By Rabbi Yaakov Menken (A7) Despite what conspiracy theorists would have you believe, “the Jews” don’t control Hollywood.
Jews might be disproportionately represented in entertainment, but many of them are really just devotees of progressivism, which is hostile to the very principle of national sovereignty (including a Jewish homeland) and all that revealed religion entails.
Orthodox Judaism specifically stands for everything progressives despise. That’s why it has become an additional prime target of the entertainment industry’s unique form of vitriol.
Hollywood has long portrayed Orthodox Jews as hopelessly backward, at best. For instance, a 2005 episode of Grey’sAnatomy featured an “Orthodox” woman who preferred death to a porcine heart valve. (There is no rabbinical issue with such a procedure, by the way. Moreover, the tenet of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, takes precedence over all other commandments in Judaism.)
This plot was echoed years later in an episode of the Canadian show Nurses, which had a “Hasidic” family refuse a bone graft for their son because the donor was “an Arab, a woman.” (The episode was later pulled due to complaints.) It appears that no one on either production team bothered to do the necessary research or fact-checking in advance, resulting in these entirely unrealistic and not-so-subtly bigoted scenarios.
The American entertainment industry’s most common narrative when it comes to observant Judaism is evident: A life lived in accordance with the Torah is repressive and undesirable, and, accordingly, escaping the despotic clutches of the ancient religion, whether temporarily or permanently, is the path to liberated bliss. Just a few examples: A Stranger Among Us, Disobedience, Arranged, Unorthodox, and One of Us .
In Israel, not all portrayals of observant Judaism are so biased. The writer and lead actor of the acclaimed film Ushpizin earned secular fame and later became observant. The drama series Shtisel consults with Orthodox Jews. As a result, Ushpizin and Shtisel offer renderings of Orthodox Judaism that are described by Orthodox Jews as believable. By comparison, the renderings of Orthodox Judaism manufactured by Hollywood are universally regarded by the Orthodox community as slanderous caricatures.
A recent and revealing example of the entertainment industry’s malice is the Netflix television miniseries My Unorthodox Life. Former classmates and others quickly rejected Julia Haart’s dystopian description of her Orthodox upbringing as bogus. In the wake of the sudden collapse of Haart’s stint as the CEO of Elite World Group and her marriage to its owner, it seems that the illustration of her post-Orthodox, secular life was no better. A happy, stable person does not throw tantrums when a skinny vanilla latte cannot be obtained at 3 a.m. in Johannesburg. A well-adjusted, blissful person does not regularly bring staffers to tears.
Yet Netflix acquired My Unorthodox Life and even signed Haart for a second season before the backdrop of her made-for-TV story disintegrated. The streaming service was apparently so besotted with Haart’s representation of Orthodox Judaism as oppressive, and her post-Orthodox life as glorious and empowered, that it was willing, perhaps eager, to overlook many red flags.
Conspicuously absent from American popular culture are positive portrayals of Orthodox Jewish life — specifically stories, whether real or fictional, of people either born into observant homes or secular people who have found their way to faith.
This is no accident. Entertainment studios are the gatekeepers, the formidable arbiters of our national conversation. They choose what gets greenlit and what does not. At a time when Hollywood studios seek to support virtually every minority group, the consistently negative treatment of Orthodox Jews is disturbing, especially during a time of heightened antisemitic violence.
Understand that Orthodox Judaism earns leftist scorn not only because it is traditional in the time-honored sense, but also because it’s a purveyor of traditional approaches to life, marriage, and freedom of conscience. This inexorably places it on what elites pretentiously term “the wrong side of history.” And because Orthodox beliefs and customs are foreign to most people, the average viewer cannot easily differentiate between authenticity and untruth.
Hollywood’s secularist aggression is, of course, not directed exclusively toward Jews. These pernicious depictions are merely one part of a systematic effort by the Left to portray people of faith writ large as primitive and brutish and, therefore, worthy of castigation. The entertainment industry has long attacked Protestant Evangelicals and devout Catholics, labeling them, among other things, “yahoos” and “papists.”
For several reasons, Jews (even observant Jews) once upon a time enjoyed some degree of safe harbor because they weren’t viewed as threatening by those behind the camera. But the wicked abstractions of intersectionality and critical race theory have altered the left-wing calculus, putting the Orthodox increasingly in the crosshairs. Orthodox Jews are now being used as a cudgel to bash all revealed religion, and, by extension, to undermine Western civilization.
What’s to be done? The nonprofit Jew in the City is forming a “Hollywood bureau” to provide training and media monitoring for producers, directors, and writers wishing to portray Orthodox Jews. Beyond that, but short of launching our own aligned studios, those of us frustrated and concerned must continue to contest Hollywood’s representations of people of faith through both principled argument and virtuous example, exposing these representations in real-time to be what they truly are: malicious fiction.