Challenging TV Stereotypes

Challenging Stereotpyesfeatured

Barbara Borts discusses Jews on recent television.

We are the stars of this past couple of weeks. Everywhere you look, there we are. There is Ridley Road, Paris Police 1900, Scenes from a Marriage, and, on Shabbat past, Yentl. There was even more, but let’s stop there.

Ridley Road and Paris Police 1900 concern themselves with historically representing two eras and situations of savage antisemitism in England and in France in the 20th century. Scenes from a Marriage and Yentl touch upon issues to do with Jewish life and observance, and, of course, love. Each programme represents a trope of Jewish existence.

Ridley Road was written by Jo Bloom, whose Jewish connection can only be surmised by the surname, as she makes nothing of being from a Jewish family herself. The adaptation for the BBC series was created by a Jewish woman, Sarah Solemani. This is not a programme about Jewish life, per se, but concerns itself rather, with the activities of an anti-fascist Jewish group that breaks the stereotype of Jewish passivity, something of a theme in the world of Holocaust Studies. Not only that, but it also spotlights the physical courage of a Jewish woman, and is interesting in that regard, as there has been more and more research done into the hitherto rather overlooked work of female partisans, the Jews and non-Jews who engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis.

Few Jews were cast in the series but the two mother figures, Vivien’s mother and auntie, were definitely played by Jewish actors. I find that rather interesting, that the Jewish mothers, already a stereotyped trope, needed to be inhabited by, well, Jewish women, and so, that is what we have, Samantha Spiro and Tracy-Ann Oberman. Was this a conscious choice, was there an entrenched belief that the Jewishness of the mother figures needed to be more sharply underlined than those of the fathers?

There has also been an interesting discussion about the casting of Jews in such roles. Further, that Jews of colour feel that the assumptions about what a Jew might look like erase them. But in that role and in that time, Vivienne, the hero, would almost certainly have been a white Ashkenazi Jew. Nevertheless, the point is taken, and, if we move beyond the face and look to the historical-cultural-religious resonances of what it means to be a Jew, then the colour of that Jewish face is not the issue, but rather, that there is a realisation that someone from a Jewish background might embed themselves more deeply in the character than a non-Jew could. Oh, and pronounce the brachot better. In the end, Vivienne meets up with her lover Jack, returned from his false ‘death’, and they fly together to Israel. What sort of Jewish life will unfold for them there? Perhaps there will be a second series.

If Ridley Road gave us the activities of Jews fighting for themselves against the Fascists, then Paris Police 1900 eavesdrops on the Parisian fascists and their even more intense and violent hatred of Jews, coalescing around the figure of the tragic Dreyfus. The rhetoric is quite horrifying and whereas the supremacists of Ridley Road seem an echo of the Holocaust, Paris Police 1900 is a portend. Jews qua Jews are rather absent or peripheral to the action at the beginning of the series. The author, Fabian Nury, may be Jewish, but I cannot find any definitive proof, nor am I sure about the Jewish characters and whether they are portrayed by Jewish actors.

I was looking at some of the reviews on IMDb and came across a few who found the scene where the pig’s throat was cut repulsive, appalling but made no such comments about the fact that the pig was dressed up to be a Jew and that the punchline of that little episode was that it was to be the exemplar for the upcoming slaughter of the Jews. An example reads: “However, much as I can live with the human brutality I did find the perceived treatment and abuse of animals difficult to watch, hence my lower score as I don’t believe it was necessary to show this level of abuse.” Moral equivalence? What is going on in people’s minds? The shocking act stopped with the blood of the pig and did not continue to flow for the blood of the upcoming victims.

With the next two programmes, we move to issues of Jewish identity, where the questions are not about external forces of intolerance, but rather, internal ones and our responses to them.

Scenes from a Marriage was originally a Swedish series from 1973, which had nothing to do with Jewishness. The new series was created by Hagai Levi, an Israeli Jew, but, as with the casting of non-Jews in Ridley Road, the main Jewish character in Scenes from a Marriage, Jonathan, is portrayed by a non-Jewish actor, although the actor now lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hmmm.

Jonathan, it seems, had been an Orthodox Jew in university when he first met Mira, on the way off the derech, doffing his peyot and yarmulke and his religious beliefs. He becomes a philosopher, the antithesis to the believer and marries the non-Jewish beauty. During their marriage, only an occasional mention was made of Jewish life, peered at from the window, formative, yet distanced. Later, after the separation, when Mira visits their home on a Friday night, she finds traces of Shabbat candles and prominently displayed challahs on the table. The challot continue to play a role in the scene, at the table, where Jew and non-Jew dissect their relationship.

