- Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television
To many scholars at the end of the twentieth century, it may have seemed that American Jews were largely left out of the identity-based cultural studies that dominated academic publishing in the humanities. The early years of the new century, however, have seen a remarkable boom in book-length studies of Jewish identity vis-à-vis American popular culture. In 2003, the number of books classified by the Library of Congress under the heading "Jews on Television" quite literally doubled. This "class of '03" includes Vincent Brook's Something Ain't Kosher Here: The Rise of the "Jewish" Sitcom and David Zurawik's The Jews of Prime Time, as well as the present volume, Elliot B. Gertel's Over The Top Judaism.
Unlike Brook and Zurawik, the author of Over the Top Judaism is not an academic. Since 1977, Elliot B. Gertel has served as a media critic for the weekly Jewish Post & Opinion as well as assorted other Jewish publications. Since 1981, he has been an ordained Conservative rabbi. He has been rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek, one of Chicago's oldest and largest synagogues, since 1988. As a compendium of Gertel's columns, Over the Top Judaism represents a truly significant outpouring of work. It is also something of a rarity in that no other high-profile American rabbi has published his thoughts on such a diverse spectrum of performances. As such, scholars who wish to gauge how knowledgeable and observant American Jews responded to a particular television episode or film may look to Gertel's response as representative of this community. It would be helpful in this context to know when and where each review initially appeared, and to what degree Gertel has reconsidered his thoughts in the intervening years, but the book does not offer such. Indeed, it is clear from the tone and construction of the book, that Gertel's target audience is the "lay reader" in both senses of the term: the non-clergy, non-scholarly reader who desires to get a better sense of how Judaism is portrayed on American television.
Unfortunately, as a compendium of reviews, Over the Top Judaism is stronger on "precedents" than on "trends." As critic for a weekly newspaper, Gertel may not have always been able to choose his projects; but in compiling a book-length study, greater selectivity would surely have enhanced the collection's value. It seems frankly ludicrous to treat a single episode of a failed sitcom (e.g., Living in Captivity, which ran for 6 episodes in 1998) in the same manner as a long running Jewish [End Page 94] themed series (e.g., Northern Exposure or Brooklyn Bridge), or to equate an NYU student film from 1989 with a blockbuster studio release like Independence Day. Especially problematic in this light is the lack of comparative analysis, in terms of both cultural impact and historical context. Attitudes of, toward, and about Jews in Hollywood and nationwide have evolved significantly from the book's earliest example (The Dick Van Dyke Show) to its latest (The West Wing), yet all these performances are treated as if they were created in an equivalent milieu. This lack of perspective gives the project an ahistorical feel that is echoed in the book's structure, which is thematic rather than chronological. Each of the fourteen chapters revolves around a particular aspect of Jewish praxis (life cycle events, conversions, etc.) and catalogs various representations of these observances in film and television. Thus, a discussion of a circumcision on a 1992 episode of Seinfeld leads to analysis of a bar mitzvah on a 1962 episode of Route 66.
The thematic approach provides little in the way of sustained argumentation (again, one might point to the book's origins as weekly columns). There is an implicit argument, however, in the grouping of the chapters into three...