Curb Your Enthusiasm: Jewish TV Cliches Are a Thing of the Past

A reply to Ruta Kupfer: the striking thing about new television series is the almost total absence of Jewish characters with stereotypical traits.

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In a recent piece for Haaretz, Ruta Kupfer argued that "Again and again, TV shows acclaimed for their nuance and character development rely on a two-dimensional depiction of Jews" ("'Breaking Bad,' 'The Wire,' 'Orange is the New Black': Jewish stereotypes, without the guilt," October 28).

Having just watched "Breaking Bad," "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards" - a Netflix political drama starring Kevin Spacey as Machiavellian Democratic Congressman Frank Underwood - I reached a very different conclusion. The striking thing about these new television series is not the presence of cardboard cut-out Jewish characters with stereotypical traits, but their near total absence.

In the past we had sitcom series such as "Arrested Development," "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which the Jewishness was not merely incidental but integral. Remove it and much of the shows' meat was gone. Even in the much-heralded "The Sopranos," not only did occasional Jews crop up, there was also a long-running Jewish character, Tony Soprano's friend Hesh Rabkin (Jerry Adler).

But these newer series are remarkable for removing the Jews where one might expect to find them. While the lawyer Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) in "The Wire" might be consistently repulsive, he is only one significant character.

Likewise, the Irish shyster lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in "Breaking Bad" only pretends to be a member of the tribe as a marketing device, rather than being halakhically Jewish or "by choice." If anything, this is a compliment to the perceived superior skill of Jewish lawyers over that of their gentile counterparts. Perhaps the Irish should be complaining that Saul's characterization demeans them rather than the Jews, particularly in light of how corrupt he is. Whether the other characters on the show are Jewish is simply guesswork.

Written out

Larry Bloom of "Orange Is The New Black" (played by long-running Woody Allen-lite Jason Biggs) and his parents may be oh-so-Jewish, but they are just a sideshow to the real prison drama. And (spoiler alert) it looks like they are going to be written out of the next series anyway as he breaks off his engagement with lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Indeed, as Kupfer points out, the one Jewish character in the book on which the television show is based has been written out of the series. And he was so odious, it seems, that perhaps this is actually a blessing. One may also point to prison guard Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) as having a Jewish name (and possibly looks) but we're really reaching by this point.

Similarly, in "House of Cards," I spotted only a mere two possible Jews. There is the brief appearance of a Congressman Abrams (Brent Langdon) and the recurrence of Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). Rachel is a high-class call girl who is implicated (another spoiler) in the downfall of Congressman Peter Russo, who is running to be governor of Pennsylvania. While their names suggest the possibility of their Jewishness, there is no certainty. The main journalistic character, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), could have been made into a Jewess, following in the investigative tradition of the real-life Carl Bernstein, played so memorably by Dustin Hoffman, in the film "All the President's Men," but the show's creators decided not to do so.

This, I would argue, presents a new departure. In film, which I wrote about extensively in my book, "The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema" (2012), Jews are seemingly ubiquitous. They populate our screens as major characters in the form of both antagonists and protagonists. They're even there when their presence is uncalled for and unnecessary - that is, superfluous or gratuitous. This was a sign that Jews were becoming ordinary, moving from two-dimensional stereotypes to a spectrum of representations, from good to bad.

In contrast, in television, it seems Jews are gradually disappearing from the United States' major shows, particularly if they're serious drama. Jews tend to populate comedies rather than dramas, perhaps explaining why Larry Bloom's role is potentially diminished as "Orange Is The New Black" moves from comedy to a high-tension prison show.

If anything, this shortage of television Jews could be considered a form of realism, in which Jews make up a tiny fraction of the American populace and hence are overrepresented on the television in the first place.

Finally, if these Jews fulfill roles that we find uncomfortable - shyster lawyers, high-class prostitutes, drippy men - maybe it is precisely because we know of such Jews in real life but don't want to admit it. Think Bernie Madoff.

Jerry Seinfeld.Credit: AP

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