'Princesses: Long Island,’ anti-Semitism, and the Array of Jewish TV Characters

It’s time for the Jewish community to take a deep breath, stop worrying about Jewish stereotypes on TV, and start noticing how diversely Jews are portrayed.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
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Yael Miller
Yael Miller

I have a confession to make: My name is Yael Miller, and I’m a TV junkie. Reality shows make up only a small part of my television canon, but a new reality TV show has caught my eye: Princesses: Long Island. The show has come under fire for embracing the Jewish American Princess (JAP) archetype, thereby perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. N.Y. Senator Rick Israel even wants a disclaimer before every episode stating that the show doesn’t represent all Jewish women.

Make no mistake: an anti-Semite could easily draw lots of ammo from this show. From Ashlee’s belittling of a typical middle-class neighborhood as a “ghetto,” to the Yiddish thrown around after horrific behavior (throw a drink at a girl, exclaim “oy vey” afterwards), much of the behavior on this show represents a lot of what the title JAP was built upon: rich, pampered Jewish girls living off of mommy and daddy’s money.

Should we start boycotting Bravo? Is it time to condemn this show?

No. There is really no need to be alarmed. This show is just one of many TV shows that portray an array of Jewish characters, each one presenting a different side of our multifaceted community.

Take the loyal, family-oriented character of Fran Fine in The Nanny for example. In the episode “Everyone Needs A Bubby,” Fine insists on having her grandmother stay at the Sheffield’s home instead of a hotel. The grandmother, Yetta, is incredibly kind and sweet to the children in the home. She does little things like asking the children how their day went and hugging them incessantly — in stark contrast to their cold father, who is constantly chastised for being out of touch and distant from his children.

Then there are the obsessive, vain and nerdy characters like Schmidt in New Girl. Schmidt’s vocabulary is littered with Jewish references, from reminiscing about how he hooked up with a girl on Rosh Hashanah, to how he shout out “Judaism, son!” when he passed by a menorah display on the road. Schmidt portrays the Jewish funny guy in a subtle yet identifiable way. He’s that guy we all know who isn’t defined by his Judaism, but whose life and memories are influenced by his Jewish identity.

Perhaps the most endearing of Jewish characters are the neurotic, self-aware personalities ranging from Shoshanna in Girls to any of the Jewish women in the Real Housewives of New York. Take Bethenny Frankel for example: with her multi-million dollar liquor and lifestyle business, Frankel is at once both shallow and deep, as she obsesses about her clothing, gossips about her friends, and at the same time has the intelligence and capability to build a commercial empire.

As I acknowledge the array of Jewish characters on TV, I start to wonder how it is that we Jews are so pervasive on screen when we only make up 2 percent of the entire U.S. population.

The obvious answer would be that there are a lot of “chosen people” in Hollywood, but there must be something deeper at play.

Perhaps it’s because writers and producers often come from artistic worlds or urban centers, where Jews tend to live, so many of them grow up knowing and befriending Jewish people. Perhaps it’s because Jewish people tend to be comedic trendsetters in television and in movies - from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. Or maybe we Jews have historically used humor to forget for a moment some of our troubles.

Whatever the reason, we, as a minority, should be thankful for the diverse ways in which we have been portrayed, and for how lovingly showbiz has related to our tribesmen in Hollywood over time. Other minorities have not been so lucky. Think of how little Married to Medicine does to advance the perception of female African-American doctors (which was recently protested by Howard University medical students), or how Jersey Shore notoriously portrays Italian Americans. Those communities would probably love to have the plethora of TV shows portraying them in all their diversity that Jewish people has been fortunate enough to have.

It’s time for us Jews to take a deep breath and enjoy the limelight that’s shone on our community. Because TV likes us, it really, really likes us.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

The stars of 'Princesses: Long Island.'Credit: AP

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