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Binge-watching Jewish TV as an indoor sport

A new batch of shows on Netflix depicts characters as far more dignified, emotionally complex and action-packed than past stereotypes.

A view of Netflix's upcoming new series “Unorthodox.” Source: Screenshot.
A view of Netflix's upcoming new series “Unorthodox.” Source: Screenshot.
The Report, Nov. 11, 2019

Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Thane Rosenbaum

Netflix was surely not around during the making of the Covenant—the contract between God, Abraham and Jewish People. But more so than perhaps any other media company, Netflix is, apparently, determined to discover the destiny of the Chosen People.

With “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Fauda,” each trending on its “must-see-TV” platform—and presented in English, Yiddish and German subtitles—Netflix is making a cultural statement as to who Jews really are in this world. Doing so required a titanic shift in the cultural depictions of Jews, and a total abandonment of the Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Larry David and Sarah Silverman axes of Jewish-American comedy, which dates as far back as the origins of Hollywood, radio and television itself.

For decades, Jews portrayed in any other way was of no interest in Hollywood. For Americans who watched such pale depictions, Jews were all transplanted Tevyehs dreaming of becoming rich and then instantly disappearing into the American mainstream.

Not with Netflix, however. These three shows are all far more dignified, emotionally complex and action-packed than anything viewers have ever seen about Jews before.

“Shtisel” is set in an ultra-Orthodox enclave of Jerusalem and follows a family committed to their religious commandments, yet not wholly unmindful of the outside world. “Unorthodox” follows the desperation of a young wife in a Chassidic neighborhood of Brooklyn who flees to Germany to pursue a career in music. And by comparison, “Fauda” turns the James Bond franchise into a milquetoast cotillion with its elite Israeli commando unit undercover in the West Bank and Gaza.

In different ways, they capture the genuine GPS coordinates of modern Jewish life. And where is that located? Well, surely not by clogging arteries in Jewish delicatessens or chasing after blonde shiksas, or wining on the couches of psychoanalysts or kibitzing at garish bar mitzvahs. No, in the imagination of Netflix, the pulse of contemporary Jews is invested in holding on to their religion, and people, with a little help from Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces.

These Jewish characters are not caricatures. They know what’s at stake. They are agonizingly aware of what has already been lost. They are Jews without apology—surely not seeking entrée into a cooler club. They already have a club, and they now have a country.

Even when they escape from religious Orthodoxy, it is not without a palpable love for the Jewish people. There are no self-haters among them. These Jews would rather be caught dead than stand in line hoping to be served by a “Soup Nazi.”

Most of all, they know who they are even when undercover, even when fleeing from an insufferably insular world.

Paradoxically, for all the conspiracy cum-canard talk of Jews controlling Hollywood, those former tribal studio chiefs didn’t do their landsman any favors. Netflix didn’t have much competition when it came to portraying Jews faithfully and honorably.

The offerings gravitated around perpetual victimhood and self-hatred. Nebbishy, needy and neurotic. Cowards obsessed with Cossacks. A hot mess of deficient, degenerate characters who uncomfortably remind viewers of Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein.

“Northern Exposure” featured a kvetchy Jewish doctor consigned to an Alaskan outpost, a gefilte fish out of water, pining for pastrami and seats at the old Shea Stadium. There was the annoyingly nasal nanny concocted by Fran Drescher. And all those Ross Gellers and Ari Golds, and the various incarnations of the Goldbergs on radio and TV.

You know you’re in trouble if Adam Sandler’s “Zohan” is the closest Hollywood can get to a slightly less embarrassing cinematic Jewish life.

These are all Jews stuck on doing shtick, a miserable merry-go-round of Jewish stereotypes that are barely recognizably Jewish at all, reciting the same crude jokes about overbearing Jewish mothers and wives ruining prospects for happiness. Divest them of kitsch and cliché, and they are easily confused with any circus clown dancing the hora.

All of them are yesterday’s Jews. Thankfully, Netflix finds them not the least bit interesting.

Even actual Jewish-American actors can’t dependably pass for members of a tribe that has a religion worth practicing and a country worth defending. They are so much like the general population of American Jews: fashionable social-action warriors who have never seen actual combat and for whom simply saying tikkun olam allows for a dispensation in the eating of pork.

Natalie Portman, born in Israel, refused to return to her homeland to accept its Genesis Prize because she disagreed with the policies of the Israeli government. Since when does an Oscar qualify an actor to conduct foreign policy from well-fortified mansions in Los Angeles and Paris?

So fickle are these Jews, why do you think the Kabbalah has been placed in the sturdier custodial hands of Madonna and Ashton Kutcher?

Nowadays, with the fear of a virus forcing everyone into insular worlds, binge-watching has become a lone spectator sport. So, in the spirit of these times, if you’re looking to be re-introduced to Jews on screen, or trying to find your way back as a Jew, Netflix, by default, is your North Star.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work is “Saving Free Speech … from Itself.” He can be reached via his website.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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