LilaTovCocktail: Ingredients: one part NE Ohio; two parts politics; two parts media, and one part each: culture, family & the Jewish community. Directions: Shake well.

Ethnic identity and entertainment, part 1: Mr. Bookstein's Neighborhood, Revisited


A conversation with ShalomTV president Rabbi Mark S. Golub

After reading my recent blog post about ShalomTV, network president Rabbi Mark S. Golub gently took me to task for my off-hand dismissal of the network (which recently became available to Time-Warner subscribers in northeast Ohio).

The only part of ShalomTV's programming that appealed to me, I wrote, was "Mr. Bookstein's Store" which "could be a hoot: Just like 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood,' but way brainier." Rabbi Golub replied:

Dear Lila,

Your blog is a wonderful "hoot" unto itself - entertaining, pithy, with an edgy sense of humor.

But you're not into Alan Dershowitz?

There are few places on American television today where you can hear discussion of current issues from a Jewish perspective. Dershowitz, Leonard Fein, Eric Yoffie, David Saperstein, David Harris, Malcolm Hoenlein, Mort Zuckerman, Mort Klein, Elie Wiesel, Avi Weiss - the whole spectrum!

I'm surprised that doesn't interest you even a little bit.

Oh well, each to their own.

You might really like Zalman Mlotek (artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater - Folksbeine) sitting at his piano - playing and singing wonderful Yiddish classics and talking about the world of Yiddish.

Or Jason Alexander, Kira Sedgwick and Leonard Nimoy reflecting on their respective Jewish backgrounds - or lack thereof.

Or author Anita Diament (Red Tent) explaining how her book is NOT an attempt to redine Judaism from a feminist perspective; it's just a novel!

Anyway, keep up the good work.

Rabbi Mark S. Golub

Well, OK, I had to admit after reading Golub's description of ShalomTV's programming, that it did interest me, and much more than a little bit. So I asked Rabbi Golub's permission to post his email -- with its fuller description of ShalomTV's programming -- on my blog as a corrective of sorts.

I don't like Alan Dershowitz, but in fact my target wasn't really the specific programming offered by ShalomTV. I was casting doubt upon the wisdom and validity of marketing something called "Jewish programming." As I explained to Golub,

I confess, I was using ShalomTV to exercise my favorite hobbyhorse: the dangers of reifying ethnic identity. Although no ethnic groups are, from the inside, as homogenous as they seem to appear to those on the outside, Jews are notoriously diverse, living in a diasporia of our own choosing. Given that, how can we talk about a "Jewish perspective"? And which perspective is the Jewish one?

Is a perspective, opinion, point of view or argument "Jewish" because the person who holds the opinion is Jewish? And if the identical perspective is expressed by someone who isn't Jewish, is it no longer a Jewish perspective?

Alternately, are Jewish perspectives those shared by a large number of Jewish people? Those perspective that can be found in the Talmud -- or in Tikkun Magazine? And are some perspectives more Jewish than others?

I'm suspicious of any attempt to reify, commodify or homogenize the experiences we have as members of our own ethnic groups, Jewish or otherwise. When done by those outside our ethnic groups, it can lead to stereotyping, willful misunderstandings, discrimination, persecution, etc. Are the outcomes any better when we reify, commodify or simplify our own ethnic identity? I'm not sure they are.

Of course, what you see when you think of "Jewish perspective" all depends upon where you're at.

One reason the idea of "Jewish programming" on TV doesn't much appeal to me is that I live in a large vibrant Jewish community, where I get more than enough Jewish opinions, thank you very much.

But if I still lived in, say, rural North Carolina, where I grew up, I might be more drawn to television programming that identified itself as Jewish in the hope I would find a sense of community in shared interests and beliefs.

Were I starved for Jewish company, I doubt I'd be as picky about how "Jewishness" was defined and whether it was being oversimplified. I'd be more interested in finding a reflection of myself in the programming.

It's when you put a bunch of Jews with different takes on everything -- including Judaism -- in a room together that the notion of a "Jewish perspective" falls apart for me. But not for Golub:

I do feel it is fair and honest to say that someone whose opinions have been shaped in large measure from Jewish experience -- living in a strong Jewish community, benefiting from a strong Jewish education, and (to be sure) with a strong sense of Jewish feeling and identity (to wit, Alan Dershowitz), I do feel one is getting "a" Jewish take to one degree or another.

I wouldn't expect to find a lot of common ground -- in style or content -- with Alan Dershowitz, so if the "Jewish perspective" in question were his, I'd have more luck finding ideological and intellectual kinship elsewhere on the dial, like PBS. (Oh, who am I kidding? With a 4 y.o. and a 10 y.o., I don't watch anything but Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Noggin, and Sprout. Once the kids are asleep, with a great sense of relief I silence the TV and read.)

Anyway, thanks for your input, Rabbi Golub, and for your kind words about my blog.

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