Lecture Offers a Peak at How TV Portrays Jews



The roughly 200 or so people who'd gathered in the social hall at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., couldn't help but chuckle as the DVD clip from the pre-VCR-era show "All in the Family" played on a giant projection screen.

The scene that elicited hearty laughs was taken from a 1972 episode of the landmark series created by Normal Lear. In it, the loveable bigot Archie Bunker (played by Carol O'Connor) turns to his unlikely house guest, Sammy Davis Jr. (playing himself) and asks the famous entertainer and convert, "Why did you turn Jew?"

As part of the synagogue's Adult Education Committee program — billed as "Television: Threat or Menace?" — New York Daily News TV critic David Bianculli utilized scenes from the 1950s sitcom "The Goldbergs" to present-day shows like "The O.C." and "The Rugrats" to conduct a brief analysis of just how Jews have been portrayed on the small screen over time.

Bianculli –who is not Jewish, but happens to be a longtime neighbor of Rabbi Steven Lindemann, Beth Sholom's religious leader — quickly explained that the lecture title was simply a joke of sorts, since he loves television, at least good television. He didn't really offer an overarching thesis, but instead gave the audience a chance to react to roughly a dozen scenes from TV history dealing directly or indirectly with Jewish people.

When the "All in the Family" scene was over, Bianculli — also a contributor to National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program, and a former staff member of The Philadelphia Inquirer — paused the DVD player and then bounced around the room like a talk-show host, offering the microphone to those who wished to air their opinions. Most of the crowd recalled loving the show — which was certainly controversial at the outset — and celebrated how, by making light of racism and prejudice, it helped expose its moral bankruptcy.

Critics at the time, though, argued that by having Archie be so likeable, the show's creators made racism seem less sinister, and perhaps more forgivable.

"In the '70s, we get Norman Lear-era liberalism, where it was okay to mention everything as long as you made fun of most things," he explained.

(Actually, he added that from the mid-1950s until the early '70s, there weren't many identifiable Jewish characters on TV, though many programmers and network heads were Jewish. Since then, there have innumerable Jewish characters on prime time.)

The speaker also argued that a show like "All in the Family" wouldn't even be aired by one of the major networks today; now, cable stations are more likely to run edgy material.

Next came a glimpse of such programming, such as the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as the character "Borat" on the HBO series "Da Ali G Show."

Bianculli apologized before then showing the crowd the documentary-style scene from the recent "Borat" film, where the gloriously politically incorrect Khazakistan native Borat Sagdiyev leads a raucous crowd — none of whom were actors — in an Arizona country-and-Western bar in song. The chorus? "Throw the Jew down the well."

Bianculli was clearly trying to draw a parallel from Archie to Borat, as well as make a point about how tastes change over time, and the boundaries of what is acceptable get pushed further.

But the reaction from the audience was markedly different.

"It was disgusting," declared Minna Recht, a Cherry Hill resident in her 70s, adding that she felt it actually promulgated anti-Semitism. "I'm so offended by it."

Another woman relayed that she found the bit horrifying, rather than offensive, because it showed Americans unabashedly expressing anti-Semitism.

Bianculli, who teaches at Rowan University, pointed out that his students love everything Borat: "It allows the younger generation to encounter and embrace different perspectives, and that's potentially a good thing."

"Rather than be a stodgy professor who shows only things from his childhood, I want to keep looking at the new stuff to see what is out there, and what is permissible. Some of it strikes a debate and strikes conversation, and some of it I just look at and I can't even believe that it gets on the air."



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