An episode of the 1960s classic TV western Bonanza centered on a Jewish family traveling through Virginia whose members were victimized by bandits seeking to steal their precious religious items. Such was the presentation of Jews on TV a generation ago: They were exotic, foreign, “the other.” Their accents, manners, and dress were considered odd by the rest of the community (read: Christians).
These days, Jewish characters are still somewhat unusual and used as a departure — to a greater or lesser degree — from the norms of the general public. At the same time, they are definitely part of the rainbow that is American society as presented on the small screen.
For example, last season Mad Men — the AMC hit series about people working at an advertising firm in the 1960s — introduced Michael Ginsberg as a brash, young Jewish copywriter who claims to have no family, even though he’s shown visiting his father, who bestows a Hebrew blessing upon hearing of his son’s new job. The 20-something Ginsberg is clearly embarrassed by his father’s “old world” ways; in a subsequent episode, he tells a story about his upbringing during the Holocaust that may or may not be true.
“I think there’s two types of Jews,” said TV critic Alan Sepinwall in a phone interview. Mad Men “is the 1960s and it’s around the time of the rise of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce and the idea of the separation from the religious Jew versus the cultural Jew, the secular and non-secular. So they’ve been using [Ginsberg’s] character to illustrate that generational shift between the father, who was obviously in some way involved in what was happening in Europe during the war, and the son who tells the story to another character — and she can’t believe it. He seems crazy enough that he could be inventing it, but I don’t think that’s supposed to be the implication.”
Sepinwall said that in his long experience “covering the business, knowing a lot of writers — many of whom happen to be Jewish — they generally tend to fall on the more secular Jewish side…. They are perhaps more assimilated and for them it’s not something that they’re consciously thinking about, if they’re writing a character that happens to be Jewish.”
Sepinwall, the former TV critic for The Star-Ledger who now writes for Hitfix.com, an entertainment website, recently published The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, which considers a dozen watershed series, including a few — Mad Men, Deadwood, and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer among them — that have featured prominent Jewish characters.
John Hawkes played Sol Starr, the Austrian-born hardware-store partner to Sherriff Seth Bullock in the acclaimed HBO western series Deadwood. In the pilot, Starr and Bullock meet Al Swearingen, the town’s resident crime lord/saloon-keeper who immediately comments about the Jews’ affinity for business, a remark he considers a compliment. Additional episodes refer to Starr’s religion through thinly veiled stereotyped comments.
The cult classic Buffy featured Allison Hannigan as Willow Rosenberg, the eponymous heroine’s BFF. “They would occasionally make a joke about how the Jewish girl was wandering around, holding crosses,” said Sepinwall, who grew up in Pine Brook and attended Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“I think it becomes sort of a no-win situation, because sometimes you do have those characters and it’s mentioned once or twice, if that. Dr. Greene on ER and Detective Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street are two that come to mind, where there were only one or two episodes that even vaguely mentioned it.” In a Homicide episode titled “Kaddish” Munch, played by Richard Belzer, recited the mourners’ prayer for a murder victim. More recently, Mandy Patinkin’s character, Saul Berenson, said Kaddish for scores of victims of a terrorist bombing in the season finale of Homeland, as he did for for a dead terrorist earlier in the series.
Then there are those who would like to see even more Jewish content. “This is something I hear about from a lot of different groups,” Sepinwall said. “We would like representation, and then different people can’t agree on the kind of representation there would be.”
Sepinwall self-published his book — available via Amazon — rather than go the traditional route. (It has since become a rarity — a self-published work that ended up being picked up by a major publisher, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)
“I knew that I had enough of a platform at this stage of my career that in theory I could self-promote it very effectively, which has turned out to be the case. So far the response has been overwhelming.” His book even merited a review in The New York Times — unusual for a self-published work — which Sepinwall termed “completely unexpected and wonderful.” Reviewer Michiko Kakutani named it one of her 10 favorite books of the year.
“I was able to do the kind of book I wanted to do and that I felt confident people would want to read.
“There is definitely some Jewish content in these shows that haven’t been as prevalent as they would be if I was doing a comedy book,” he said. “If I was doing a comedy book, there would be lots and lots of Judaism.”