So Mel Gibson wants to make a movie about that Torah-learning, dreidl-loving, Greek-fighting Jewish icon, Judah the Maccabee. He has a deal with Warner Bros. to produce the movie. But before you get your tzitzit in a bunch, remember that it’s not exactly hitting theaters near you tomorrow. As far as I know (though admittedly, I’m as far from the Hollywood backrooms as you can get), it’s in the beginning fuzzy stages; it’s not even clear Gibson will find enough people willing to work with him to make this actually happen.
However, the Jewish world, led by the Anti-Defamation League, has come out fighting. To summarize: Gibson, no friend of the Jews (see: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Also: “The Passion of the Christ”) better stay out of our history.
But does it really matter? I mean, there is the outside possibility that it could be a great, positive movie. And if not, if Gibson butchers the story, or creates a caricature of the Jewish folk hero? In some ways, we’ve been caricaturing Judah Maccabee for centuries, idealizing him as some sort of He-Man.
So I’m not going to get too concerned with how Gibson might depict a story of a religious Jew from 160 BCE.
I’m more concerned with how television and movies are depicting religious Jews today, in 2011.
Because essentially, religious Jews are still played for laughs.
I think about the popular TV show “7th Heaven,” which ran from 1996—2007. The show centered on the life of a religious Protestant minister and his family. The family’s religion was not buffoonish or stereotyped. It was just…how they lived. Religion permeated their lives, informed their decisions, but it wasn’t necessarily the first thing you noticed about them, or all anyone could talk about. Their religion was woven into the fabric of their lives, and the show.
You know, kind of like the way religion is for most observant Jews. But can you imagine a long-running drama about the daily ups and downs of a religious Jewish family?
Instead, we get a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions.
First up, there’s Jacob Ben-Israel on “Glee,” who isn’t exactly religious but with the frizzy hair, nerdy glasses and HELLO, I’M A JEW name, is by far the most overtly Jewish character on the show. And he is a creepy, hypersexualized dweeb with absolutely no redeeming values. Except that you can laugh at him.
(The first time I saw his character on the show, I looked around the room—although I was alone at the time—and thought, “Am I really seeing this? Am I the only one offended by this guy?”)
Or anytime a show portrays a religious Jewish character (always a guest star, of course, never a regular) it’s always the Super-Jew version. Curly peyot for the guy, pillbox hat atop a wig for the girl, both talking like they’re still in the shtetl. And, naturally, they’re involved in some Super-Jew plotline:
• They have a million kids and don’t use birth control! And look how fat and tired she is! (“Private Practice,” Season 3, “The Parent Trap”).
• And they wear funny clothes and they’ve got this crazy wire hanging around telephone poles so they can push strollers on their Sabbath! (“The Good Wife,” Season 1, “Unorthodox.” The best part of that episode BY FAR was the impressive research the writers had done into eruv, and yet the crux of the storyline involved a woman shopping in a store owned by a religious couple—on Shabbat!! Judaism 101 calling, can we sign you up?)
The bottom line: Jews of a religious bent are still just a Prime Time amusing subplot. You pull them out to laugh at and then quickly shove them back under the challah cover. TV has a stellar track record at portraying secular or unaffiliated Jews (see: Ross and Monica Geller on “Friends,” among others), but religious Jews are bizarre, freakish, an anomaly.
But perhaps change is a-coming. From the most unlikely corner: Reality TV. Yes, the birthplace of “The Bachelor,” “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “Jersey Shore” may be the cornerstone of change for religious Jews in pop culture.
Last summer, there was “Captain Kosher,” aka Andrew Gordon, a nice Jewish doctor who competed on the reality television show “Big Brother.” He wore his kippah, observed Sabbath and kashruth and even fasted on Tisha B’Av. On the show, there some natural curiosity about his religion, but he was refreshingly treated like just another contestant.
Season Five of “The Apprentice” showcased two Orthodox contestants; one of them (Lee Bienstock) made it all the way to the finals. His religion was definitely part of his story, such as when he took off for Rosh Hashanah, but it was not the focus. He was a hardworking, creative, aggressive competitor, who happened to be an Orthodox Jew.
One of my own friends was featured on “A Baby Story,” the TLC reality show which follows couples through their pregnancies and births. The angle of her story wasn’t that she was Orthodox, it focused on her desire for a homebirth. She and her husband were shown davening with their older son, and my friend covered her hair throughout the show with a hat or scarf. The show was respectful in how they depicted religion, and even made sure she was modestly filmed during the birth scene.
So while we haven’t yet achieved the Jewish version of “7th Heaven,” pop culture is starting to depict religious Jews as more than just beanie caps and peyot.
Which is why I’m not going to worry too much about Mel and the Maccabees. The movie will come out, we’ll laugh, we’ll cry. And in the meantime, I’m hoping that reality television can maybe teach its scripted brother a thing or two about religious Jews.