Over The Top Judaism
by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-01-15
Anyone who thinks that Jewish characters and themes don't get a look in on TV will probably change their mind after reading Over The Top Judaism, a new book which takes a detailed look at how the small screen has treated Jewish issues over the decades, and how the portrayal of Jews on TV has changed.
Over The Top Judaism is written by Rabbi Elliott B Gertel, from the Rodfei Zedek synagogue in Chicago, and was borne out of his 24-year stint as a columnist for the US newspaper National Jewish Post and Opinion. Here, he reveals more about the book, the column and his extensive viewing habits.
What inspired you to write Over The Top Judaism?
I think I had always planned to use my work as a media critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion as the basis for the research, and this is really the first in a series I hope to do. I hope the next book will be about the new age movements of Judaism and the attempt to remake Judaism in film and television. I also have material on Jewish-Christian relations on TV, on Jewish women, Jewish men, and also black Jewish relations. But even when the column's done I totally revamped everything, so it's a totally new work, but the column was my basic research.
Did it involve hours of watching TV?
Oh yes, I watch everything. I don't really watch a lot of other things but I have to focus on what we do. We just had a congregational retreat, for example, and they showed another film, and I absented myself from that because watching another film or TV show is work for me, even though it was a Saturday night, I wanted to do something else. But I'm also involved in writing about Jewish theology and American Jewish history and synagogue architecture and American Jewish literature. I wrote another book which came out about a year ago called What Jews Know About Salvation, and that book influenced the Library Of Congress - they called the publisher and asked if they could list the book under redemption because they didn?t have salvation listed as a Jewish concept. The publisher said no and so the Library of Congress changed their system so they had a section called Salvation - Christian, Jewish, other.
How long does a project like this take to do?
Well, it?s hard to say because it's really over 20 years, if you count all the columns I've been doing ? but I did it intensively in the summer before it came out, and then I also participated very actively in the index, I actually went through it and I'm proud of it, I think it provides a lot of information that you don?t see usually. The index also emphasises TV writers which you don?t always see.
Why do you think TV and filmmakers are so fascinated with Jewish culture?
Well, I think there's a few reasons. Firstly, some of them have unresolved issues with it, so it echoes their minds in a negative way. Others feel that they're doing Judaism a favour by giving a nod to their heritage without realising sometimes the context into which they're throwing it which may do more harm to the image of Judaism and Jews which they realise. For example there was a recent series called Skin on US TV, which was about a Jewish pornographer and they tried to make him look ethical, but of course they couldn't do that, he was more of an anti-hero - the thing lasted three episodes, and I'm sure Jerry Bruckheimer thought he was making a strong Jewish character and what he succeeded in doing was associating Jews with pornography which is becoming more and more of a problem in TV's depiction of the pornography industry. And whenever a Soviet Jew has been depicted it's almost always as a member of the Russian mob. And I?m sure they think they?re doing Judaism a favour, whereas if they said nothing at all that would probably be better.
Who do you think does get it right when it comes to portraying Jewish issues on TV?
Well, I mentioned some people in the end of the book - Bernard Lechowick, who did the 1991 series Homefront which was a beautiful series on many levels, very artistic - it dealt seriously with conversion and Jewish identity. There?s also Paul Woolf, who did that classic episode of Little House On The Prairie where the little boy meets an elderly Jewish craftsman. Another one that I really like was Michael Roemer, who did a film called The Plot Against Harry, which I thought was sarcastic, it was a spoof, but it had a great sense of Yiddishkeit. The character was not an angel, but the film had a lot of good sensibility - it really was a gem. It was released in 1989 although it was made in 1968, and he just felt it wasn?t funny, but really could have set a much more positive agenda if it could have come out. Maybe that?s the problem, maybe some of the good things are buried and don?t come out, and that was the purpose! of the book too, and the fact it's published through university press, so that people who are in college now might get an idea of standards and guidelines for trying to do the right thing by Judaism. My feeling is that the gentile students will do better!
How do you think the portrayal of Jews on TV and in film has changed over the years?
Well, others have studied this of course and I think it?s obvious that there were periods where the Judaism was much less explicit, and sometimes they would do a little piece - mainly in the 50s, 60s and even 70s - with a Jewish character or theme on occasion, like Magnum PI helping a rabbi, or Bonanza featuring a Jewish family who were threatened and with the help of the hero and their own efforts get themselves out of a difficult situations. Then in the 70s the themes were primarily the Holocaust, with survivors battling Nazis who were lurking round about and there was a lot of discussion about the Holocaust at that point - there was also the beginning of the theme of mixed marriage - for example there was an episode of Little House On The Prairie which featured a mixed marriage and they decided to raise one child as Jewish and one as Christian, or All In The Family, where you had the Jewish friend whose daughter had married a non-Jew, that kind of thing. Then in the 80s and 90s you had a period of Jewish self-mockery or Jewish angst in programmes like thirtysomething and Seinfeld.
Tell me a bit about your congregation.
Our synagogue is near the university of Chicago, it's going to have its 130th year next season, and interestingly a lot of the early members came here through England and Scotland so they had accents, and they ran a lot of the stores round the Stockyard, which is an Irish neighbourhood. It?s always been one of the main synagogues in Chicago and one of the nicer ones in terms of the people. Our synagogue is unique in that it's the only one we know of in the state that has the synagogue and the Jewish community centre sharing a building.
What?s your own background?
I?m from Springfield, Massachusetts, and I served six years in New Haven, Conneticut from 1982-1988 and I've been at Rodfei since 1988. I've done the column since 1979 when I was a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Colombia University, and I also graduated from a combined programme that the seminary has - you get a BA in one place and a Bachelor Of Hebrew Literature in the other. I was ordained as a Rabbi in 1981 so it's 22 years.
How did the column come about?
It came about because I wrote a column in The Reconstructionist - I'm not a Reconstructionist but I wrote an article there about a TV film that bothered me - it was called Lanegan's Rabbi, it was based on a novel and led to a TV series, but I reviewed the initial one and I was disappointed. And Gabriel Cohen, who was the editor of The Jewish Post And Opinion - who's now about 95 and still goes in to the office, he started the paper over 60 years ago - he saw that column and asked me to review movies and TV for them. I said no because I was a very busy student, and then I saw something else called Summer Of My German Soldier which was based on a novel but was basically about a Nazi prisoner of war in a small Southern town where there was a Jewish family, and it depicted the Nazis as being very sensitive and nice to this young Jewish girl and her father, and that bothered me. So I wrote about that and after that I started doing it when things made me angry, or when things were nice, and originally it was an occasional column, and now it?s virtually every week, or at least about 40 weeks of the year.
Over The Top Judaism is published by University Press Of America and is out now, priced $36.99. For more information visit www.univpress.com
Rabbi Gertel's columns can be read at: http://www.jewishpostopinion.com/
For more information about Rodfei Zedek, visit: http://www.rodfei.org/