Can NBC Be Redeemed?
March 10, 2021 — a chilled blue sky hovered above NBC Studios while an impassioned protest took place right outside. Organized by Allison Josephs, the founder and director of Jew in the City (JITC), a peaceful protest morphed into a Q&A event as a response to NBC’s “Nurses” episode, “Achilles Heel.” The episode included disturbing anti-Semitic rhetoric causing Jews to feel uneasy and even unsafe, so the record needed to be set straight. Josephs was the first to call attention to it across her online platforms, consequently garnering public disapproval toward the broadcasting company (and general media) often misrepresenting the Jewish community.
Proving it’s not all talk, a group of Orthodox Jews led by JITC took it from the web to the streets. Priority was still given to uphold COVID-19 safety restrictions by limiting the quota of attendees, keeping six feet apart between individuals and handing out masks printed with “don’t put words in my mouth.” Taking the message further, Josephs and her team brought in life-size cutouts of fictional Jewish characters NBC had produced before to stand beside real Jews now, letting these wild representations speak for themselves. The event encouraged people to stop by and ask questions, in person or via the livestream, about any Jewish topic since there was a lot to clarify.
“‘Backwards, extreme, judgmental, sexist.’ These are words that too often come to mind when people think of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. Popular culture, including movies, books, and TV shows repeat these negative ideas about religious Jewish people and their lifestyle.” This is only one part of JITC’s mission statement. A portion of their work goes to reversing negative stereotypes and associations about Orthodoxy through educational efforts and events. When the “Nurses” episode was released, it didn’t just huff and puff, but it blew down Josephs’ door. This was the perfect model to show for JITC’s fight and work that began in 2007. Another portion of the organization's efforts goes to aiding Jews who fell out of Orthodoxy, due to unhealthy family life and poor education, and are looking to come back and find their place, with the help of an initiative called Project Makom, established in 2014.
This wasn’t the first time NBC had created Jewish caricatures based on false information and a far-fetched imagination. In “Law and Order: SVU’s” “Unorthodox,” the Haredi world was made to look dark and disgraceful. While every community has its struggles and shortcomings, the screenwriters here did not make it a point to highlight even the slightest positive aspect of an observant life. Instead, they focused solely on the more insular sect within Orthodoxy and stretched it to an extreme; we’re not playing with Laffy Taffys — we’re dealing with legitimate lives. Somehow it’s always the man in a black coat, hat and beard that screams “Pick me!” to play as the suspected or convicted perpetrator. Either directors are ignorant, in which case they should educate themselves before depicting any person, especially wrongly, or are negatively depicting Jews intentionally (and irresponsibly) for the sake of higher ratings. Whatever route one takes, it falls at the expense of mistranslating and offending a people’s sacred traditions. What’s worse is that others who don’t know better will take it as truth.
It’s just a movie, but it’s not. Once a TV series inspires attacks against a group based on race, faith, ethnicity, etc. then it’s writers who have an obligation to apologize and promise to do better. You can’t tell over someone’s story if you know nothing about it. The misportrayals can be linked to the increase in Jews being targeted the past few years in NYC, LA, NJ and other states with a dense Jewish population. Evidence gathered by the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program states that there were 953 “anti-Jewish” incidents and 1,031 victims in 2019 – the highest of all the religion-based hate crimes. Coming in second is the “anti-Islamic (Muslim)” crimes at 176 incidents. This is no surprise if people are fed what popular media channels serve – repeatedly dry and depressing expressions of Orthodoxy.
Turning to Netflix, this echoes the miniseries released in 2020, titled “Unorthodox,” which received mixed reactions from Jewish viewers. The writers for these shows seem to always be fascinated by the “un” and never the “orthodox.” When a man or woman walks by wearing an obviously Jewish garment, another Jew can understand the background and beauty of it, but will a stranger to the religion comprehend the nuance? One with insufficient insight who is taught to identify Jewish people and ideas through TV shows’ inaccuracies will most likely be repulsed by them. In contrast, the true goal of Orthodoxy is not to come off as an alien-like or pre-historic people, as many outlets and headlines convey, but one with a higher code (as spelled out in the Torah) on how to live a most upright and uplifted life.
Explaining the intricacies of Orthodox living, as well as thanking NBC for pulling the episode from all digital platforms, were the objectives for the protest and were fortunately met. The rally featured ordinary Jews answering questions about their upbringing, beliefs, values and even fashion choices. Special thanks is due to the security team at the studio for overseeing the protest and allowing for our first amendment rights to be exercised: another reason to see the glass as half full.
Mendy Pellin, Chabad film director and comedian, came to show support along with students from Frisch High School and Jews from across the Orthodox spectrum to make a clear statement – we’re just as human as the next guy; we come in every font, color and size. We can’t be forced into a box made by the limited scraps of information some TV executives have. Therefore accessibility in education is crucial and this is why JITC has extended the invitation to meet with NBC for anyone who wants to learn more about Orthodox Judaism. The good news is our message has only improved with time and the press has been receptive to it. No one can control the decisions Hollywood makes but maybe small ripples can be made, leading to greater ones. Hopefully next time we stream our favorite drama or comedy we won’t cringe at the depiction of a Jewish personality, but grin knowing they got it right.
Photo Caption: On March 10 protesters rallied outside of NBC Studios in Manhattan over anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews in media.
Photo Credit: Jew in the City