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Being a Jewish Teen Drama Fan
Finding a Jewish TV character often feels like spotting a unicorn. An exaggeration? Maybe. But growing up, I didn’t often find myself represented on TV, especially during the holiday season. The teen dramas both helped and hurt this.
For me, the key Jewish teen drama character is not Seth Cohen, but Andrea Zuckerman. Throughout “Beverly Hills, 90210,” her Jewishness does and doesn’t define her. Her faith is used to dramatic, not comedic, effect, whether it’s Brooke wrongly assuming Andrea is spoiled and wealthy because she’s a “Jewish girl from Beverly Hills” in season 3 or Andrea’s discomfort with her baby daughter being given a cross in season 5.
Is it any wonder that I, too, wanted to pursue journalism and go to Yale? Andrea was the teen TV character with whom I could identify. A season 4 episode dealt with Andrea being discouraged from wearing her Star of David necklace while pledging a sorority, a storyline that reminds me all of the times I myself have felt conflicted about wearing one. Do I want to blend in? Or do I want to show my faith just as proudly as people who wear crosses?
It’s “The O.C.,” however, that’s considered the gold standard when it comes to Jewish teen drama characters and storylines. In season 1, the concept of “Chrismukkah” is introduced, with Seth explaining, “I created the greatest super-holiday of all time, drawing on the best that Christianity and Judaism have to offer.” He even quips, “It’s a new holiday, Ryan, and it’s sweeping the nation.” That is, in fact, what seemed to happen, with Chrismukkah becoming a trend, or perhaps I should say, trendy, with “The O.C.” largely being given the credit.
At the time, I was happily amused, which was no doubt the point, and even a little bit excited to see Hanukkah getting some pop culture attention. Admittedly, I still laugh at Lindsay showing off her “yamaclaus” creation in season 2. But overall, now I look back and cringe. On “The O.C.,” Judaism was most often used as a punchline, as a gimmick, as if Jewish culture was something to laugh at. It sometimes turned Sandy and Seth into caricatures, and in season 3’s holiday episode, “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah,” the show reduces a Jewish rite of passage to an excuse to get money from people. At one point, Sandy asks, “Do you have any idea how offensive this is?” This signals to me that producers knew… and didn’t care. Passover also makes an appearance on “The O.C.,” with the season 1 episode “The Nana” allowing them to throw some stereotypes about Jewish mothers and grandmothers into the mix, mainly to score laughs. In one scene, Summer even makes a vow to “out-Jew” Seth.
Then there’s “Gossip Girl.” Like with “The O.C.,” the Jewish Josh Schwartz was the brainchild behind the series, but again that didn’t mean Jewishness was depicted in truly meaningful ways. Instead, Jewish holidays were used as plot devices. Take the season 2 episode, “Seder Anything.” Eleanor and Cyrus (he being the Jewish character in the bunch and typically used for comic relief — though he was also often the only kind and wise person on the show) are hosting a seder at the Waldorf home. And like all big dinners on “Gossip Girl,” the seder merely serves as backdrop for a drama-filled get-together. Also consider season 5’s “The Fasting and the Furious,” which is centered around Yom Kippur. Again, a Jewish holiday — this one the most important and solemn of the Jewish faith — is used as nothing but an excuse for characters to cross paths. The CW even thought it would be funny to make a promo for this episode that does little more than mockingly use Jewish words.
Compare that with how the High Holidays were treated on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” In the season 7 episode “Pledging My Love,” Kelly attends Rosh Hashanah services with her half-brother, the Jewish David, and her Jewish friend Jimmy, who is dying of AIDS. When Jimmy takes a turn for the worse and it’s clear he only has hours to live, through tears Kelly pleads for more time, reminding him how he “has a date with David for Yom Kippur services.” And when Jimmy passes, David brings Kelly a yahrzeit candle and she recites, “May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn and comfort all the bereaved among us.” It’s a scene that, to this day, makes me tear up just thinking about it. (The episode was executive-produced by the Jewish Jessica Klein and Steve Wasserman.)
But for me, the most impactful Jewish storyline of all came in season 5 of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” with an episode called “Hate is Just a Four-Letter Word.” When an anti-Semite is invited to speak at CU and a campus building is vandalized with swastikas, there is debate about free speech and the First Amendment, Andrea implores Brandon to stand up for what is morally right (invoking “First they came…”), and David is forced to consider his Jewish identity. There is discussion of the Holocaust, a Shabbat dinner, and an important lesson on hate speech and tolerance. It all culminates in a moving vigil. (The episode’s teleplay was by the Jewish Charles Rosin. Later, though Rosin and Klein had both left the show by this point, anti-Semitism also played a role in a multi-episode season 8 storyline with David and Donna, capped off by an installment titled “Pride and Prejudice.”)
“Hate is Just a Four-Letter Word” is an episode that, sadly, still has much resonance today. It’s also an episode that always made me feel seen and, as a result, grateful. I recognize there is a conversation to be had on whether television shows are under any obligation to represent all types of people — all faiths, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all races. (Remember the backlash “Girls” received for being too white?) But the reality is, I view all TV shows, including the teen dramas, through the lens of being Jewish. I just can’t not. This can lead to feelings of alienation, even during attempts at inclusion. It can also lead to disinterest. We’re currently in the thick of holiday movie season, and I’ve sometimes gone years without watching one simply because I can’t relate.
I don’t presume to know what the solution is, or that there even is or should be a solution, to this issue of of representation. But with Hanukkah beginning tomorrow, it felt like an appropriate time to really delve into how the teen dramas incorporate Jewishness and how I, a Jewish TeenDramaWhore, have felt as a result — for better or worse.
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