Monday, January 18, 2021

Sending the Wrong Message, But Not Entirely

 Actor Noah Galvin as Dr. Asher Wolke (fandom)
One of my pet peeves over the years is how Hollywood portrays Orthodox Jews. To say the least, it is not in any way flattering. In fact it isn’t only Orthodox Jews that are portrayed in unflattering ways. It is anyone that is religious. 

Religious people are at best often portrayed as idiots or fools with outdated belief systems. Sometimes even unmoored from reality and far more connected to superstitious rituals that will do them harm. Portrayals of religious clergy are often seen as morally weak while preaching those same morals to their flock. Various portrayals of clergy have included pedophiles, adulterers, or in some cases murderers. 

Orthodox Jews are given special treatment. We are given quirky personalities  whose religious values never measure up to the values of the mainstream culture Hollywood is selling. Rarely if ever will you see Hollywood portray someone wearing a Kipa as the hero or even as entirely normal.

This is not the result of antisemitism. It is the result of a superficial view by Hollywood of Orthodox Jews. Colored by the perception of the many non Orthodox Jews that populate Hollywood at every level. From producers to screenwriters to directors to actors. Most of whom don’t know any religious Jews, and have never even met one. Or Jews who have gone OTD with angry negative views about their former community. 

It is therefore not a mystery why religious Jews are portrayed so negatively – as out of touch, or quirky, or secretly immoral, or even criminal. It's about ignorance and/or anger.

Jamie Geller and Steven Burg address this issue in the Jerusalem Post:  

In the last several weeks, a mainstream Jewish news service distributed an article highlighting Hollywood’s newest Jewish character on a hit network TV series. This new character is described as caring, noble, a good person; one who happens to have a back story of rejecting his Jewish upbringing and is now a self-proclaimed atheist… 

The new character on a TV series isn’t the problem, or the point. The tragedy is the reason why Jewish characters who choose to deliberately leave religious practice behind are consistently the celebrated standard. The real question is, why is it a positive feature story in JTA? 

These are the “positive Jewish role models” and the stories that make the headlines because they are the stereotypes with which most Jews in America feel comfortable. 

As a solution to this false image the authors suggest that the changing nature of media platforms gives us an opportunity to counter that narrative with our own more positive portrayal of Orthodox Jews. The entertainment industry is no longer controlled by Hollywood alone. The internet changed all that. We should commence doing that as soon as possible. 

I hear that and agree with it. We could use some good PR for a change. And what better way to do that than to produce entertaining movies and TV shows that feature Orthodox Jews as normal. 

But as with most things in life that are worthwhile, the devil is in the details. That is where it gets tricky. The following are their suggestions of the kind of entertainment we should be producing:

(E)xamples of heroism; the beauty of tradition; of whole, healthy, loving families; of intergenerational understanding and appreciation (even respect) of the Almighty and His hand in everything; of how He loves us and what it means to be a Jew and what it means to recognize that.

OK. A movie about heroism can be entertaining. But a movie about loving your family and living your values would be pretty ordinary and frankly, quite boring. As uplifting as it is to me, I don’t think the life I lead has any entertainment value.

Which brings me back to the complaint about making heroes out of those of us that have gone OTD. If I am not mistaken the character the authors describe is in an excellent TV series called ‘The Good Doctor’. It is about a brilliant but autistic young man who has become a doctor. This season there is a running subplot where one of the characters is a young intern, a formerly Chasidic Jew who left his community and is now an atheist. 

I do not see that show as necessarily romanticizing the idea of abandoning one’s faith. I see it as a portrayal of an unfortunate reality. What I also see is something that Hollywood has never done before. Which is to portray someone who was raised in a religious family as the most ethical person in the building. 

For me, the portrayal does not suggest that he is ethical because he became an atheist. Rather it suggests that it was the way he was raised that made him that way. In other words he may have become an atheist and rejected all ritual. But he has retained his ethics. In that sense it is the most positive portrayal Hollywood has ever done about being raised in a Orthodox Jewish household   

Sure, I would have preferred if they simply wrote the character as a devout Orthodox Jew. But I think that would have been far less interesting.   

It’s true that this character might make people that went OTD  see themselves in that character and validate their choices. That is unfortunate. But at least for those who do not understand what kind of values an Orthodox (or in this case a Chasidic)  household instills in our children, this character might give them  some idea about what our values really are.

Just some of my quick thoughts.