Jews in Television: 2000s

From Larry David to Sarah Silverman.

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Entourage’s Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) was, in his own way, another Jewish stereotype: brassy, egotistical, self-absorbed, crude. The Hollywood super-agent on this genial Tinseltown comedy was cutting deals in synagogue on the High Holidays, scuttling between executives from pew to pew and sneaking calls on his cellphone. He was a huckster on the make, grandson to the protagonist from Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run

And yet, Ari was gradually domesticated and tamed, surrounded as he was by the warm, familial atmosphere of superstar Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his circle of friends. Ari (based on real-life agent Ari Emanuel, brother of White House chief of staff, Rahm) was a bully and a pig, but he was our bully and our pig, and Entourage, taking the lead from its viewers, drew Ari into an ever-closer embrace as the show progressed, until we had forgotten why we had ever loved to hate him in the first place.

Sabotaging Stereotypes

Some dramatic series had Jewish regulars who fit the pattern of the ugly Jewish smears from the past: The amoral shyster of The Wire, and the callous record company executive and quasi-mobster of The Sopranos. But these characters were also surprisingly complex, with The Sopranos’ Hesh Rabkin (Jerry Adler) a sweet, jovial father figure to Tony Soprano at the same time that he was a ruthless businessman, ripping off an entire generation of African-American recording artists. The same went for The Wire’s mobbed-up lawyer Maury Levy (Michael Kostroff), who fit every pattern of oily Jewish criminality while subtly eroding it from within.

Mad Men, AMC’s exercise in discomfiting nostalgia, revisited the casual anti-Semitism of the early 1960s, with Jewish department-store owner Rachel Menken turning to the golden-haired WASPs of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency for advice on how to attract a less Jewish clientele to her store. Harry Goldenblatt, the pit-bull divorce lawyer to, and later husband of, Kristin Davis’ Charlotte on later seasons of HBO’s Sex and the City, was introduced as a risible walking cliché before steadily revealing himself to be more than a sweaty, bald, hirsute paragon of Jewish crassness. 

Other characters’ Judaism was a matter of some secrecy, only belatedly explored, like The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown (nee Herschel Krustofsky), or the Griffin family of Family Guy, briefly putting on kippot and saying blessings over the Passover candles. 

There were also unlikely Jews, like Grey’s Anatomy’s Korean-Jewish intern, played by Sandra Oh. Television series were intent on subduing the stereotypes, and proving that anyone could be Jewish--and that Jews could be anyone. Now that television had splintered into a myriad of niche audiences (dog lovers, foodies, HBO fans), propelled by the profusion of new cable channels and the slow-motion implosion of the networks, its interest in the unexplored corners of American culture grew exponentially. Jews were part of the texture of contemporary American life, their mystery--their difference--now crucial to their TV allure.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.