Take the misanthropic, self-centered protagonist of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” make him 30-something, add a British accent and a job with a London Jewish newspaper, and you’ve got Paul Green in “The Jewish Enquirer.”
Beyond the levels of plot and character, the new British series by writer, producer and director Gary Sinyor offers criticism that may stem from the creator’s love-hate relationship with the Jewish press and prompts serious questions about what purpose and audience Jewish journalism is supposed to serve.
Green himself (Tim Downie) is a Jewish enquirer. Stubborn, neurotic, self-centered and paranoid, he gets in his own way and challenges people and rules that annoy him, no matter the social or professional cringey, comedic fallout.
In each of the six disquietingly funny episodes, available on Amazon Prime, Green’s editor sends him to report on stories such as a new organic kosher butcher opening or antisemitic graffiti scribbled on a wall. Were there such a thing as a 23andMe test for sitcoms, the DNA results might reveal connections to the Yiddish comedy web series “YidLife Crisis,” which covers similar topics. Green interviews the new fire chief — “it was either that or a coffee morning for traumatized Israeli and Palestinian mothers, and there’s been four of those in the last two months, so here I am” — but is desperate to cover more important stories.
“Just because we are a Jewish newspaper doesn’t mean we can’t tackle national issues,” he complains to his editor, who says he’ll consider Green’s pitches if he can “find the Jewish angle,” also described as the “Jangle.”
When Green checks the website to see if his stories are prominently posted (who among us in the press can’t relate?), he discovers the “exclusives” that landed there instead: “Cloudy weather in Tel Aviv — exclusive.” “Twin brothers share bar mitzvah — exclusive.” “Jewish film festival opens with Jewish-themed film — exclusive.”
To be clear, this is not how all Jewish journalism works all of the time. There are wildly brilliant journalists who have earned multiple accolades for their courageous reporting and insightful work to bring truth to light. But Jewish journalists and editors are constantly asking — and being asked — what the Jewish angle is. We have grappled with whether a Jewy story is important, or an important story is Jewy. We have written headlines shouting a story’s most tenuous Jewish connections and profiled public figures who were born Jewish but are otherwise not Jewishly connected. We have asked ourselves how much Judaism a story needs to qualify for coverage, and why we write these stories.
If this is beginning to sound like an introspective part of the High Holiday liturgy, maybe that’s appropriate. What are our motivations? How and why do we cover a story? To promote local efforts that are making a difference? To cover big stories through a single lens — is it “good for the Jews?” Or to air dirty laundry in the name of truth even if it’s “bad for the Jews”? To make people feel better, or to unsettle or awaken them to action?
The episodes end with Green at his computer, looking for his stories on the Jewish Enquirer site. As the camera pans over the headlines, it lingers on “Jewish playright [sic] compared to murderer,” featuring a photo of show creator Sinyor. According to a blog post Sinyor wrote in the Times of Israel, he was “once compared in print in a Jewish paper to a child abuser and murderer for writing a Jewish themed play that a critic didn’t like.”
As we move through the challenging stories of our time — the pandemic, the election, systemic racism, Israel and so many others — Jewish publications are still looking for “Jangles” on big stories as well as the local people and events that shape our communities. The community declares a publication “too right” or “too left.” Readers feel a sense of ownership and often wish the publication was “more” or “less” of something: Some stories are deemed too critical while others are “puff pieces”; there’s too much coverage of antisemitism or not enough. In Jewish journalism, as in Jewish community, striking a balance that makes everyone happy has happened only rarely, if ever, in the life of a publication.
The critiques of specifically Jewish journalism embedded in “The Jewish Enquirer” may be a little too niche to resonate with a non-Jewish audience. But the questions about the role that Jewish publications serve are becoming ever-more important, for the writers and editors who decide what is newsworthy, and for the community that will end up supporting them or letting them fade away.