For an industry allegedly controlled by Jews, modern television doesn’t seem to feature us too prominently. Other than the Blatantly Jewish Jews (Fran on The Nanny, Rachel and Puck on Glee), locating pockets of Judaism on the silver screen is more of an I-Spy game than a points-gathering process. Whether it’s Andy Botwin going to rabbinical school in Weeds [Episode 110, “The Godmother”], Tracy Jordan singing “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” on 30 Rock [Episode 202, “Jack Gets in the Game”], or even when it is the hot girl in Coupling only speaking Hebrew [Episode 105, “The Girl with Two Breasts”], our mark on the entertainment landscape these days only leads to moments of minor amusement. I’d go so far as saying that it’s comforting to see Ari Gold pop a breath mint on Yom Kippur [Entourage: Episode 317 “Return of the King”] or Shoshanna hook up with an old friend from Camp Ramah [Girls: Episode 104, “Hannah’s Diary”]. The attraction to spotting others of our ilk is just an example of people enjoying their own representation. Good stand-up comedians pinpoint our most unique neuroses; good TV series make passing acknowledgement of those neuroses and convince us that they’re worthy of discussion and love.
Of the different Jewish sects represented onscreen, though, the Chassid, attached to a series of prepackaged assumptions and backstories, is undoubtedly the most recognizable. Whether he is shown caught in a New York City crowd or owning the best delicatessen in Brooklyn, there is no mistaking his fifties-era fedora meant to pass for a Borsalino and his sidelocks twisted around a curling iron by some well-meaning stylist that are meant to be peyot. Chassidim have been a main staple of the scenery for a while, proving to be a useful pointer for location and situation in a single frame.
When the camera happens to zoom in a little, though, the situation changes. Yiddish accents get confused with Brooklyn accents and all of a sudden we’ve got family strife and complaints of invading goyim. In a court case involving a stray eruv on The Good Wife [Episode 107, “Unorthodox”], the prosecution gives a compelling line of reasoning for why the Chassidish couple should have fixed it on Shabbos. On Law & Order: SVU [Episode 913, “Unorthodox”], the insularity of Chassidish Williamsburg is depicted as a preferable alternative to the evils of the secular world, manifested here in the actions of a fourteen-year-old boy exposed to highly sexualized television on a regular basis. For a while now, the on-screen Chassid has represented an Other, a culture behind closed doors that is most directly glimpsed in the form of strange clothing. People unfamiliar with Chassidish practices perceive Chassidim as a mystery, while these shows allow a glimpse into their discretions. It’s almost poetic, since Chassidim traditionally won’t watch any of the TV shows on which they appear.
However blissfully unaware Chassidim are of their representations, the current stereotype has created a kind of adverse reaction, fostered over years of secular audiences viewing Chassidim as forbidden fruit: many shows have taken a step beyond Otherness to depict Chassidish men as a spectacle – almost as objects of fetishism. In Sex and the City [Episode 106, “Secret Sex”], Episcopalian Charlotte has a physical relationship with Shmuel, “a Chassidic folk artist from Brooklyn,” because she “became intoxicated by his talent, his strangeness, and the smell of his wool.” In 2 Broke Girls [Episode 117, “And the Kosher Cupcakes”], Max and Caroline are shocked by a couple of Bar Mitzvah boys mouthing off at them in what Max calls “actin’ all pimp [by someone] who still had pimples.” House [Episode 412, “Don’t Ever Change”] takes a different angle, associating the spectacular with how a Chassidish patient’s husband views her sexuality in opposition to the rest of the heathen secular world. The husband lectures Thirteen: “You think it’s sweet, that I care for her [his wife’s] modesty, but that it’s archaic and ultimately irrelevant. Our traditions aren’t just blind rituals; they mean something, they have purpose. I respect my wife. And I respect her body.” And if it’s not about sex, it’s about crime: Manny Horvitz on Boardwalk Empire [Episode 206, “The Age of Reason”] is twice as menacing with his Yiddish accent, making Jimmy use his shochet knife to kill a traitor instead of him because “I can’t touch him … He’s injured. That makes him traif.” Something about Chassidim behaving badly represents a different kind of naughtiness: not top-of-line, pull-out-the-plugs outrageous naughtiness, but something specifically different and abnormal, like a fetish.
What interests me is how this affects the rest of the world’s perception of our percentage-of-a-percent population. If exposure to Chassidim, and by proxy other Jews, becomes so focused on the select few who are out of their element, will people be affected by this portrayal in reality? How does Matisyahu shaving his beard fit in to that image of cool stability? According to interviews, his looks like a classic case of “flipping out,” the pendulum now swinging back and equalizing; but that doesn’t really translate into a tabloid headline. What happens when Noah Feldman writes “Unorthodox Paradox” for the cover of The New York Times Magazine, or someone like Deborah Feldman publishes Unorthodox? Better yet, what about when an anonymous “Eishes Chayil” publishes the fictionalized Hush? Or when a female Modern Orthodox college student (also anonymously) gains national notoriety because the only way she can explain her most shameful act is through a fiction piece loaded with guilt and adjectives? More to the point, how do I personally fit into the image of upper middle class success when I walk into an unaffiliated environment?
Being Jewish isn’t all about tznius dress or how we believe the world was created. Even with all the complexities present in our religion, how can we develop as individual people in the eyes of the secular world if we’re constantly obsessed with we appear in their eyes? The fear of making a chillul Hashem holds such power over our actions that it’s no wonder most people’s point of reference to our religion and culture is through television and movies. Examples of our misbehavior root us in reality because our best behavior means nothing if that’s all that is seen. It’s only when our guard is down that we make any sense.
Do we need to change the way we’re viewed on television? Not necessarily. Most of the stories are too outlandish or sensationalized to make much of a difference to anyone’s reputation. But maybe if we’re looking for representation, we should avoid the uninformed and inexperienced and turn to our Middle Eastern brethren for more accurate portrayals. Maybe we should be watching subtitled versions of Kathmandu and Srugim instead of tearing our hair out at the amount of exposition required every time a Chassid has more than one line. Not only do Israelis know what peyot are supposed to look like, but their storylines are realistic and powerful, and about as authentic as a shot of 12-year-old Glenfiddich on Shabbos during the haftara.