The Anti-Defamation League hosted an interesting discussion about how Jews are portrayed on television as part of the org's annual meeting this week at the Bev Hilton.
It was interesting mostly for the caliber of the people who were doing the discussing: Former Los Angeles Times chief TV critic Howard Rosenberg pressed "Mad Men" creator/exec producer Matthew Weiner and Roz Weinman, the former head of standards and practices at NBC and a former producer for the "Law & Order" troika, to go beyond the obvious and really examine the question of how the portrayals of Jews have changed over the years, and why.
The hourlong sesh, held Friday ayem, seemed particularly relevant given the milestone the country has reached in its long and tortured history of race relations with the election of our first black president. It was not, however, the kind of discussion that lends itself to snappy soundbites or easily distillation of main points.
Weiner made the observation that as part of the cultural assimilation process, Jews and every other ethnic, racial or religious minority at some point seek to downplay most of their differences from mainstream WASP culture in the effort to blend in and be accepted. On television it is only in the recent past that shows built around distinct ethnic subcultures have been widely accepted, Weiner said, citing the "The Sopranos" as a prime example.
"When the specificity of who people are is part of the commercial appeal -- that just means we've changed" as a culture, Weiner said. "I was surprised to see ethnic identity come back into entertainment with 'The Sopranos.' I guess it meant the public was ready for it."
Weinman recalled the reaction at the first screening of the "Seinfeld" pilot for NBC brass back in 1989. It played well in the darkened room, but when the lights came up, the verdict from some higher ups was it was "too New York" and "too Jewish" to be a big hit. Brandon Tartikoff listened to the comments and finally decreed: "We'll add a girl." (Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine was not in the mix at that point.) Tartikoff reminded the doubters that the show had just generated big laughs from their mix of Jews and non-Jews sitting 3,000 miles outside of New York.
Weiner offered some insight into the specifics of how anti-Semitism is dealt with in his intricately crafted show. It's fraught with dramatic potential because the show is set in the world of Madison Avenue at a time when attitudes about the traditional segregation of Jews and gentiles were slowly beginning to change, at least at the more progressive shops.
A clip from the "Mad Men" pilot was screened in which Don Draper has a showdown with the very determined and self-assured Rachel Menken about the prospective advertising campaign for her "Jewish department store."
The drama is further heightened by Menken being a woman making the decisions for her father's business. And in fact when Draper finally blows up and walks out of the meeting, he points to her gender more than religious identity in huffing that he won't be "spoken to like that by a woman."
As much as Weiner wanted viewers to think about the prevailing wisdom of the day and to realize how much nearly blatant anti-Semitism was a fact of life in 1960 America, he also had an even deeper characterization motive for his existential anti-hero, Don.
" I wanted Don to have something in common with this woman. He knows what its like to be disconnected" from the rest of the world, given his mysterious background, Weiner said. "I wanted it to be about the way we define people as 'others.'"
Weiner gave a shout-out to the actress who played Rachel Menken, Maggie Siff. It was a hard role to cast -- you don't send out a casting notice for a "Jewish actress" anymore, Weiner said.
"When Maggie came in and read, she reminded me of my mother and so many women in my life. So strong and sarcastic," Weiner said.