Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

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Why We’re Talking About Princesses: Long Island

Cast members Princesses Long IslandSince the new Bravo reality show Princesses: Long Island began a few weeks ago, many blogs have popped up in the Jewish and secular media berating the show and the network for its portrayal of Long Island Jewish women. The bloggers’ responses range from horror to amused disgust to acceptance. JTA has a whole guide to blogs about the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about six twenty-something Jewish Long Islanders who live with their parents, agonize over finding a husband to take care of them, and for the most part, do not work. They seem to have been encouraged to make Judaism a big part of the show, as they are constantly touting how Jewish their lifestyle is and making a scene over drinking Manischewitz and eating Shabbat dinner.

This all might sound harmless and hardly cause for alarm, if it weren’t for the fact that the women on the show are so horribly over the top in their dependency on their parents, men and money. More than that, they actively promote stereotypes about Judaism, and explicitly say that their lifestyle is typically “Jewish” and “Long Island,” when there’s nothing typical about anything they say or do.

When one cast member says that she’s a Reform Jew, which means “We’re not that Jewish,” what is someone who doesn’t know the difference supposed to think?

You may ask, if there’s so much already out there about this nonsense, why bother adding to the mix? Because I learned this lesson well: When something is happening that is damaging to Jews, or any ethnic/religious group, I have a responsibility to speak out. Am I being melodramatic? I don’t think New York Congressman Steve Israel (who represents the part of Long Island where the show is filmed) would think so. Yup, he’s blogged about it too:

“Much to my dismay, the characters on the show spewed gross generalizations about the living and dating habits of unmarried Jewish women. And the stereotyping didn’t stop there. In the latest episode, the characters get together for a Shabbat dinner, an important tradition in the Jewish faith and culture. As a Jew, I can say with confidence that this dinner was exactly the opposite of what the sacred Sabbath dinner is supposed to be. But for those watching unfamiliar with the holy meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, it is shown in the worst way possible, with excessive drinking and fighting.”

Thank you, Steve. Because I found the response of Emily Shire, on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog more than a little offensive. Maybe because she says she’s familiar with the types of girls portrayed on the show from her own Long Island youth, she’s now desensitized to their behavior. But I can’t really accept her passivity on the subject: “I wish I could rally more ire for this show and be more outraged, but I can only shrug and watch with the same curiosity I approach other reality shows.”

While I can understand Shire does not find the show shocking, she has to imagine the repercussions it has on viewers with less familiarity with this small, not-at-all representative group of Jewish Long Islanders. Shire admits that she worries that people will think of the cast as models of Jewish women, but then she refers to Jersey Shore and says: “Even when I thought little of the cast, I never thought of it as an overall reflection of Italian-Americans, and anyone who thought six twenty-somethings on MTV spoke for an entire ethnic group was probably already going to be unfairly judgmental and somewhat racist.”

Does that make it OK?

What Shire is missing is the large population of our country (never mind the population of viewers in other countries who have access to the show) who know nothing about Judaism. Whether the viewer is judgmental or not, this is not the first glimpse of my religion I want them to see.

Imagine if you are a Jew dating someone who is not Jewish, who perhaps knows very little about your religion. I for one would feel embarrassed if he or his parents watched this show. And while you have probably introduced your wife who is not Jewish to your culture, does it help you to welcome her into your faith when the stereotype that stands out about Jewish women is that they’re spoiled, ignorant gold-diggers?

To give you a taste, in the very first episode, one cast member asks to be carried to her car after a mani/pedi (by someone who works at the shop) because she refuses to walk in shoes without heels.

Of course the other side of the argument is that all of this buzz we’re creating around the show is only bringing it attention, and probably more viewers. Joe Winkler suggests on JTA that “Maybe, instead of taking up arms in boycott, we could do a lot more by just looking the other way and waiting for them to shrivel into obscurity.” And while that might be true, I’m with Israel, who says:

“I will not silently tolerate a show that paints Jewish women on Long Island with all-too-familiar and painful stereotypes—money-hungry, superficial, Jewish-American Princesses.”

Because I want Bravo to think again before airing another season of this show, or producing any other show that promotes such a negative stereotype of any religion or ethnicity.

I’m curious what other people think? Did you watch the show? If you are less familiar with Judaism, what did you think of how the cast portrayed the religion?