece of Jewish practice in a show could exoticize us. Like that ice cream scene in The Patient that depends on kashrut — and on understanding interdenominational Jewish tensions — and explains none of it.

Still though, constantly explaining ourselves flattens the tradition. We’re not doing ourselves justice by catering to the lowest common denominator. And it’s also not going to do Jews any favors to be known for belaboring our practices and history. Plus over-explaining just makes for bad art!

Irene Katz Connelly: People may not know whether Orthodox Jews can eat ice cream or not in that scene in The Patient, but, like, they aren’t stupid — they will figure things out. 

I’m trying to think of shows that I’ve watched about minority groups that I’m not part of. One that comes to mind is Ramy, Ramy Youssef’s comedy about an American Muslim family. 

There’s definitely a lot of in-group references that sometimes send me to Google. But I don’t mind Googling them, and I feel like the specificity is what makes the show good. You know, you end up finding some similarities, and you can relate to it through that. If it was constantly explaining, I would feel like it was less authentic or I would be bored. 

I gravitate toward shows that people who are being represented by the show say are authentic. That makes it feel like it’s worth looking things up. 

Fielder looks over his rehearsal in order to activate a fake baby to cry in the middle of the night for the most realistic experience of parenting. Courtesy of HBOMax

Mira: I thought The Rehearsal struck a very good balance with all of this. Nathan Fielder at one point deadpans that he hasn’t been to shul since he was a kid “because it’s very boring.” But he suddenly realizes it’s important to him that his — admittedly fake — kid be Jewish. It’s just the most classic arc of so many American Jews.

Irene: I didn’t watch the whole season because Nathan Fielder makes my skin crawl, but my boyfriend sat me down and made me watch the Jewish episodes. And the transformation of Jews once they have kids is so targeted to Jews who have observed the same inconsistencies in their parents, with all the humor and frustration that accompanies that.

Mira: I think for me the big question here is why now — why is this the year Jewish representation pushed the envelope all at once?

Does it mean Jews have finally reached a level of assimilation that we can expect people to be familiar enough with our customs to follow? Are creators trying to fight antisemitism with better representation? Or is it a sign of a bigger movement toward preserving our culture in all its specificity instead of assimilating to make ourselves legible to society at large?

Irene: I don’t think Jews invented this — I think that many different ethnic minorities demanded representation in shows. Jews have maybe been in entertainment longer than most ethnic groups. But we started out in entertainment at a time in which, to survive, you assimilated. 

I think that you see other groups coming in and entering entertainment saying it’s impossible to hide our differences and we don’t want to, and maybe Jewish creators are seeing that and feeling emboldened.

Mira: In the trend of minorities asking for better representation, we’re in a particular position because Jews have actually been very represented in entertainment, even if it’s usually been through sidekick or comic relief characters. So there hasn’t been a total dearth of representation, which for a lot of other minorities I think is the case. 

Our problem is slightly different: There’s been a ton of representation but it’s all really flat and stereotypical.

PJ: And a lot of it has been our own fault. Not to get all Kanye West about it, but we have been power brokers in entertainment, and yet there’s a history of executives shutting down Jewish projects. 

There was this thinking that we didn’t want to be too conspicuous. (And there was a probable antisemite behind the production code that decided which movies passed muster.) We only sort of broke out of it with Woody Allen. But then Jewishness was mainstreamed in a discrete, unassuming, mostly comedic way. Or else a Holocaust narrative or a nostalgia piece. 

Now Jewishness can be on screen without being just incidental or, on the flip side, being the entire point of the project existing. Which is thanks, I agree with you both, largely to other minority groups paving the way.

I think that in 2023, post-Kanye West controversy, there’s going to be an explosion of Jewish content that goes pretty deep.

Natasha Lyonne, with redheaded curls, stands on an old subway car looking down at a newspaper. A man with a mohawk stands behind her.
Natasha Lyonne realizing, thanks to a newspaper snatched from a random passenger, that her train car is no longer in 2022. Courtesy of NETFLIX

Mira: My worry is that, if there is an explosion of Jewish content responding to the mainstreaming of antisemitism, it’s all going to be Holocaust stuff.

Every time something like Kanye’s outbursts happens, the response from major Jewish advocacy groups — and then also from influencers and politicians and so on — is that Kanye needs to go to a Holocaust museum, or that we need to improve education about the Holocaust or make Anne Frank required reading.

PJ: The least interesting parts of The Patient, and the most jarring and unnecessary, are when he has these Holocaust visions. We’re so saturated with those images that it’s not even shocking anymore. In some ways, it’s the safest thing to do.

Mira: I thought this season of Russian Doll was fascinating in that it used surrealism to try to access the inherited trauma of the Holocaust directly. I thought it was really experiential and moving and artistic. It didn’t explain much of the history nor focus on concentration camp horrors, so it didn’t feel lecturing or overwrought. 

And it actually managed to make the Holocaust feel really relevant to the modern day, and living Jews’ experiences, which I think most Holocaust media fails at. But even so, I had friends who complained about this season because they feel like we’re just too saturated in media about the Holocaust already.

Obviously the Holocaust is an important case study to show that conspiracy theories and antisemitic propaganda can cause huge, real world harm. But antisemitism is so much more than the Holocaust, and it’s not limited to the past. And neither is Jewish experience. So thankfully we’re finally getting some shows that actually address the rest of it.

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