Rachel Brosnahan in the fourth season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
Rachel Brosnahan in the fourth season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

From Maisels to Bergsteins, Jews thrived on TV in 2022

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With people returning to theaters and streaming content continuing to dominate entertainment, Jews on television and in film have had quite a year. (Just like Jews who are not on television, but with considerably less antisemitism.)

Jewish characters in 2022 included comedy writers involved in a “Reboot,” a therapist trying to help “The Patient,” a detective following “The Calling,” and an “Unorthodox” Jewish mom. One series featured the Shema; two others included characters who said Kaddish. One adult character plays basketball against yeshiva teens, and during a triumphant moment crows, “Is it Shabbos in here? Because we just went lights out.”

Conversations about Jewish representation and casting continued to be loud and varied in podcast and other media spaces, with condemnations of non-Jewish casting or “inauthentic” portrayals, and even criticisms of projects featuring Jewish casting. (Everyone’s a critic.)

Though the 15-month-old Academy Museum of Motion Pictures might have skipped the chapter on Jews’ Hollywood history on television, varying portrayals were thriving and seemed to be multiplying: There were Maisels and Bergsteins and Kominskys and Strausses.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” returned for a fourth season on Amazon Prime Video with a family shouting match on the Coney Island Wonder Wheel, and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which had Larry David teaching Jon Hamm the definitions of Yiddish words such as bashert and tsuris, and pitching to the most Jewish executive at Hulu — or, as he calls it in one episode, “Jew-lu.”

As Jewish characters proliferated, Hebrew and Yiddish popped up more frequently, and the array of Jewish rituals shown on the small screen expanded to include shmirat hamet (watching over a body before burial) and Sukkot, thanks to a Peacock show called “The Calling.”

As New York City detective Avraham “Avi” Avraham, a cop who uses his Jewish knowledge to solve heinous crimes, Israeli German actor Jeff Wilbusch embodies the role authentically. (Wilbusch was last seen by U.S. audiences as the gun-toting Hasidic hoodlum chasing down protagonist Esty on Netflix’s “Unorthodox.”)

Avi knows Hebrew and Yiddish, davens on his roof in the mornings and tries to find a minyan. At a homicide scene, he kneels over a body and says Kaddish; he sits with his rabbi for shmira and later joins that rabbi on his roof for a Sukkot dinner. The little Jewish touches are organic to the character, integrated into the action and accepted by his fellow detectives as part of the package. Avi’s Jewish identity enhances his work and his stature within the department — people respect his method and results, even if they’re not sure exactly how his “superpower” works.

On the seventh and final season of “Grace and Frankie,” the Bergsteins (Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston, who are also non-Jews playing Jewish) admit that they made up a Jewish holiday — M’Challah — and used it as an excuse not to see their WASPy friends the Hansons (Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen). This admission comes as a revelation to Bergstein sons Bud and Coyote, who have been celebrating M’Challah for years and see it as part of their Jewish identity. This revelation on the Netflix comedy points to the power of Jewish family ritual, even if it’s in support of a fake holiday.

In the limited series “The Patient” on FX on Hulu, Steve Carell plays Dr. Alan Strauss, a Jewish therapist who is kidnapped by a patient. As Strauss both strategizes about his escape and prepares for his death — while also trying to treat the patient — his mind is filled with Jewish memories and images. He dreams about being imprisoned at Auschwitz. He remembers his wife’s life — as a Reform cantor she filled the temple with Shabbat songs for kids — as well as her illness and death; his son’s Orthodox wedding and his subsequent estrangement from his parents. He intones the Kaddish several times, barely eating or drinking when food or drink is presented to him during his captivity: this experience seems to be a purgatory of atonement, a rehearsal for the end of his life, whenever that may be.

These scenes evoke Jewish expressions about fate: that everything is predetermined but there is free will; that we should trust in God’s plan but not depend on a miracle; that we live a duality (the world was created just for me; I am but dust and ashes).

Carell is not Jewish, but performed the role with subtlety and nuance, without extending into stereotype or exaggeration. And it’s a rare kind of intense narrative that positions Judaism as a source of strength, anchoring and wisdom.

By contrast, Julia Haart and her formerly Orthodox family returned to rile up hot takes and misrepresent Jewish meaning for another season of the unscripted “reality” show “My Unorthodox Life.” The new season is predictably superficial and ultimately depressing: the divorce between Haart and her husband Silvio is becoming increasingly bitter. Daughter Batsheva divorced her husband because he wanted to be more religious and she didn’t; other daughter Miriam may marry her girlfriend to give her a green card; son Shlomo is trying to date; and youngest Aron wants to leave his modern school for something more strictly Orthodox. There are new friends and lovers to meet, new motherhood choices to criticize, and the usual denigration of Orthodoxy and reiteration that the Haarts — still rich but also miserable — are much better off outside the observant Jewish community.

This year has been a good one for Jewish coming-of-age celebrations. On HBO Max’s “And Just Like That …” (the “Sex and the City” sequel series), Charlotte’s child declares their nonbinary identity and takes the new name Rock, and what had been planned as a bat mitzvah becomes — with shepherding from a trans rabbi — what Rock’s family calls a “They Mitzvah.” (In 2023, get set for Adam Sandler’s “You Are SO Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah!” possibly the first film to have the Jewish girls’ coming of age ritual in the title.)

But some representation blind spots remain, notably a lack of racial and experiential diversity, as well as a general lack of nuance: It’s as if Hollywood believes that all Jews are white and Ashkenazi in background; that they must be either of the bagel/menorah/“oy vey” variety, or Jews living in Hasidic communities. The middle gets skipped in favor of the extremes. Some people love their Orthodoxy. And if you’re not Orthodox, there’s plenty about Orthodoxy to criticize or reject; but there are also ways to have Jewish ritual, custom and meaning in your life without being Orthodox and without being secular. Jewish identity can be a space of meaning, structure, spirituality and community.

As for 2023? The future, by definition, is a wide horizon of opportunity, and we have every reason to expect that more Jewish creators will continue to craft Jewish characters in the years ahead.

The conversation around authentic casting and “Jewface” — a phrase meant to evoke the shameful history of blackface as proof that an actor inhabiting a character with a different racial identity is wrong — is likely to keep going in 2023. At least two forthcoming movies — “Maestro,” the story of Jewish conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, and “Golda,” about Israeli prime minister Golda Meir — star non-Jewish actors (Bradley Cooper and Helen Mirren, respectively) portraying characters for whom Judaism was core to their identity.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the current increase in antisemitic activity might affect the decisions of Jewish studio executives and creatives alike. A time of struggle could pollinate creativity with fresh energy, or ignite fear over cancellation. This moment — in which mentioning Jewishness is nearly always met with a “#FreePalestine” — could just as easily convince people to let Jewish stories take a backseat to other projects for personal or business reasons.

But the artists I know usually don’t let fear smother their creative impulses and expressions of self. And with the warm reception to the movie “The Fabelmans” and the FX on Hulu miniseries “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” and looking toward the arrival the second and final season of “Hunters,”  I’m confident predicting that there will be more rather than fewer projects with Jewish content in 2023.

Wider representation, with characters for whom Jewish identity is important but whose expression of that importance may differ, is essential to tell the breadth of human stories.

Just as there is no one Jewish person who can represent the whole of Jewish peoplehood, there is no one TV portrayal that tells all Jewish stories.

But with so many rich examples of Jewish content available to us now across multiple streaming platforms, we have a collective that is stronger than any one story. And together they present varying histories, baggage and trauma, and different ways of connecting to Jewish spirituality, meaning and community.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.