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Monday, December 07, 2015

'Jew-ish?

My wife and I have been enjoying the tv show 'black-ish since it premiered last year. The show started as an exploration of an African-American from a hardscabble background who has "made it" (living in a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood, sending his kids to a mostly white private school, working in a mostly white ad agency) and how to maintain the family's connection to black culture. It has evolved to the story of an upper-middle-class black family, depicting and taking on (directly or indirectly) racial and cultural issues in a unique way from a unique perspective (see, e.g., this episode), usually through humor and satire. I cannot say how much the African-American perspective has been watered down for a broader audience, but the show seems to retain something of a special voice and context.

We also just started binge-watching The Goldbergs, which is similarly fantastic. It is a semi-autobiographical show about producer Adam F. Goldberg's childhood in suburban Philadelphia in the '80s. The characters are based on Goldberg's real family and friends and he intercuts photos and home movies of the real-life counterparts. The show never reveals what year it takes place (the narrator begins each episode by saying "it was [date], 1980-something"), instead combining pieces from all over the decade into a single pastiche (the kids are seeing Return of the Jedi and listening to New Kids on the Block at around the same time).

The latter show is understood as being "Jewish," but is it Jewish in the same way that 'Black-ish is black? The Jewish label seems to derive largely from the title and the names of the characters,* because showrunner Goldberg is Jewish, and because the characters behave in stereotypical Jewish ways.**  On the other hand, only two of the six main actors are Jewish.*** Their house is not decorated with the background items that identify it as a "Jewish" home. And we have not yet seen an episode (halfway through Season Two) that discusses or addresses things that mark the family as Jewish--holy days, Bar Mitzvahs, Jewish culture, etc. There was one episode in which the family seemed to be discovering Chinese food for the first time. In fact, the show changes reality to pull back from one Jewish stereotype--Goldberg's real-life father was a doctor and the family lived in a large house, while on the show he owns a small discount furniture store, the home is smaller, and the family more middle class. The show seems "Jewish" in the same way that Seinfeld was Jewish. Otherwise, it really is about kids growing up in the '80s who happen to have a Jewish last name.

[*] In an interview, the actor who plays Murray Goldberg, Adam's father, said they could not get much more obvious unless they called the show "The Jews."

[**] The mother (or the "smother," as she is called) is loud, overbearing, and thinks her children are God's gift. The sons are geeky and non-athletic, but you can tell they will grow up to be "Nice Jewish Boys."

[***] The father and the grandfather, the latter played by George Segal. An older brother is played by an actor with the last name Gentile, which may be the apex of the old adage "Write Yiddish, Cast British." The actress who plays the mother is wonderful, but does not look remotely Jewish.

I am curious about this difference and why 'Black-ish offers a much more recognizable slice of black culture than The Goldbergs does of Jewish culture. Some of this may be artistic vision. Obviously, people make the show they want to make (and ABC execs insist this is Goldberg's vision). And, again, I love the show he is making and am not trying to suggest that Goldberg was somehow obligated to write 'Jew-ish.

But I am wondering whether that show would fly if he had wanted to make it. One might argue this is unnecessary, that Jewish pop culture is a big piece of American pop culture; there is no need for a distinctly "Jewish" voice on TV because so many of the voices on TV are Jewish (actually or stylistically). On the other hand, we need the distinctly black voice that 'Black-ish provides because it is otherwise non-existent. Alternatively, perhaps the vision of the "cultural" Jewish family depicted on the show is that similarly watered-down vision that can appeal to a broader audience that would not, for example, relate to an episode showing the youngest son's Bar Mitzvah. If so,  then it seems that, despite the very different power positions the two groups occupy in American society, there is more of an acceptance for African-American culture (in watered-down, but still recognizable, form) than for Jewish culture in similar form.****

[****] The "Jewish" show that does go beyond last names to depict Jewish culture and people who are part of that culturis Transparent, which, of course, is far better known for the other culture it depicts.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 7, 2015 at 09:31 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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