Where is the Jewish “Bridgerton”? In search of the best pieces from the Jewish period

Think of the depictions of Jews in period pieces over the past half century. What comes to mind? Chances are, the majority of content revolves around the Holocaust: “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” “Life Is Good” and, most recently, “Jojo Rabbit.” Or maybe you’ve thought of Fiddler on the Roof, which isn’t about the Holocaust but is underscored by violent anti-Semitism and ends with the expulsion of Jewish characters from their villages.

I mean it’s a problem. We need better representation of Jews in period pieces. We need scenarios that don’t revolve around our deportations and our deaths.

On some level, it would improve the way we Jews perceive ourselves today. Media portrayals of Jews as eternal victims only reinforce an eternal victim mentality, a mentality that is a natural reaction to millennia of anti-Semitism but does not really serve us. We deserve to stay strong and be happy.

At the turn of the 19th century, early Zionist thinkers struggled with the fact that we see ourselves – and worse, act – as helpless victims of history. They sought to remedy this mindset with the creation of the “New Jew” and its state (women were ignored at the time). I point to the same problem and want to remedy the situation with a Jewish version of “Bridgerton”. That’s not to say that a state and a TV show are on the same level. They obviously aren’t, but to see ourselves placed in history outside of a context of suffering would teach us to see ourselves outside of that context today. This would not only be emotionally healthier and more appropriate in a time of unprecedented freedom for Jews, but would also allow us to more accurately identify and combat the real anti-Semitic threats which, make no mistake, are abundant.

On a different but closely related level, media depictions of our expulsions and deaths teach us that the only Jewish experiences worthy of artistic representation are those of suffering. After all, if others don’t appreciate our joy, why should we? Such representations border on anti-Semitism. This may seem counterintuitive: why would it be anti-Semitic to make art about the horrors of the Holocaust? Well, it’s not inherently, especially when the artists are Jewish.

But when the only Jewish stories worth telling to non-Jews are about our deaths – often paired with stories of righteous Gentiles so non-Jews can reassure themselves that they would have done something to help us – something does not do not go. It seems that our stories are not told for us. On the contrary, they are appropriate to assuage the guilt of non-Jews. A sense of proportion is, of course, important. Appropriating our history isn’t a hate crime, but that doesn’t mean we should give it a pass.

Finally, it must be said that Jewish history is more important than pogroms and dhimmi status. It’s even bigger than the Holocaust. Throughout history, the Jewish experience has been greater than our victimization. It encompassed our joys, our desires, our spirituality, our intellectual exploits and our many shortcomings too. Jews are real people, and that means we are complex. Our experiences are multiple. To describe the sum of our experiences as nothing more than an endless cycle of suffering, in period pieces but also in general, is simply inaccurate.

And more than inaccurate, it is an affront to the memory of our ancestors. Reducing our ancestors to their trauma is no honor. On the contrary, it amounts to a profound lack of respect.

So let’s demand better. I want a show about the Sephardic Golden Age. I want a film about post-emancipation Jews trying to integrate into non-Jewish high society. I want to see the spiritual and emotional highs and lows of Sabbatism, the false messianic movement that rocked the Jewish world in the 1660s, portrayed on the big screen.

And while we’re at it, let’s look at the work of Jewish authors for sources. For example, let’s adapt Amy Levy’s “Reuben Sachs: A Sketch” for the big screen. The novel takes a critical look at British Jewish high society in the 1880s – so critical, in fact, that it generated considerable backlash in the Jewish community upon publication. But we should be able to critique our communities, past and present. Criticism is a sign that we engage with all aspects of what it means to be Jewish, not just the parts that look good – or the parts that don’t even look good but fit an unhealthy self-image.

It is by creating and promoting art that depicts Jewish life in all its complexity that we show that we truly care about Jewishness.

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