OpinionJewish & Israeli Culture

Jews must tell their own stories in all their complexity

We must put an end to dangerous stereotypes in books, films and the media in general.

A view of Netflix's upcoming new series “Unorthodox.” Source: Screenshot.
A view of Netflix's upcoming new series “Unorthodox.” Source: Screenshot.
Corie Adjmi. Credit: Courtesy.
Corie Adjmi
Corie Adjmi is the best-selling author of the novel The Marriage Box and the award-winning short story collection Life and Other Shortcomings.

When I was a child, my grandmother called me her “little shiksa.” In Yiddish, shiksa means a non-Jewish woman. This was meant as a compliment. My grandmother was a glamorous woman who knew a thing or two about beauty and fashion. I loved her immensely, so I clung to the nickname she gave me with pride.

At the time, American beauty as shown in magazines and movies was pretty singular: white skin, blue eyes and an upturned nose, the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Christie Brinkley. Dark-skinned Barbie dolls did not exist.

At the time, it wasn’t considered objectifying to comment on the looks of a little girl, so I often heard the phrase, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, this was meant as a compliment, and that’s how I took it.

Since Oct. 7, things have changed. I’ve been reflecting on my childhood, my Jewish education and how my identity was formed. I always had tremendous Jewish pride, but unbeknown to me, there might have been some unspoken baggage: internalized antisemitism and self-hate.

Why else would I think it was admirable to look like someone I wasn’t? Where did I get the idea that not looking Jewish was somehow preferable? Or that Christmas was better than Chanukah and Halloween more fun than Purim? It wasn’t all from my grandmother.

There is a meaningful Jewish value called tikkun olam—“repair of the world.” Tikkun olam calls on Jewish people to make the world a better place. I have felt this obligation for my entire life. As a teenager, I participated in walk-a-thons for the March of Dimes and annually collected money for UNICEF. When I got older, I donated to Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America and the American Cancer Society. These are not Jewish charities. Yet there is a myth that Jewish people only give to Jewish organizations.

Where in American pop culture are the stories showing Jewish characters doing good deeds for non-Jews and contributing to the world at large?

Where is the feature film showing the generosity and foresight of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish man who spent millions of dollars in the early 20th century to build thousands of schools across the South for black children?

In books and films, Jews are portrayed in a very different way. Reform Jews are often depicted as greedy, anxious and somewhat nutty. Orthodox Judaism certainly has a bad rap, portrayed via a single narrative of a restricted life in which women are subjugated, and men are insensitive and devout to a fault. Traditions and cultural expectations are viewed through a narrow and judgmental lens, with rituals and laws depicted as archaic and repressive.

The Netflix shows “Unorthodox” and “My Unorthodox Life” are two examples. After seeing either one, how could anyone (Jewish or not) understand the complexities and nuances that exist within Orthodox communities? The series portrays their subjects in a black-and-white fashion in which there is a right and a wrong, and there is no good. “Unorthodox” stories should be told. They serve a purpose and show a specific experience, but that experience is not universal. These shouldn’t be the only stories told. If they are, we run the risk of perpetuating and reinforcing old and dangerous stereotypes.

With Holocaust denial at an all-time high, we certainly need stories about it, but we also need stories showing Jewish delight and pride. My novel The Marriage Box is a peek into the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn in the 1980s. Fundamental and joyous Jewish values like the importance of family, celebrations and good food are depicted. Core beliefs are examined and challenged. A young female Jewish character tells another, “You might feel ‘less than’ but I don’t. Women are not the basement; we’re the foundation.”

The Jewish world is beautiful, layered and multifaceted. We shouldn’t judge any religion, culture or community for their observance and behavior, because without accurate and in-depth knowledge, we remain ignorant.

It’s time for Jewish people to do their part in telling more stories with fleshed-out Jewish characters. We need books, films and television series showing Jewish joy and generosity. We need narratives illustrating our intellectual curiosity, ingenuity, spirituality and creativity. Most importantly, we need these traits to be shown in a good light, because even our strengths have been spun in a negative way.

Readers often ask me about the patriarchy and materialism in my book, as if these problems exist only in the Orthodox Syrian Jewish community. We all know that’s a lie. Gender disparities and a fascination with money and power are part of American culture in general. They are prominent in other cultures around the world. But often, the initial instinct—even from other Jews—is to point a finger, demonize and “other.”

The tricky part is that Jewish characters must be allowed to misbehave on the page. They should be as flawed as anyone else. But it is less dangerous for us as a people when Jews are represented more fully and accurately; when the pejorative stories aren’t the only ones being told.

Jews are not one thing. We need to show Jewish people with blue eyes and brown, light hair and dark. We are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. We are aggressive and humble, rich and poor. We can no longer tolerate one-note characters: the neurotic Jewish mother, the cutthroat Jewish businessman.

Going forward, I believe Jewish writers, directors and actors (Jonah Hill, I’m talking to you!) have a responsibility not to add to the already tarnished media landscape. Portraying a group of people in the same way over and over is not only false but dehumanizing. We need to check our own biases in order to avoid reinforcing outdated stereotypes.

People learn and cultivate empathy through stories. Without honest and complete narratives, we may internalize negative messaging and untrue beliefs like I did regarding what it means to “look like” a Jewish woman. I know today that Jewish women are many things, including beautiful.

This is not a small matter. In fact, it is essential to our survival for Jewish people to be seen and known in all our forms. Continuing to draw flat, one-dimensional Jewish characters or to tell tales that rely on stereotypes, breeds antisemitism. What we need instead are stories that enlighten, teach, raise questions and encourage honest conversation. Through storytelling, we can begin to properly represent ourselves.

Let’s be loud and proud, and flash our fierce light on the screen, in books and in our own lives.

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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