When I was in college, a bout of flu had laid me up and forced me out of my usual hurricane of internships, fellowships, and classes. Channel-surfing television and sneezing, I had no idea my life would change forever when I got to CBS and saw the awesome that was Ziva David of NCIS.
Ziva wasn’t like most Jewish characters I saw on television. She was a Middle Eastern Jew, she engaged in Jewish and Israeli culture on times other than Christmas/Hannukah, and her Judaism was a fundamental part of her identity. She spoke Hebrew, she wore a Jewish star, she loved Israeli rap music, and she was still one of the most popular characters on the show. A new story had been told.
The Jewish world is so diverse and fascinating, and there are so many stories still waiting to be told, from the secular to the religious, from the European Jews to the Middle East, and beyond. There’s a need for stories of Jews by choice, queer Jews, Jews of color, and Jews who identify as multi-religious and multi-cultural.
So, what Jewish characters changed the media landscape in 2015?
1. Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a mess. She leaves her high-paying job in New York to chase after her high school crush and proceeds to stumble and self-sabotage her way to happiness. Rebecca’s Judaism may not be a feature in every episode, but when relevant, it is portrayed accurately, respectfully, and hilariously. The show touches on the Jewish immigrant experience (in fluent Yiddish), anti-semitism, and Jewish family relations in a way that sometimes cuts a bit to close to my own life experience.
And let’s not forget the stereotypical Jewish mother song, which I am convinced was written about my mother.
Diversity points: informed Jew, multicultural Jew
Well, I think it’s widely known that that characters of (Porpen)tina and Queenie are sisters, but not that their surname is Goldstein.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 15, 2015
2. Tina and Queenie Goldstein of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We know nothing about these two fine ladies, but they’re the great Blue and White hope of the Jewish people. The Harry Potter world was never religious, but the celebration of Easter and Christmas as official holidays did make me feel that Hogwarts was a heavily Christian school. Well, now that two leading ladies of the Harry Potter world were revealed to be Jewish, I can now start looking for my Hogwarts letter again.
Story Diversity points: TBD
3. Felicity Smoak is the standard Jewish character I was used to, but better. Her Judaism mostly comes up in terms of holidays. Early in the season, she has a baffling moment of confessing her religion to her boss, Oliver Queen. She gets more confident about her heritage, and when asked in a later season what her holiday plans were, she responds quite proudly, “Lighting my menorah.” She also puts dirt (actually, the correct custom is stones, but I won’t quibble) on the grave of a loved one, and wishes friends, “Mazal Tov,” on their new baby. She’s a strong, beautiful woman and a great model for girls, Jewish or not.
Story Diversity points: informed Jew
4. Cindy Hayes may have begun her Jewish journey to get better food while doing time in prison, but through incredible writing, she became the most nuanced and well-written Jewish character on television. Showing the intellectual journey in a respectful and and well-researched manner, Cindy—or as she is now known, “Tovah”—becomes fascinated by her adopted culture and builds a community with them. Orange Is the New Black also shows Ginsberg and Boyle, two Jews who don’t fit the stereotype of “wealthy Jewish professionals.”
Story Diversity points: Jew of color, Jew by choice
E.R. Weiss may have studied law and Urban planning like a good Jewish girl, but she insists the most important lessons she learned were gained from science fiction at her local library. Dividing her time between New York and Jerusalem, Weiss is a financial education writer and aspiring novelist.
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