In my vast experience as an avid television watcher (probably an average of 25 shows a week during the regular TV season), I have come across a limited number of prototypes for the young modern Jew. On shows that were still running this past season, I count four young Jewish characters.
1) The one who we all know is Jewish, but it is rarely actually mentioned. He has a Hebrew tattoo or a Star of David necklace, maybe he has a Jewish name, or has mentioned that his grandmother survived the Holocaust. In many ways, this character shows the average American that “the Jew” is just like everyone else. By subtly showing that the character is Jewish, but not delving into his Judaism, the rest of America comes to feel that there isn’t much Other in the Jew. True, he doesn’t introduce the audience to a deeper commitment to Judaism, but how often do we see that for other religions either? Examples of this character include Max Blum from Happy Endings and Christina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy.
2) The one who identifies as a cultural Jew. He is proud of his Judaism, though not religious. This is a character who often mentions his Jewishness and speaks positively about it. He takes being Jewish seriously – referencing it in his daily life. Again, this character does not show the world how normal religious observance can be, but it does illustrate to viewers that Judaism can be important to people outside of religiosity, and that indeed Judaism is more than religious observance. Examples here include Schmidt from New Girl and Andy Botwin from Weeds.
3) The third character mentions her Judaism, but only in the course of perpetuating some stereotype and reducing Judaism to a dumbed-down version consisting merely of mother’s guilt, bagels and lox, and reluctantly showing up to synagogue twice a year. Examples here include any Jewish character on Glee (Rachel Berry and Puck).
4) Shoshana from Girls. Shoshana is a new kind of young Jewish character – sort of a mix of all three previous prototypes. She has a Hebrew name, went to Camp Ramah, but doesn’t bring up her Judaism regularly. She appears proud of being Jewish. But something about her still doesn’t sit right with me – she’s too obviously representative of the perceived typical Long Island Jewish…dare I say it, princess. As Shoshana is an amalgam of the others, so are the implications of her portrayal.
Of course, some of these characters are better than others, and some of their Jewishness is portrayed better than others – much of that has to do with the writing of the show, and the acting of the actors. However, I do believe that it is important to have the proud Cultural Jew, and even the Jew whose Judaism is just background information, represented on television. These characters represent a large, and growing, number of young Jews in America. And they also serve to counter some pervasive stereotypes. But I could do without the self-deprecating, always critical, or downright ignorant Jew, whose existence comes across as an apology for Judaism, who turns thousands of years of history, culture, and religion into a punch line. Why not exchange the offensive stereotype for a new kind of character: a young Jew who understands Hebrew, lights Shabbat candles, keeps kosher, and attends synagogue with her family. While more and more we find young Jews having a different connection to Judaism than their parents or grandparents had, there are still many young Jews who are religiously observant. Shoshana is a step in the right direction. Let’s see if Hollywood can go even further and create a new Jewish prototype – one who is observant and isn’t turned into a farce because of it.