In the fall premiere of "thirtysomething" the show's hero, up-and-coming
advertising mogul Michael Steadman, a mostly assimilated Jew, and his non-
Jewish wife Hope must decide whether to have a brit milah (circumcision)
ceremony for their newborn son, While Michael does his best to avoid the
issue, Hope insists that if their child is going to be raised as a Jew
then both son and father should know what that means. Michael vacillates,
but eventually opts for a ritual ceremony on the grounds that he doesn't
want to break the chain of the generations linking father to son from time
immemorial. His ambivalence and internalized anti-Semitism are so deftly
scripted that most viewers probably missed how empty Steadman's reasoning
turned out to be.
"Thirtysomething" is such a refreshing change from the usual Tv pablum, so psychologically sophisticated and nuanced, that it almost seems a crime to find fault with the details of its scripts. After all, one might argue, "thirtysomething"'s major impact is to legitimate a style of emotionally honest discourse normally absent from prime time television, and this it does
admirably. For this alone, we'll continue to urge others to watch the show.
But because we do have respect for the crew that has put this television show together, we feel all the more upset with the show's presentation of Jews. And the failures in this realm raise some deeper questions that face everyone who attempts to write for television or the movies.
We have yet to see a single portrayal on national television of a Jew who has some good raeson other than family tradition for holding on to Judaism. In a key scene, Steadman has an edifying fantasy that his son chooses football over a thirteenth birtyday party; he recognizes something has been lost by missing bar mitzvah. But what, exactly, he can't say. Ethnicity and cultural identity are likely to be "in" for a while in America--a trend that at least in part reflects the growing ethnic diversity of the American population....(M)ore Americans realize that speaking as a Jew" need not relegate one to the cultural or political backwaters....
But what is the content and meaning of being Jewish? It apparently never occurred to the writers of "thirtysomething" that generations of martyrs died to keep Judaism alive precisely because there was "a there there," a message and a meaning. If Jewishness amounts to little more than circumcision, a bat or bar mitzvah party after a child has memorized a Torah reading that (s)he finds largely incomprehensible, some gifts for Chanukah, and a family meal at Passover, it will remain very difficult to convince friends or partners less sympathetic than Hope Steadman that there is much worth preserving. Much as we love our ancestors, many Jews respect the tradition not simply because it belonged to our ancestors, but because it says something that commands our attention.
[Section is edited here which gives a brief history of Judaism and why it continued after Christianity. "....the world has not yet been redeemed, that the Messiah has not yet come, and that consequently our task is to remind the world to stop celebrating what is and start fighting for what ought to be.") The author continues that modern American Jews are neglectful and alienated from teh beliefs of Judaism.]
...Can anyone blame the writers of "thirtysomething" for not knowing or understanding this message?....Today the Jewish community is so often stultified by deadening ritual, materialism, conformism, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, Israel-is-always-rightism, and Jews-are-better-than-everyone-else-ism that the revolutionary message of the Torah can barely be discerned. Why should anyone be surprised if most teenagers find little to engage them in that kind of Judaism? So, as soon as pressure from parents ends (once the bar or bat mitzvah has happened) most of these youngster flee from any association with Jewish learning. And when they become adults, confronted with the choice of how Jewish they want to be, they can only base that choice on the knowledge of Judaism they acquired till they were thir-teen. It is scarcely astonishing that they find it difficult to know why to stay Jewish.....
Michael Steadman (and the writers and producers of "thirtysomething" might argue here--as those in the media often do--that they are merely describing reality. They didn't create it, so why condemn the messenger? Yet every so-called neutral description is always a selection from reality. And when the television show that most accurately reflects the generation of people touched most deeply by the social change movements of the sixties and seventies makes its selections, we want to reflect on what the consequences of those choices might be.
We can see the problem more clearly if we also notice the way that "thirtysomething"
represents and misrepresents the legacy of the sixties. Just as the underlying
message of Judaism gets trivialized in the "thirtysomething" world, so
too the political messages of progressive social change are routinely diluted
and misunderstood. Moments of touching nostalgia for the sixties are vitiated
by a general cynicism about the past and about anyone seriously commited
to a "cause". Though several characters still have some attachment to progressive
political ideals, Michael looks on with the knowing cynicism of having
to face "reality", viz. the complexities of making a living. "Thirtysomething"
manages to depict as neurotic, infantile, self-serving, or narcissistic
virtually all those who try to blend their ideals with their attempts to
make a living. It never occurs to the writers of "thirtysomething" that
there are hundreds of thousands of people...who remain committed to the
best ideals of the sixties, who do their best to consciously those ideals
in their work, and whose compromises with the demands of the capitalist
marketplace are fraught with the tension that inevitably arises in the
lives of morally sensitive human beings. Many survivors of the sixties
and seventies are now raising families, trying to find economic security,
and even enjoying family, good food, sex life, play and humor. But this
does not make them one whit less committed to the values of the past....But
television for the past two decades has been convincing them that they
really don't exist, that no one is like them, that only wierdos still hold
on to a progressive vision, and that they'd be smarter to be like Michael
Steadman and put most of their energy into having and holding agood job
and raising their children.
Just as "thirtysomething" underplays and discounts the idealism that has shaped the generation that is its audience, so it has also missed the emergence of a Jewish renewal movement that has lent considerable depth and vitality to Jewish life in the past twenty years.....
The problem, then, is that "thirtysomething" tells the truth about only one part of reality: it ignores those who have retained a coherent vision of the good. And by ignoring them, it helps create the reality that it claims to be merely describing. It reflects back to the viewer a world in which Judaism has been emptied of content and daily life has been emptied of political possibility. And each of us, looking at this picture, has the cynical and despairing part of our psyches slightly strengthened, the hopeful and idealistic part slightly undermined. The alternative? "After all, you can't expect us to become advocates for some religious or political orientation."television and movie writers will piously insist in response. Of course not. The alternative is to air the coherent voice of someone who is not portrayed as neurotic or irrelevant, someone who can articulate the vision of those who remain committed to Judaism and/or those who remain committed to progressive politics. Allow that voice to be one of the many that get represented. Until that happens, "thirtysomething" will continue to reinforce and reflect TV's spiritual and political vacuity rather than transcend it.
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