Jonathan explains that his parents had visited, and he had ‘made’ Shabbat for them, then decided to continue the practice, for the peace it brought both to him and to daughter Ava. In another scene, we find Jonathan leaving his father’s stone setting, as his mother castigates him for not working harder at his marriage (really? She wanted him to continue to be married to a non-Jew?) but discover through an overheard Zoom call that he has married again and has a child. The new wife, Jane, is Jewish – they wish each other layla tov and Jonathan explains to Mira that this new wife, his first Jewish partner in decades, speaks his language, and this feels comfortable to him. His comfort may grow, and he may come to cherish this, despite his disavowal of love. And if they remain together, as their son grows up, the couple will, of course, take him to cheder, they will celebrate Shabbat, they will visit the observant family, and they will celebrate their son’s Bar Mitzvah. Whatever happens, it may be that Jonathan will continue his scenes with Mira, those potent ties of love and desire, which bind him as tightly as the tefillin once did. Perhaps there is a subtext, of Jewish longing for normalcy, embodied by philosophy and a non-Jewish spouse, an obsession, but never really a home in which to breathe. Jonathan, who has asthma, has no attacks after separating from Mira until their last scene together. Although Jonathan presents Orthodoxy as stifling, it seems that it may be the non-Jewish world that suffocates him. Jane gives him back his breath. And yet, alterity is alluring.

I am also fascinated by Mira’s attraction to Jewish men, the one she married, and Poli, the Israeli lover, incidentally, portrayed by Israeli Jewish actor Michael Aloni. In some years, sometime in the future, Mira will appear in the office of a rabbi, holding hands with one or another Jewish man, explain that she has a history of relationships with Jewish men, and ask to being the process of becoming Jewish herself. We note that she shows great respect in general to Judaism, she does speak some of the language, only stuttering when it comes to Jonathan’s residual ritual impurity hang-ups. Mira knows about Shabbat, she understands the concept of shivah, and, in one of the most painful of an already searing drama, she learns about the get. Mark my words – she will one day convert. Will she reunite with Jonathan? Or Poli?

In Scenes from a Marriage, the stereotype of the Jewish man has been revivified, and, who knows ‎with what intention, by an Israeli steeped in a culture that put distance between the timid ‘ghetto’ ‎Jew and the new tough Israeli Jew. Jonathan’s character reclaims that gentle Jewish archetype, the ‎one that my father used to tell me led non-Jewish women to confide that they would love to ‎marry a Jewish man, a man who returned home after work to his wife and children. Jonathan grows ‎bolder, more certain, finds himself clung to, no longer clinging, and, in a striking moment, confides ‎that parenting, children, is for him his true vocation. ‎

And lastly in our recent viewing schedule was Shabbat afternoon’s offering of Yentl. This was, of course, the most unequivocally Jewish production of the four, adapted from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, by Barbra Streisand, and starring Jewish actor and Yiddish singer Mandy Patinkin, and Amy Irving, who has a Jewish family and was married for a time to Stephen Spielberg. In a lovely coincidence, one of the yeshiva students in Yentl (Allan Corduner) plays the role of the rabbi in Ridley Road.

The tension in this film is not about the hatred of the outer world, the starting and terminus for the identification of some Jews with Judaism or Jewishness (do not hand Hitler a posthumous victory), nor about the issues of freedom and integration and the interplay between alterity and ease in intermarriage. This is about the inner struggle of Jewish women to be fully integrated into Jewish life, burrowing towards Talmudic study, and asserting their rights to delve into it with the same degree of commitment as any man would have. In the end, Avigdor, the man she loves, offers her the life of a woman if she will only relinquish her unnatural desire for Gemara, and she demurs. He is not ready for her, and she chooses to find a way to be both a woman and a talmid khakham. In this way, Yentl’s story mirrors that of Vivienne’s, as Jewish women find both opposition and support for their courageous resolutions to revolt against what was, and is still, expected of women.

In his book People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz discusses how Jewish men were feminised by the prevailing culture. Jews were excoriated as cowards, like lambs to the slaughter as Jewish men, Jewish women, and women altogether were often depicted, and certainly in reality could be powerless to ameliorate their own situations. These programmes go some way to challenging those stereotypes. In 1960s Britain, Jews fought back, and women were involved, even if not as depicted in Ridley Road, but in putting a woman at the forefront, it pays homage to all women who exhibited enormous courage in fighting fascists. Dreyfus himself has enlisted to fight for his country, and there were indeed Jewish women who entered male professions such as the law, as depicted in Paris Police 1900.

And then, Yentl has always fascinated me, as one of the first women rabbis in the world, who, with all of the other women who became rabbis and cantors, pursued their love of Jewish study freely and openly. Bashevis Singer had a sister, Esther Kreitman, who penned her own works about her life in a traditional family, and about whom Eric Voegelin wrote, “Had she lived in another era, she might have become a female saint, or like the Baal Shem’s daughter Hodel, who danced with the Hasidim.” There are now worlds where she can dance, if not with the Hasidim, then her own Jewish dance.

I await further programmes.


Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts has a BA from the University of California,  she moved to London to study at Leo Baeck College and was ordained in 1981. In 2014, she completed a PhD thesis entitled Mouths Filled with Song: Anglo-Reform Judaism through the Lens of its Music at Durham University.
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Julia Pascal
2 years ago

Very sharp and provocative. A really interesting addition to the critique of Jewish representation.

2 years ago

Thanks for your essay, Barbara. I was troubled by the ending of Ridley Rd. It seemed to say that ultimately, Jews don’t belong in this country, they’ve got this other country Israel…

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