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"His father is the district attorney," shouts pornography producer Larry Goldman at his love-struck, rebellious daughter, Jewel. Needless to say, the debut of FOX's new, already-cancelled drama, "Skin" was riveting, full of distrust, disloyalty and disobedience--in the midst of backstabbing legal disputes between the DA and Goldman, their children fall in love.
However, beneath the show's Romeo and Juliet plot construct and its heavy-handed twists, rests a story of interfaith love. Jewel and the Goldmans are Jewish, while Adam Roam and his D.A. father are Catholic. This latest depiction of interfaith relationships is part of a recent boom that has cast Jewish characters alongside their non-Jewish friends and lovers in several popular television series. In addition to "Skin," NBC's "Friends," ABC's "One Life To Live," HBO's "Sex and the City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as well as the WB's "Everwood," have all over the last year portrayed Jewish characters and explored how they interact with non-Jews.
In each of these shows, both implicitly and explicitly, Jewish characters were forced to confront their Judaism by either entering into an interfaith romance or by surrounding themselves with non-Jewish friends. In these cases, the characters must decide how much and what exactly their Judaism means to them--whether to mask it or embrace it. The non-Jewish characters, in turn, must confront differences and accept (or reject) an "other" figure, ultimately exploring issues stewing deep within themselves. All of these shows have captured--through dramatization or satire--the challenges of communication, the absurdity of misunderstanding, the desire for acceptance, and the sacrifice of beliefs--the specific struggles that can accompany interfaith life.
However, despite the recent trend, interfaith relationships have long been portrayed on television--from "Bridget Loves Bernie" to "Mad about You." Moreover, for years Jewish actors have promoted their religious affiliation (and all that comes with it) on talk shows and in interviews, and writers have penned outspoken Jewish characters in an otherwise non-Jewish cast. In short, interfaith life is not new to television.
Even so, the recent interfaith portrayals on mainstream television raise a few old questions: is television the place for interfaith relationships, can the small screen illustrate the problems that arise in these situations, and does TV accurately reflect interfaith life?
According to Beverly Hills rabbi, Laura Geller, it is, we can, and perhaps. "Television is a very important medium. There are more interfaith relationships being portrayed on TV now than there used to be," she said. "This helps Jews feel accepted and part of a whole, and it helps non-Jews understand better the struggles of a religious minority. Of course, if portrayed in a thoughtful and nuanced way."
To the degree that television can communicate with viewers on an intellectual and enlightened level, the forum can be useful, educational, and, at times, inspirational. Further, when scripted characters accurately mirror life, television, at least on some level, has succeeded. However, explained Brentwood's Rabbi Morley Feinstein, this has become increasingly more difficult as television frequently is meant simply to entertain. And more often than not, it does just that.
For example, groups of friends are never as witty, as attractive, or as ultimately happy as the one featured on "Seinfeld." No group of interfaith friends experiences the social harmony and total acceptance demonstrated on the show. Therefore, according to Rabbi Feinstein, viewers shouldn't take television too seriously.
"The world of television is too smart, too neat, and too buffoonish to accurately reflect our lives," he said. "Certainly at its best, it has the ability to enlighten, and that's fabulous. But it's important not to take television seriously and not to look to it for answers and to remember that we are not like those characters."
Television is a cornerstone of American culture, and in its constant access to large audiences, television can be an ideal way to disseminate information, deconstruct stereotypes, and downplay differences. However, it is, as Rabbi Feinstein said, increasingly important to recognize television's main function--entertainment--and to develop a discerning eye for reality, drama, satire, and cartoon.
Of course, television can at times provide provocative lessons and images that reflect the deepest and the most secret of our emotions. Television can demonstrate an insight into interfaith life that we hadn't yet articulated. However, even at it's best, television, in most cases, will simply entertain and cannot be relied upon to explain or solve the challenges of interfaith life.