Thursday, February 25, 2021




I still remember when our family went to Disney World, years ago, and we went to the exhibit for "It's A Small World After All." To illustrate the point, the exhibit contained caricatures of every nationality. 

The typical Israeli was depicted as -- a Chassid.
Maybe the people at Disney had trouble figuring out what an Israeli is. 
Or perhaps they thought their visitors did.

Times haven't changed.
Depictions of Jews in the media are often inaccurate.

As an extreme example, take the new show on NBC called Nurses:
Set in Toronto, "Nurses" follows five young nurses working on the frontlines of a busy downtown hospital, dedicating their lives to helping others, while struggling to help themselves.
In a recent episode -- which NBC has now pulled off its digital platforms -- one of the subplots is that a Chassidic boy requires a bone transplant in order to be able to walk again.

The boy, with his father at his side, refuses the transplant because the bone might be from an Arab or a woman, or -- as the nurse helpfully chimes in -- an Arab woman.
Elder of Ziyon outlines the extent to which the show Nurses mischaracterized Orthodox Jews as:
Being against any modern medical procedures
o  Being against grafting bone or tissue from non-Jews
o  Being against having women's organs or bones placed in men
o  Jewish men not directly addressing female nurses
o  Saying that prayer and medicine are incompatible
Against that background, we can understand The Wiesenthal Center's reaction:
The writers of this scene check all the boxes of ignorance and pernicious negative stereotypes, right down to the name of the patient, Israel – paiyous and all.

In one scene, NBC has insulted and demonized religious Jews and Judaism.

Overreaction? Orthodox Jews are targeted for violent hate crimes – in the city of New York, Jews are number one target of hate crimes in US; this is no slip of the tongue. It was a vile, cheap attack masquerading as TV drama. What’s NBC going to do about it?
(Note: Apparently the name of the patient is Ezriel, not Israel.)

It is insulting not only for the deliberately negative slant the show casts on Orthodox Jews, but the show's writers couldn't even be bothered to do the minimal research necessary to realize that under the circumstances, no Orthodox Jew and no Orthodox rabbi would object to such an operation.

The website TV Fanatic does offer a possible context for this sub-plot and what it was intended to do -- draw a comparison with the nurse, who is a religious Christian:
I understand what they were going for. Ashley [the nurse] comes from a religious background. She has issues with her conservative Christian home and with her conservative Christian mother.

They were trying to draw a parallel and stir up some feeling for her with this push-button topic.
Stir up some feeling?
Mission accomplished!

But even so, the thinking behind the plot of this episode is not even new.

In 2005, Grey's Anatomy ran an episode with a similar sub-plot: a 17-year-old girl who has recently become more religious finds out that she has a potentially threatening heart condition that could kill her. The good news is that her life can be saved with an operation that will provide her with a new heart valve.

But the valve is from a pig.

The subplot revolves around her refusal to accept the operation because of the source of the valve.

That Jewish law in no way forbids such use of pig parts (only their consumption – and not even that when life is endangered) is not noted; quite the contrary, the viewer is led to believe that the girl’s refusal would be the natural stance of any observant Jew. The silliness of the scenario is only compounded by the casting of a woman as the Orthodox girl’s rabbi (and the episode’s “good guy,” of course).

...But the most egregious element of the fantasy is the character’s, well, character. The Orthodox youth is portrayed as, in the words of one viewer, “a crazy fundamentalist fanatical Jew [who] was rude and behaved horrendously to the doctors who were only trying to help her.” The character belittles her less-observant parents, cursing like a sailor in the process. Just your standard-fare nice, newly religious Jewish girl. [emphasis added]
Realism and accuracy clearly were not considerations. The writer admitted to The Forward, "Whenever there is a story that has a rabbi I never see a woman, I just see old men. I wanted to clash with the stereotype a bit."

But there is more going on in this episode on Grey's Anatomy than just a clash in stereotypes of what a rabbi looks like. As in the episode in Nurses, in this episode of Grey's Anatomy, the writer deliberately created a character who was obnoxious because of her religiosity.

As Rabbi Shafran points out:

...If the character is a positive one, or even a neutral one, no one, save perhaps an anti-Semite, would complain. But if he or she is consciously crafted to be obnoxious – and not merely obnoxious, but obnoxious in her dedication to her ostensible religious beliefs – does that not border on provocation? [emphasis added]

So what is going on here?

In 2005, Wendy Shalit examined the books written about the ultra-Orthodox world, many of which painted a negative picture, and wondered aloud about the audience for such books:
What is the market for this fiction? Does it simply satisfy our desire, as one of Mirvis's reviewers put it, to indulge in "eavesdropping on a closed world"? Or is there a deeper urge: do some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth? Perhaps, on the other hand, readers are genuinely interested in traditional Judaism but don't know where to look for more nuanced portraits of this world.
Does the same desire to undermine the Orthodox Jews motivate the writers of these kinds of episodes on Grey's Anatomy and Nurses?

For whatever reason, many writers today like to create immoral haredi and newly-religious characters. The truth is, I don't know why. Perhaps because they are not from these worlds, they fail to appreciate the idealism that's there. Or perhaps it's because, as Ms. Mirvis has admitted, nowadays "there is a great deal of discomfort with religiosity, and I have to admit, I feel it myself as well."

...But when all your Orthodox characters are cold and dysfunctional, and unlike anything this group understands itself to be, then I think one must ask what else might be going on. [emphasis added]
Shalit ends this article with a challenge:
Let's turn the tables. Suppose there is a new genre in American Jewish literature, in which Reform Jews are vilified regularly. There is the temple's secretary who kills one of her Hadassah sisters in order to get the latest Judith Lieber bag, and a gay Reform rabbi who seduces younger male congregants. There are idealistic college coeds who want to escape Reform life, but are daunted by the prospect of learning Hebrew, so they abuse drugs instead. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is such a genre. And suppose further that these novels are a bit short on character development, that they are primarily driven by page after page of weirdo Reform characters, and mouth agape, one must turn the pages in order to satisfy one's curiosity: what will this bad Reform bunch do next? The authors, who are not Reform themselves, are celebrated in the non-Jewish world and their Reform-bashing literature is translated into multiple languages.

How would we feel about such novels? My guess is that they would not be so popular, and the fact that we have toasted such literature about Orthodox Jews for so long might -- just might -- tell us something about our prejudices. [emphasis added]
There was a time that simple curiosity was the driving force in the depiction of Orthodox Jews. In his review of the book This Ain't Kosher, Elliot Gertel reveals that "the (Jewish) producers of [the TV show] Kung Fu originally thought of making the martial arts master a Hasidic rebbe."

But those were simpler days that are long behind us.





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