Culture, Identity

The Jews of "Glee"

imagesA ruthless high school vocalist who will do anything to become a star, with a flighty over-dramatic moody side that gets her into constant boy trouble. A jerk of a varsity football player, whose well-hidden conscience only pesters him briefly between womanizing jags and throwing dweebs into dumpsters with his meathead buddies.
These, you call Jewish TV show characters?
250px-rachel_berrySo far as I can tell — and I’ve only been a fan of “Glee” for the past few months — the extent of the Jewish character content on the show is limited to elements like these: 1. Rachel Berry‘s got a rabbi she wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about sex to. 2. Noah “Puck” Puckerman‘s mom won’t let his live-in pregnant ex-girlfriend bring bacon into the house. 3. One of the cheerleaders tells Rachel she should move out of town — to Israel. 4. Puck tries to get into the pants of the newest popular girl in school, an African-American girl, by telling her “Jews and Blacks have a history of helping each other out.”
No bagels, no lox, no awkward Woody Allen neuroses (other than the high school kind), no outsider perspective (do Rachel’s two gay dads count?), no shysterism, no intellectualism, no kink, no classic Jewish stereotypical tropes.
Does this mean Jews really are so “white” in America now that being a Jew isn’t enough of an identity to set a TV character apart anymore? That random quick throw-away references to real Jewish culture (as opposed to stereotypes) are an easy way to spice up a figure who’s really just a generic Jock or Theater Star archetype, anyway?
200px-noah_puckermanIs there anything distinctively Jewish to the characters of Rachel or Puck that might say something about newer stereotypes of Jewish Americans? Maybe Puck is a tough-guy Sabra, or Rachel’s interracial, queer family is a reflection of Jewish social progressivism. At least they both have Mediterranean features — one point for non-Ashkenazi visibility?
And what to make of the characters named Artie Abrams (“the wheelchair guy”) and Tina Cohen-Chang (“the Asian punk-goth girl”)?
This is clearly not a serious sociological analysis. But like a good Jewish boy, I notice these things and start to wonder. You are invited to gleek out in the comments. Comments on multi-focal post-modern identity are encouraged to be written in verse.

8 thoughts on “The Jews of "Glee"

  1. Oh, you missed Puck’s mother weeping during Schindler’s List and telling him, “You’re just like them!” for only bringing home shiksas.

  2. Haven’t seen Glee, but this reminds me of Willow’s character in Buffy – aside from a couple of references to dreidel and her father not being cool with a cross in his daughter’s bedroom, Willow seems basically unmarked white. (Of course, I stopped watching the show halfway through season five, so maybe there’s some scene in a mikveh or something that I don’t know about.)
    Of course, until I really got revved up about Jewishness in college, I saw myself as the same way – I was only really Jewish when I had a reason to mention it to someone. I think these character portrayals are pretty accurate for a lot of young Jews.

  3. No bagels, no lox, no ackward Woody Allen neuroses (other than the high school kind), no outsider perspective (do Rachel’s two gay dads count?), no shysterism, no intellectualism, no kink, no classic Jewish stereotypical tropes.
    The entire show is about being the other, trying to fit in and trying to balance one’s identity with that of the group while signing fabulous (and horrible) music all at the same time.
    There was another post on Jspot this week about Jews being the new WASPs. This is just so untrue it hurts my head. Anyone who lives outside of NYC, Chicago or LA (not that far outside of those places either) will tell you that Jews are not the new WASPs. Fine we have money and power but there is no way after we expose our last names, lack of bacon eating (for those that keep the Kosher) and need for a few days off of work in the early Fall months that Jews are the same as WASPs. Sorry.
    However, at the same time, the effects of the ethnic awakening over the past three generations have put Jews and other “others” into the main stream in a way that this outsider problem has become a quality.
    With all of this said, can’t we just be thankful that there is a show on TV that shows Jews to be normal? You know kids with egos and hurt feelings and football scholarships and good voices and striking good looks are Jews. We are different, but we are simply people, like WASPs but with fewer yachts.

