Shortly after graduating from college in 2000, I found myself living and interning in Austin, Texas. Someone apparently mentioned to the friendly policeman who worked by my office that I was a Member of the Tribe. He was thrilled; he’d never met a New York Jew — or any Jew — before. He lived 100 miles outside Austin, far beyond any eruv.
“Tell me,” the cop asked me eagerly, “is your life more like ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘The Nanny’?”
“Neither,” I replied.
“Well, it has to be like one of them,” he insisted. I assured him that really, neither show accurately represented my New York Jewish childhood.
I grew up surrounded by non-Jews who could pronounce schlep and spiel and use them properly in a sentence. So, it’s both amusing and astounding to remember that conversation. It was a reminder that we, American Jews, are indeed a minority group.
All of this is to say that if someone has never met a living, breathing Jew, television may be their introduction to Jewish religion, culture or people. I thought about this as I eagerly anticipated the return of USA’s “Suits”. On the surface, it’s just another legal show. The twist is that main character Mike Ross is a drifter-turned-law firm associate who never actually attended law school. And yes, Harvey Specter, the senior partner and legal legend he serves, knows it.
Most of the time there’s nothing explicitly Jewish about the show, but there have been some nods in that direction. “Suits” is set at a top-tier boutique New York law firm that could be based on the elite Wachtell Lipton. The fictional firm of Pearson Hardman hires top talent from only Harvard Law School, home to many budding Jewish lawyers. Interestingly, two of the main characters have been identified as Jewish — but not smooth closer and lady-killer Harvey Specter, whom, despite his Jewish last name, the writers have never portrayed as Jewish. Rather, the Jewish characters are the show’s villain, Daniel Hardman, and the nebbish, Louis Litt.
Season two opened last summer with Daniel Hardman re-launching his legal career at his wife’s shiva. We learned that Daniel had been pushed out of the firm he co-founded after embezzling money from clients and having an affair with a firm associate while his wife battled cancer. He returns to the firm only to demonstrate that he’s crafty, self-serving and not trustworthy. The bearded Hardman is no Shylock, but he is notably casual about ethics and truth for a member of any bar.
Daniel pursues his agenda with help from the insecure Louis Litt, the other Jew. We know Louis is Jewish because he mentions his rabbi. However, Jewishly-speaking, Louis seems like the sort of Jew who’d work on Yom Kippur just to prove to his colleagues that he’s all-in, totally hard-core and married to the job. Louis can be entertaining, especially when he interacts with his odd female counterpart, a representative from his beloved Harvard Law School. But at heart, this financial genius is a socially awkward grind. Louis aspires to be like Harvey, but never quite manages it.
History and literature are littered with examples of Jews, both real and fictional, who are viewed as social outsiders or demonized as financial cheaters. Did the show’s creator and writers think about that when they wrote these two characters? Are Jews now considered so assimilated into American culture that no one gave it a second thought?
Clearly “Suits” is intended to be entertainment, not a documentary of contemporary American Jewry. But if the writers are going to start identifying certain characters as Jews, why not also write in a smart, honest and attractive Jewish character? That would help the next time someone asks me about the intersection of television and life. Because as things currently stand, if I ran into that Texan cop again and he asked me whether most Jews are like Daniel or Louis, I’d have to be honest and say neither.