Poor and working-class Jews are underrepresented in US pop culture, analysis argues

Group fighting poverty in Jewish community says films and TV tend to portray Jews as wealthier on aggregate than they are in real life, making charity work more difficult

'You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah.' (Scott Yamano/Netflix via JTA)
'You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah.' (Scott Yamano/Netflix via JTA)

JTA – As the WGA, the screenwriters’ union in Hollywood, returns to work following a five-month strike, the authors of a new analysis of Jewish representation have a message for its members: The world needs more Jewish characters who aren’t rich.

Portrayals of wealthy Jewish families spending big on lavish affairs — such as the characters in Adam Sandler’s latest movie, “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” — present a distorted picture of American Jews and their financial need, according to the analysis, released Monday by a partner of the Jewish Funders Network that is focused on poverty.

“People are still very surprised to hear that 20 percent of the Jewish community is experiencing poverty,” said Rachel Sumekh, the Jewish Funders Network’s project executive for TEN, formerly known as the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty. “One of the reasons why our narrative is outdated is Hollywood and the media, and what Jewish stories they tend to tolerate.”

The analysis and its recommendations add to a growing discourse about Jewish representation that so far has focused largely on whether it is appropriate for non-Jewish actors to portray Jewish characters, as well as on the depiction of Orthodox communities. TEN’s report weighs in on those questions but says that another dimension of how Jews are portrayed also deserves attention.

Titled “The Case Of The Missing Narrative: Hollywood, The Media and Jewish Poverty,” the survey finds that poor and working-class Jews are underrepresented in these fields relative to their prevalence in real life. It argues that greater representation of them could lead to more widespread recognition of Jews who are financially struggling.

The analysis compiles 85 films and 104 TV shows about Jewish themes, most from the last 15 years, and categorizes them according to their depiction of the Jewish characters’ wealth. A separate study looked at depictions of Jews in the news media.

Jeffrey Tambor, left, and Kasia Ostlun attend the LA Premiere of “Arrested Development” Season Five at Raleigh Studios Hollywood on Thursday, May 17, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The report about Jewish poverty and wealth on screen was written by Mik Moore, a media strategist who was once an executive at the progressive nonprofit Jewish Funds for Justice.

According to the report, while TEN estimates that one in five Jewish American households earn less than $50,000 a year, they are one-tenth as likely as wealthy Jews to appear in movies and TV shows. Moore primarily focused on works made since 2008, concluding that only three of 85 films during that time depicted Jewish poverty at all and that Jewish poverty is typically portrayed in the context of American Dream-style upward mobility. Some portrayals of wealth in Jewish communities conform to antisemitic stereotypes, the study concludes.

The data is not perfect. Moore also included a handful of what the study’s authors deemed to be “the most influential stories” from several decades prior, including “Annie Hall” and “An American Tail.” (They did not include “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1971 film adaptation of the Broadway musical about poor shtetl Jews who yearn to be rich, because, Sumekh said, “it’s not set in America.”)

Meanwhile, the analysis had originally included characters not identified as Jewish because they were played by Jewish actors; for their revised version, the team removed any character whose Judaism wasn’t integral to their portrayal, including fictionalized portraits of real-life Jews such as playwright Jonathan Larson in the movie “tick… tick… BOOM.”

Yet the finished summary still identifies some characters as Jewish when they are not, including citing the Bluth family from “Arrested Development” as an example of a harmful stereotype of “wealthy Jews who have lost everything and work (or scheme) to redeem themselves.” (While the family patriarch, played by Jewish actor Jeffrey Tambor, embraces Judaism in prison before later turning to Christianity, the Bluths’ religious identity is not specified.)

Moore and Sumekh said such errors should not detract from ”trends that are beyond the data set”: namely, that Jews in film and TV tend to be portrayed as wealthier on aggregate than Jews are in real life, and that such a portrayal makes it harder for groups like theirs to convince the public that many Jews in fact need financial assistance.

“It’s not a mathematical sort of situation,” Moore said. “We’re doing our best to look at the dominant pieces of culture and media that speak to this issue.”

David Duchovny, left, and Monique Pendleberry arrive at the premiere of Netflix’s ‘You People’ at The Regency Theatre at Westwood Village in Los Angeles, on January 17, 2023. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Sumekh named two recent Netflix comedies as especially problematic depictions of wealthy Jews: “You People,” Jonah Hill’s movie about an interracial relationship, and “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah.” The latter’s portrayal of lavish and expensive b’nai mitzvah, she said, “implies that we all live a certain way.”

“That’s harmful because I, as a Jew, grew up low-income and shared my bat mitzvah with my sister. That doesn’t necessarily represent my Jewish experience,” she said. “There are many, many Jews who take out big loans to pay for bar mitzvahs, to pay for weddings, to afford their home and the right zip code, because they don’t feel like they have another option if they want to be in the Jewish community.”

The analysis highlights some promising spots, too. Seth Rogen, the summary says, is “the contemporary Jewish actor most identified with playing Jewish characters barely getting by financially,” which the report suggests is related to Rogen’s childhood attending a Jewish socialist summer camp.

But it focuses more on what it suggests have been missed opportunities, for example calling out the non-Jewish working-class character played by Jewish actress Kat Dennings on the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls.”

“There’s no reason that her character couldn’t have been written as a Jew,” Moore said.

With screenwriting underway again, Sumekh and Moore aim to inject new ideas into storytelling about Jews — and their analysis argues for more investment in Jewish creatives who want to challenge dominant narratives about their communities.

“My hope is that this report would at least encourage writers and decision-makers to resist the impulse to reinforce people’s preexisting beliefs about who could be a certain character,” Moore said. “And that includes a prevailing belief that Jews are well-off.”

Most Popular
read more: