Life & Culture

Television is good for the Jews

As a film about preparing for bar and bat mitzvahs comes to BBC1, Matt Baylis explains why we’re so at home on the small screen


The Jews, according to the late Rabbi Lionel Blue (and I think, a fair few before him), “are like everyone else. Only moreso.” I do love that line, who ever first said it.

I’ve trained and edited TV writers in various, steamy locations such as Nairobi and Phnom Penh, and wherever I have been, I have found myself making the same point. The cinema is the place for the helicopter gun-battles and the migration of the buffalo; if you want to display the storms and the rainbows that really matter to individual humans, then you need the small screen: you need emotions, facial expressions, visual evidence of people feeling things.

You can hardly find a better example than the forthcoming Growing Up Jewish, which follows four new teenagers as they prepare for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies (BBC1, 24 April). It’s a truly lovely film that captures the unique earnestness of the 12/13 year old, teetering – as folks of this age are in every culture – between pleasing their parents and becoming their own people. As a viewer you’re poised between wondering if there’s ever been a worse time to become a fully fledged Jew or if it’s ever been any better. Whatever you think about that, do watch it.

Unsurprisingly, Jewish characters and actors have always done well on the small screen, and not just because of their shrugs and eye-rolls. Amid the smutty, if not creepy, Carry-On atmosphere of The Rag Trade (1961-63, 1977-78), the catchphrase of Miriam Carlin’s stroppy shop steward Paddy, “Everyone out!”, feels almost like a weekly protest against storylines that inevitably involved women losing or missing items of clothing. Later, in Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Eliot Green feels so intimidated by the 5,000-odd years of tradition, that he has to flee his bar mitzvah; in spite of this, having eventually performed the requisite parshah upside down in a playground to his sister, he is declared by his rabbi to have ticked all the boxes and become a man. This, of course,makes you wonder, as the author must have done, if God actually minds which way you’re standing. Or even if you’re standing at all. (And how desperate rabbis must be for subscribers.)

Paddy would be sort of reincarnated – by Miriam Carlin – in the early 1990s as Yetta Feldman, a ghost who steadfastly refused to leave the Willesden terraced house she’d died in, after choking on a chicken bone. I’ll be honest: Yetta’s sitcom So Haunt Me (1992-1994), was and is my favourite. When my son was born, there was a Chasidic couple in the next bed to us at the hospital. I remember a moment when I looked over to the young mum and her sisters and aunties, and they looked at me and my  wife, with nothing but pity, because they could see that we had nobody around our bed, just us. (They gave us a cloth; more accurately, in the lift, a woman gave a cloth to a man, who gave it to me, all parties almost purple with embarrassment). And this was what Yetta provided in that sitcom: she had chased other families away, but for some reason, this one, she cared about them. The house came with its own, ready-installed bubbe. And beyond that, it was a story about London: about people moving into houses that were filled with the ghosts of others, as waves of us – Jews and Cypriots, Poles and gypsies and Irish – have done. I wish we’d been haunted by a warm ghost like Yetta.

Speaking of warmth, Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) contrasted the ruin of the inner city with the decency of the cops, and there was a similar clash between decent, earnest, make-a-difference Henry Goldblume and his undercover oppo Mick Belker. Henry needed therapy when he shot someone. Mick brought heimishe lunches in – things like a herring and an onion – that appalled his colleagues, and on occasion, if stretched, he bit people. He was an antidote to the traditional Jewish victim: a Jew with teeth.

No tour of small-screen Judaica can be complete without Friday Night Dinner (2011-2020), which is almost, as the Germans say – ortsgebunden – bound to a place, the place in question being Mill Hill, outer London. It’s easy to assume that places like these have no identity, but that’s to overlook a rich cultural seam, of which sons coming home for weekly chicken is just a part. So, too, are brothers teasing one another about girlfriends and the lack of girlfriends, mums obsessing overly much about girlfriends and the lack of girlfriends, and dads not listening yet listening enough to create their own brand of confusion and mayhem. Like everyone else, I guess. But moreso.

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