Thursday, November 12, 2009

Beam Me Up, Scotty

I never thought I would see anything like this on nationally broadcast television. But last night for the first time on CBS in a TV series entitled The Good Wife there was a drama involving an Eruv. Actually it was broadcast the night before but I watched a recording of it.

Briefly the plot was about a lawsuit by an individual who claimed she was injured by tripping over a fallen wire from a Tzuras HaPesach. The plaintiff claimed that this was a Bor B’Reshus Harabim and the owners of that Bor were Chaiv B’Nezikin. Asside from Tzaar (pain and suffering) and Ripui (medical expenses), they were seeking punitive damages - Boshes (shame and embarrassment) - in 7 figures.

Her Taaneh was that the owners should have repaired or removed that wire immediately. The defense maintained that as this happened on Shabbos and they were forbidden from doing anything about it as it violated Hilchos Shabbos. Of course Pikuach nefesh would have over-ridden this. But the Tzuras HaPesach in this case was not in anyone’s way. One would have to step out of the normal pathways to trip over it. The case was resolved in favor of the defendant when it was discovered the whole thing was a scam planned by the contractor/installer of the Tzuras HaPesach and his ‘victim’ accomplice.

There was also a little side story about a woman from a wealthy background who wound up becoming a Baalas Teshuva and marrying a Satmar-like Chasid. Her character was portrayed wearing a wig and cap as is the Satmar custom for married women. She ended up being Mechalel Shabbos by clandestinely making phone calls to her secular father on Friday nights. How that impacted on the case is part of the storyline. As an aside it was interesting how her husband reacted to that when he found out.

It was remarkable to see both the level of knowledge and research that went into this episode to make it somewhat believable. There was an explanation about the purpose of an Eruv - although incomplete - was pretty close to being accurate. It is truly amazing to what extent Orthodox Judaism has permeated into American mainstream culture.

That said this episode troubled me. Not because of any overt disrespect of Orthodox Jews. On the contrary. Orthodox Jews were portrayed very respectfully. That speaks volumes about our standing here in light of all the negative news about religious Jews last year – from Meah Shearim - to Brooklyn – to New Jersey – to Iowa – to Los Angeles – to Japan. There was no hint about any of that.

What bothered me is the perception of religious Jews as – well – weird. That is the only word that comes to mind when trying to think about what I saw. Yes, they were portrayed as devout and honorable. But not as normal. Aside from the caricature portrayal of Orthodox Jews, they made them stiff and lacking practically any human emotion. They were all about paying attention to the minutia of Halacha and had no other dimension to them. It was almost as though the actors portraying the lawyers were normal people and their Orthodox Jewish clients were abnormal ‘Spock’ like space aliens– dressed like Satmar Chasidim.

This is apparently the common perception of religious Jews by non Jews – or at least Hollywood. What makes this worse is that half of Hollywood is Jewish. But they are so assimilated that they have no clue about what Orthodox Jews are really like. Their Judaism has little Jewish content. Their lives are indistinguishable from their non Jewish neighbors.

I don’t blame them for this. Most of these Jews come from assimilated backgrounds and don’t really know any better. Their perspective is the same as that of non Jews. But it is no less disheartening for me that Orthodox Jews are never portrayed as normal.

And by normal I don’t mean Modern Orthodox who dress and look like any non Jew except for the Kipa. I mean even Chasidim. Just because they dress differently that doesn’t make them space aliens. They are as normal as anyone else. They have the same human emotions as everyone else. They are not Spock like aliens. But how would any Hollywood Jewish screen writer or director know that? They do not interact with religious Jews at all. They see us all as living cartoons.

It’s too bad. Not that this is an earth shattering problem for me. On the scale of important things to the Jewish people, this ranks pretty low. But just once, I’d like to see an Orthodox character portrayed as a normal human being. That’s going to take contact. Until that happens - beam me up, Scotty.