I was on the phone with my dad last week, just catching up on life, and I mentioned a bit Jon Stewart had done that I thought was funny and clever (as usual), and my dad immediately responds, “Is married to a Jewish woman?” I did know that he is not, so my dad’s next question was “Are they raising their kids Jewish?” My Jon Stewart knowledge ended there, although he generally mentions when it’s a Jewish holiday, and there was one time where he and Seth Rogan were talking about not doing anything for Rosh Hashanah. So the conversation with my dad then moved to which Jewish celebrities are married to other Jews, if they have kids, and if so, how are they raising them. Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, and Adam Sandler all do (or at least the internet tells me they do), and suddenly that’s how my dad and I were judging whether or not we liked those celebrities. Which got me thinking: does it even matter how Jewish celebrities and their families personally view and practice their religion? I think the answer is yes, it does.
First of all I think it’s necessary to define the parameters I am setting for this argument. “Identify” and “practice” are two different things, and since I am in LSAT-studying mode, I define them in terms of sufficient and necessary. Identity is necessary and practicing is sufficient, meaning that if you practice Judaism, you must therefore identify, but you do not have to practice in order to identify. This also does not necessarily extend beyond yourself- you may identify but that doesn’t mean you teach your children to as well. So. How does this relate back to Jewish celebrities, and why is it important? I’m getting there.
It all comes back to the problem that our parents and grandparents have been freaking out about for years: the continued survival of the Jewish people. To do this, we have to produce Jewish children, children who know they are Jewish, are proud of being Jewish, and hopefully want to participate as well in the continuation of our people. There’s no magic formula to guarantee a child who is raised Jewish will continue to be Jewish, but I don’t agree with my father that anyone who denies their Judaism is contributing to the “Silent Holocaust.” But again, here’s where “identifying” and “practicing” comes in and makes a difference: you can identify with being Jewish but not want to practice it, an attitude you then pass down to your children, and they to theirs, and on and on, which ultimately dilutes any sense of what being Jewish actually means.
There are, of course, varying degrees of practicing, but I fear that more and more Jewish children understand being Jewish to mean what they see in the movies or TV- a Judaism devoid of practice with a fractured identity. Take for example Shoshanah from HBO’s Girls. She is definitely Jewish. She describes herself as such, but she is also presented as materialistic, shallow, and somewhat unintelligent. This is not to say that all Jewish characters on TV are presented like this, but I think it is an unfortunate and somewhat alarming trend that Jewish characters on TV are not presented as Jewish in any other way than birth, and often with unfortunate Jewish stereotyping: Grace Adler from Will and Grace uses her religion as lending to a personality that is shrewish, gluttonous, and again, materialistic. She marries a Jewish doctor, but their relationship is riddled with problems and never really portrayed as healthy. Monica and Ross Geller and Rachel Green from Friends are all supposed to be Jewish, but again they’re either an uptight control freak (Monica), uptight schlemiel (Ross), or vain JAP (Rachel). The list goes on and on: Jerry on Seinfeld, anybody Woody Allen or Seth Rogan plays, Max on Happy Endings, and back to Jon Stewart. Even someone like Judd Apatow, whose male leads are often unattractive/dirty/lazy men and somehow end up with these incredibly hot and clearly not Jewish women. All that does is set a standard for young Jewish guys that this is normal and preferable.
All of these characters are more often than not played by Jewish actors, and while this is no way means that who they play on TV is who they are in real life, most of the watching public is not smart enough to tell the difference. Which brings me back to my original point: it is important for Jewish celebrities to be open about their religion as a significant part of their identities so that young Jewish children have strong Jewish icons who are proud of their religion, thereby making Judaism and identifying as Jewish something desirable.
I am not saying that marrying someone Jewish and raising Jewish kids and going to synagogue all the time is the only way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. Normal people find it hard enough to accommodate their busy daily lives and Judaism- not even necessarily going to synagogue- as well as the pressure of sometimes being the only Jewish face in the crowd. Magnify that when you’re a working actor- travelling ALL the time for your job, not necessarily having sturdy family roots (living far away from family), makes it that much harder to really commit yourself to active practice. That’s the reason why I think it’s so important for famous Jews to at least identify- their fans can then say well if they do it, I can do it too! We see so many celebrities contributing to charities, reaching out to so many different kinds of people, because they say it is their responsibility as people who can use their notoriety to make a different, to actually make a difference. It is the same with Jewish celebrities: using their notoriety to give back to the Jewish community by making Judaism something to be proud of, and we’ll all be stronger in our Jewish identities as a result.
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