NEW YORK — I find great joy in seeing non-Jews benignly jest and jape at Jewish customs and stereotypes. When they kinda think they know what a Bar Mitzvah is or when they start throwing the hard Chet sound around where it doesn’t belong. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and I think other ethnic groups feel the same way. (My unscientific proof: one semester I roomed with an Indian-American who would lose his mind whenever Apu would show up on “The Simpsons.” And if it was a particularly Apu-heavy episode, the phone would be ringing off the hook as he and his pals called each other, doubled-over. It was great.)
It’s this aspect, and this aspect alone, that held my interest in Lifetime Network’s “Kosher Soul” for as long as it did. Whereas most reality television would have me tossing the pillows on my couch in a furious search for the remote after thirty seconds, “Kosher Soul” held my attention for at least 10 minutes. Considering that each episode clocks in at only 20, that’s not quite the disaster you might think.
Miriam Sternoff is a cheery, warm, under-40 New York Jewess transplanted to Los Angeles (it happens). When we meet her in the first episode of “Kosher Soul” she is engaged to an African-American comic from South Carolina named O’Neal McKnight. Their love for one another is true and delightful and manifests itself for our viewing pleasure right there on their couch, where they zip and zing one another like a Greek Chorus commenting on their own lives. What’s fascinating is how they both fit in the box of their own ethnic stereotypes, but also frequently burst out. (It’s almost as if, gasp, they are their own people.)
O’Neal is a performer (and, while the show is very vague about the specifics, used to work for some heavy hitters in the music business) and is as representative of mainstream, affluent culture as anyone. This isn’t to say he isn’t in touch with his African-American history, but he’s hardly a dazed kid from the ‘hood.
Miriam has a bit of a taste for the finer things, but anyone expecting JAP-y Jeannie Berlin from “The Heartbreak Kid” is going to be disappointed. Her trip to the New Age mikveh is pure Southern California not Safed. She’s very funny, but a lot of that is playing the straight man, setting up O’Neal for the killer punchline. They really are a great fit.
And yet there are still cultural differences, which the show milks for drama as best as it can. Miriam doesn’t know from cooking catfish, but O’Neal wants, as he puts it, some black food up in here. She scales and fries the treyf, and apparently it isn’t any good. Somehow this sequence stretches out to eight minutes, and made it into the “show reel” of three episodes presented to critics. I don’t know about you, but I have my own problems – you really want to watch these people you don’t know whine about cooking?
If you are looking for insight into two great cultures, you can find flashes of it peeking through the bland, banal and altogether boring format that is typical of reality TV. (So many “booms” on the soundtrack, force-feeding the audience into thinking something really heavy is going on.)
When O’Neal is with his pals and offers a bonafide concern about his partnership, there’s nothing critical about Miriam’s Jewishness, but misgivings about her Whiteness. When joking about his upcoming ritual circumcision (oh yeah, Miriam makes him convert, and go all the way) the punchline from his buddy is “Word? A white man has your dick in your hand with a knife? That’s scary!”
Discussing the forthcoming wedding reception, O’Neal jokes that his this will be the first time his family will be around whites that aren’t bill collectors. Overly sensitive Jews may clutch their pearls at a gag about increased credit ratings that comes with converting religions, but O’Neal gets some digs in at his own kind, mocking cousins who RSVPd as six for an invite for two. (“It’s a barbecue mentality!”)
O’Neal (a future-Jew) goes to Canter’s Deli and does spit out the chopped liver, but at least he tried. Miriam goes to get fitted for a grill, and putting aside any unintentional Holocaust significance about gold teeth, it’s nothing if not charming to see how a person will set aside their own notions of taste for true love.
By and large the jokes have their roots in sitcoms as far back as ‘The Honeymooners,’ with the wife being sensible and the husband as the immature clown
But once these moments of cultural specificity subside we’re still left, unfortunately, with another completely phony reality show. By and large the jokes have their roots in sitcoms as far back as “The Honeymooners,” with the wife being sensible and the husband as the immature clown. And, man, it is tired.
Each episode (and I watched three) is a collection of manufactured mini-scandals. O’Neal wants to buy a Porsche, so goes to the dealership, acts silly, then realizes he can’t afford it. I guess this, to some people, is entertainment.
I can’t say I’ll be tuning to Miriam and O’Neal’s next adventure, but I do wish them the best. If a moment from their show goes viral (alas, the bris was teased but not yet shown) I’ll maybe click the link and think “oh yeah, I met these people once, but I don’t really know them.”
“Kosher Soul” debuts on Lifetime Network on Wednesday, February 25.