There are plenty of Jewish characters on television, but so few that Jewish people can actually relate to.
From Seinfeld to The O.C, Jewish characters have been a part of popular culture for decades. However for many of these characters, their Jewishness is reduced to a one liner rather than becoming an integral part of their storyline and characterization. Growing up I was the only jewish person in my high school, and finding somewhere to relate was extremely difficult. When I looked for media that could help me connect to that part of myself, all I found were funny rabbis and controlling, meddling mothers.
Today Jewish representation in television in film is still problematic, but there are a few shows that have characters who are realistic, relatable, and multi-dimensional. Here are three shows whose Jewish characters go beyond the stereotype, proving that representation doesn’t have to come at the cost of a great show.
I never thought that in looking for a relatable character on television, I would turn to a show about war crimes. NCIS proved me wrong with the creation of Ziva David. Ziva is different from most Jewish characters on TV because she’s a Middle Eastern Jew, born in Israel. As one of the first full time Israeli characters on television, Ziva has served as a link between American audiences and Middle Eastern culture as she showcases her love for Israeli rap and Jewish holidays (that aren’t Hanukkah). Not to mention, she’s a complete and total badass.
One of my favorite memories from childhood is staying up to watch The Rugrats Passover special each season and getting to see the stories I had heard my whole life as they were played out on the television. The Rugrats was successful in showing how jewish children are really just like everyone else, but that they’re also connected to a history and culture that goes further back than any of them can even comprehend. Even their Hanukkah special makes me tear up to this day, and I hate Hanukkah specials. Leave it to cartoons to make you feel connected to your own culture in a way a real human actor never could.
Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a show that took the way Judaism is looked at and turned it on its head. In the show, we see an inmate named Cindy go through the process of converting to Judaism. Conversion is something that is rarely showed on television, and to me, OITNB gave it just the right amount of sincerity, humor, and love that it needed to ring true to any audience, Jewish or not. Although the storyline starts out as a joke as all the inmates claim Judaism in order to get kosher meals, it quickly evolves into a heartfelt journey of revelation as we see Cindy putting her all into seriously becoming a Jew. When Cindy completes her conversion with a mikvah in the lake outside the prison, I found myself crying, feeling like I was watching a member of my own family instead of a fictional character. No matter what her original reasons for converting to Judaism were, by the end of the season, it’s clear that Cindy is sincere and dedicated to her new lifestyle as she says, “Honestly, I think I found my people.”