I’m looking forward to this week for a few reasons. The first is that, somber though it may be, I really enjoy Yom Kippur and the annual opportunity to reflect and repent in a communal setting. And this year, it just so happens that when the seriousness of the chag comes to an end, something more upbeat is just beginning: fall TV season! My DVR and I are looking forward to the return of few of my favorite shows, many of which feature strong Jewish characters. Below, a quick overview of a few of the best. Now tell me: Who’s your favorite on-screen Member of the Tribe?
- Dr. Cristina Yang, Grey’s Anatomy
The acerbic Dr. Yang makes few allusions to her Judaism, but they’ve been highlighted in seasons past – like when her former boyfriend, Dr. Preston Burke, bought her a Christmas tree without realizing her religion, or when she comforted fellow intern Dr. Izzie Stevens after the death of her fiancé by introducing her to the Jewish concept of sitting shiva. When last season left off, Cristina was (spoiler alert) shown to have survived a plane crash with a few of her fellow doctors from Seattle Grace Hospital, but they’d yet to be rescued from the crash site. Have these storylines gotten wacky? Without a doubt, yes, but I’ll still be tuning in to the season nine premiere on September 27th because I just can’t seem to give it up.
- Sergeant John Munch, Law and Order: SVU
Paranoid, curmudgeonly Munch isn’t particularly religious. In fact, he once said the only thing he has in common with Judaism is that he doesn’t like to work on Saturdays. Still, it’s clear that he’s a member of the Tribe through and through, what with all the jokes playing on Jewish stereotypes and the fact that he occasionally displays an impressive knowledge of Biblical history and Yiddish vocabulary. His partner is Odafin Tutuola, played by none other than rapper-turned-reality-star Ice-T, and their back and forth banter makes for one of my favorite on-screen pairings. Actor Richard Belzer, who portrays Munch, is Jewish, too (Ice-T, by the way, is not).
- Schmidt, New Girl
Is Schmidt his first name or his last? I have no idea, and neither does IMDB; he’s just Schmidt. But whatever the rest of his name is, a few things are certain: He’s funny, he’s attractive, and he’s definitely Jewish. (And, OK, he’s also kind of a jerk, but on TV, that’s sometimes endearing – unlike in real life.) He eats kosher yogurt, had a $40,000 sports-themed bar mitzvah celebration, and is, in one episode, even at risk of getting lost in the desert. References to Schmidt’s Judaism are often the punchline of New Girl’s jokes, and whether you find them funny or not all depends on your tolerance for quirky comedy with a side of old-fashioned tokenism.
- Shoshanna Shapiro, Girls
When 26-year-old Lena Dunham’s new HBO show first aired earlier this year (to much undue criticism, I should add), I felt confident that neurotic, vapid Shoshanna Shapiro was the throwaway character – no real substance, no real importance. By the end of the first season, though, Shosh had easily become my favorite character, thanks in large part to the scene in which she runs pantless through Brooklyn and karate-chops a well-intentioned friend while on an unintentional high. The Camp Ramah alumna (played by the Jewish-in-real-life daughter of the famous David Mamet) has been called “comically overbroad”, and analysis of her character has birthed at least half a dozen stories about the stereotype of the Jewish-American princess (I like this one best) – but I’m expecting big, or at least hilarious, things from Shoshanna in season two.
- Saul Berenson, Homeland
Played by the ever-impressive (and Jewish) Mandy Patinkin, the CIA’s Berenson acts as a begrudging mentor to Claire Danes’ brilliant, bipolar Agent Carrie Hutchison. Some have noted that Saul’s character seems to be the most sympathetic – or, at least, the most compassionate – to the fundamentalist Muslim terrorists the CIA works to stop; when a noted terrorist commits suicide in CIA custody, Saul quietly recites the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I confess that I’ve not yet finished season one of Homeland, so I can’t say where season two might pick up, but rest assured that come September 30, when new episodes begin to air, I’ll be all caught up and eagerly awaiting the return of Saul, Carrie, and the rest of the characters in this truly fascinating series about modern-day terrorism.
Of course, this list only includes current TV characters; there are plenty of great Jewish characters on shows that are sadly no longer with us (God bless DVDs and Netflix!). Which Jewish TV characters, past or present, are your favorite?