Working class Jews are so not represented in popular culture, research shows

Analysis of more than 1,000 TV shows, films and news articles has uncovered just how skewed representations of Jews are


If you watched the film You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah starring Adam Sandler, you might have wondered if every young Jew’s simcha is quite that lavish.

The answer, of course, is no — in the US, home to the world’s largest diaspora Jewish community, up to 20 per cent of Jews live in poverty, according to figures from Pew Research Centre.

Now, analysis has uncovered just how skewed representations of Jews are in pop culture, which researchers believe is compounding antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and wealth among the wider population.

Wealthy Jewish characters in films and on TV are 10 times more common than Jewish characters experiencing poverty, according to the findings of the study published by a US group, TEN: Together Ending Need.

Researchers reviewed more than 1,000 news articles, television programmes, and films, primarily focussing on releases from the 15-year period between 2008 and 2023 but also including a handful of influential stories from the preceding decades, to understand how the wider public learns about the economic status of Jewish people.

Lately, the focus of discussion has centred around whether non-Jews should take Jewish roles, with high-profile debates rumbling on about Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir, and Bradley Cooper portraying Leonard Bernstein — but the report’s author suggested a shift in focus is needed.

“A good story, told and retold, again and again, will harden into a narrative,” said Mik Moore.

“Once a narrative is established, we use it to filter new information, embracing information when it’s aligned and ignoring it when
it’s not.”

He added: “We do not suggest excluding stories of Jewish economic success from entertainment and the news. Instead, we recommend complicating these narratives by supporting a wider range of stories that better reflect the diverse lived experiences of American Jews today.”

Not only are wealthy Jews far more prominent on our screens than those struggling to make ends meet, they are also typically shown in monied roles, working as lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, accountants and business executives, the analysis found.

When impoverished Jews do make an appearance they are they are normally strictly Orthodox, elderly, or in their twenties.

Speaking on her podcast last year, Jewish comedian and actor Sarah Silverman discussed her frustrations around representations of Jews in popular culture when she was growing up.

Silverman said: “As a Jew from New Hampshire I didn’t see anything in art that even showed working-class Jews... The only time I saw Jews on TV and in movies was as scumbag lawyers and stuff.”

She added: “People are not one thing. So it’s hard to see yourself represented in art as all one thing.”

The TEN report, entitled “The Case of the Missing Narrative: Hollywood, Media and Jewish Poverty”, noted: “For every Jewish character in film or television facing poverty, there are almost 10 Jewish characters who are wealthy [yet]... 26 per cent of American Jews had trouble paying bills at least once in the last year.”

However, it concluded: “It is possible to replace the stereotypical narrative of Jewish wealth with a narrative about Jewish commitment to equity...

“It is possible to tell untold stories about how American Jews struggle to overcome the same economic barriers faced by other Americans, replacing a narrative of exceptionalism with a narrative of normalcy.”

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