  4. I want to see a Jew on the show who is struggling with himself over whether to start wearing a kippa to high school.

  5. at one point the glee kids were divided into two groups, in which the minorities (the wheelchair-bound kid, the asians, the black girl, and the gay kid) were in one group and the white people in the other.
    puck and rachel were filed in the non-minority group the other two vanilla-white students (Finn and Quinn), even though by that point they had both been identified as Jewish. i found this fascinating–it is clear that Jews are seen as white in the US today, which was not always the case.

  6. I love the show GLEE for many reasons — including it’s portrayal of the importance of greater acceptance of LGBT individuals.
    That said — I don’t love everything *about* GLEE, and *one* thing about the show that I find down-right *irritating* is their way of portraying what is and isn’t Jewish. It’s as though the writers of the show went to a Reformist group as their sole authority, and treated their words as though they speak for all Jews, which isn’t even close to being the case. Everyone is entitled to find their own path, and the Reformist movement is no exception — but one shouldn’t ignore that there are many Jews who have serious issues with them (and no, that’s *not* limited just to anti-progressive Jews — there’s many progressive Jews, including LGBT Jews, who have issues with the Reformist movement as well) and therefore, it is inappropriate of the writers of the show to act as though the Reformist movement speaks for all Judaism.
    Take, for starters, Rachel Berry (and I’m talking strictly about the characters, not the actors) —- yes, she has two Jewish dads. But everyone who is familiar with what 100% of all authorities except for the Reformist movement state — your Jewishness-by-birth is determined *only* by who your mother is. I’m not going to state the name of Rachel’s mother as that level of spoilertude is unnecessary — but I *will* point out that her mother isn’t Jewish. Therefore, Rachel (no matter how many Jewish dads she has) is not Jewish by birth. Of course, there’s always the option of infant-conversion — and if it’s used for kids who are totally adopted, there’s no reason why it can’t be used for kids who are produced using a turkey baster (as Rachel was) so that two Jewish dads can have a child. That said — if Rachel *did* undergo Infant Conversion, don’t you think there would have been a mention of it some place in the show? If for no other reason, they would have worked that mention in just to clarify to the audience the apparent inconsistency of her being Jewish despite not having a Jewish mother — unless, of course, they’re simply oblivious to the fact that no number of Jewish dads can make you Jewish by birth — only a Jewish *mother*.
    With the Puckerman half-brothers, it’s even more so. They, too, would have to have undergone some kind of conversion rite to be Jewish (because though both are from the same Jewish father, neither of their mothers are Jewish). Except with Rachel, the only obstacle to me believing that this is the case is the lack of any mention of it —- while with the Puckerman half-brothers, it’s also the bit about who in their right mind would sustain an Infant Conversion that is done for the purpose of raising the kid in the tradition of a totally-absentee dad!!!
    The only character on the show who (at least I suspect) actually *is* Jewish is Tina —- that being based on my understanding that if someone has a hyphenated name, the name of the mother usually comes first (and if that premise is wrong, then she isn’t Jewish either). But is her Jewishness mentioned? Now — I can understand her mentioning countless times how Asian she is while not noting that she’s Jewish (as, unfortunately, many Jews are afraid of others knowing about their Jewishness) — but the issue I have is that when she *does* mention it (even if for an ulterior reason — which I won’t tell you what it is because that would elevate the spoilertude beyond necessary levels) the script-writers waste no time *whatsoever* in *clarifying* to the audience that her claim to Jewishness is to be *invalidated*. For me, that was a “WTF” moment. Repeat — they wasted no time *whatsoever* invalidating Tina’s most-likely-legitimate claim to Jewishness — while, on the other hand, six seasons wasn’t enough time for them to get around to explaining how Rachel, Puck, and Jake are unquestionably identified as Jewish despite *none* of them seemingly meeting the actual Jewish standards of what makes someone Jewish.
    Let’s put it this way —– I’m glad the show’s understanding of LGBT issues is more refined then their non-existent understanding of Jewish identity.

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