A Hebrew-language ad for Netflix's hit alt-history romance series "Bridgerton."
A Hebrew-language ad for Netflix's hit alt-history romance series "Bridgerton."

Where is the Jewish ‘Bridgerton’? We need period pieces where Jews aren’t the victims.

Think about portrayals of Jews in period pieces over the past half century. What comes to mind? There’s a very good chance the majority of the content revolves around the Holocaust: “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” “Life Is Beautiful” and, more recently, “Jojo Rabbit.” Or maybe you thought of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which isn’t about the Holocaust but is underlined by violent antisemitism and ends with the Jewish characters being expelled from their villages.

I want to argue that this is a problem. We need better representation of Jews in period pieces. We need storylines that don’t revolve around our expulsions and deaths.

On one level, it would improve how we Jews see ourselves today. Media portrayals of Jews as eternal victims only reinforce a mentality of eternal victimhood, a mentality that is a natural reaction to millennia of antisemitism but that does not actually serve us. We deserve to stand strong and be joyful.

At the turn of the 19th century, early Zionist thinkers fought against our seeing ourselves — and even worse, acting — as powerless victims of history. They sought to remedy this mindset with the creation of the “New Jew” and his state (women were disregarded at the time). I’m pointing to the same problem, and I want to remedy the situation with a Jewish version of “Bridgerton.” That isn’t to say a state and a TV show are on the same level. They obviously aren’t, but seeing ourselves placed in history outside a context of suffering would teach us to see ourselves outside that context today. This not only would be emotionally healthier and more appropriate in a period of unprecedented freedom for Jews, but also would allow us to more accurately identify and combat real antisemitic threats which, make no mistake, are abundant.

On a different but closely related level, the media portrayals of our expulsions and deaths teach us that the only Jewish experiences worthy of artistic representation are those of suffering. After all, if other people don’t value our joy, why should we? Such portrayals verge on antisemitism.This might seem counterintuitive: Why would it be antisemitic to make art about the horrors of the Holocaust? Well, it isn’t inherently, especially when the artists are Jewish.

But when the only Jewish stories worth telling for non-Jews are about our deaths — often paired with stories of righteous gentiles so non-Jews can reassure themselves they would have done something to help us — something is off. It seems our stories aren’t being told for our sake. Rather, they are being appropriated to assuage non-Jewish guilt. A sense of proportion is, of course, important. Appropriating our history is not a hate crime, but that doesn’t mean we should give it a pass.

Finally, it must be said that Jewish history is bigger than pogroms and dhimmi status. It’s bigger even than the Holocaust. Throughout history, the Jewish experience has been greater than our victimhood. It has encompassed our joys, our desires, our spirituality, our intellectual feats and our many shortcomings as well. Jews are real people, and that means we’re complex. Our experiences are multifaceted. Portraying the sum of our experiences as nothing more than an endless cycle of suffering, in period pieces but also in general, is simply inaccurate.

And more than being inaccurate, it is an affront to the memories of our ancestors. Reducing our ancestors to their trauma is not an honor. If anything, it amounts to deep disrespect.

So let’s demand better. I want a show about the Sephardic Golden Age. I want a movie about post-Emancipation Jews attempting to integrate into non-Jewish high society. I want to see portrayed on the big screen the spiritual and emotional highs and lows of Sabbateanism, the false messianic movement that rocked the Jewish world in the 1660s.

And while we’re at it, let’s look to the work of Jewish authors for source material. For instance, let’s adapt Amy Levy’s “Reuben Sachs: A Sketch” for the big screen. The novel takes a critical look at British-Jewish high society in the 1880s — so critical, in fact, that it generated considerable blowback in the Jewish community when it was published. But we should be able to criticize our communities, both past and present. Criticism is a sign that we are engaging with every aspect of what it means to be a Jew, not just the parts that look good — or parts that don’t even look good but that fit an unhealthy self-image.

It is by creating and promoting art that portrays Jewish life in all its complexity that we show that we truly care about Jewishness.

Nesya Lieberman
Nesya Lieberman

Nesya Lieberman hails from Atlanta, but now calls Israel home. She is a Jewish studies major at Bar-Ilan University.