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Jewish World Review
Dec. 21, 2005
/ 20 Kislev, 5765
When saying happy holidays is the least of the problems
Elliot B. Gertel
UPN sitcom airing tonight takes a thoughtful, serious look at interfaith marriage
Girlfriends is a popular series on UPN about four young Black women, their lives, loves, and lamentations. It might be the last place that most TV viewers would have looked for a Chanukah versus Christmas episode, yet it is a very worthwhile place for such a theme. The show's energy, wit and pathos serve it well in exploring any serious theme, with appropriate humor.
The episode, "All G-d's Children," begins with Toni (Jill Marie Jones) showing her friends a power point presentation she has prepared in video to impress the judge presiding over her custody battle for baby daughter Morgan with her ex husband, Todd (Jason Pace). She has decided that her willingness to expose the baby both to her Black heritage and to Todd's Jewish heritage will win her points in court. She highlights both Christmas and Chanukah and even throws in a "mazal tov" for good measure. She has even agreed to invite Todd and his mother, along with her family and friends, in order to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah together, since the first candle falls on Christmas Day.
The combined celebration is a disaster from the start. The Jewish mother (Caroline Aaron) cuts off the Black mother's carol singing (in fine voice and style, by the way), before the latter gets to "receive my king." During the candle lighting ceremony (which Todd does with atrocious Hebrew pronunciation) the Black mother (Jenifer Lewis) complains that Todd could be intoning some kind of voodoo curse to send Toni's family back to Africa. When she further protests the "blessing of the Chanukah candles" on the grounds that "we don't worship false idols in our church," Todd's mother retorts, "Obviously they don't teach manners at your church."
I suspect that the Black mother won that round because neither Todd nor his mother understands that it is not the candles that are blessed, but the G-d Who is thanked for the Maccabean victory that saved Judaism. (And, thus, made her Christianity possible.) Also, Todd's mother's complaint about the Christmas tree being a fire trap is well countered in a reminder by Toni's mom that candles can cause fires too.
Back in the privacy of their own bedroom, one of Toni's friends discusses the fiasco with her husband. "Toni and Todd had absolutely no business getting together," she says, quoting Second Corinthians 6:14 to the effect that husband and wife must be "equally yoked" to the faith. "Marriage is hard enough," she concludes, "without having to deal with all that race and religion drama. We're lucky. We're both black and Baptist."
Here is the kind of statement that Jewish characters rarely make on television nowadays (the last time, I think, being a remark by Thelma Lee as a Jewish grandmother on the 1988 Buck James series). We have to admire this Black girlfriend's candor. Also, she gets to quote a scriptural verse in a television series in a respectful manner. Even on most of the drama shows, whether Law and Order or Medium, it is only a murderous, ranting lunatic who quotes from any scriptures. Girlfriends renders scripture-quoting natural and admirable.
For whatever reason, writers Mark Alton Brown and Dee Leduke undermine their own character's argument by bringing it home in a rather flip manner. It seems that she and her husband are not both Baptists. He fesses up that "during our time apart," he had become an Episcopalian, since that form of Christianity requires less hours in church, and had introduced their son to it. She says she is appalled by such "Christian lite," but subsequent events belie her own rhetoric.
The episode's comedic relief calls into question the credibility of some friends' rhetoric, but certain messages still come through loud and clear.
The anguish of the Jewish mother comes through unequivocally. In the car she reminds Todd, "You can't be Jewish and Christian. It's not possible." When Todd responds, "We're figuring it out," his mother retorts, "There's no time to figure it out. Morgan's here now….[Toni's] meshugeneh mother is right about one thing. Our little Morgan will always be perceived as Black. We're Jewish, Todd. Our people have been Jewish for 5,000 years. And if you don't raise her Jewish, G-d forbid, you're just completing Hitler's word." (At this point she spits in the old East European manner.)
The Jewish mother is not without self-awareness. She admits that she is being "over the top." But she laments that the beautiful "little pitzele" may well prove to be her only grandchild, especially since Todd's brother is "on hormones" and "growing breasts."
Todd jokes about his mother "trying to guilt" him. She makes some crack about sticking it out for him in a "miserable marriage," but when he suggests divorce, she asks how she could divorce a wonderful man like his father, and on Chanukah, and again "guilts" him, this time with a "Shame on you."
The anguish of the Black mother also comes through loud and clear. "You might want to get down on your knees for bringing Chanukah all up and through on your baby's first Christmas." (I admire the vitality and imagery of the language that the writers give her.) When Toni tells her that Jesus probably celebrated Chanukah, she retorts effectively that Jesus must have celebrated Chanukah before he "found Jesus." When Toni insists that exposing Morgan to both religions will make Toni's case look better in court, her mother rebukes her, "Oh you think you're being all legalistic and strategic [she might as well have said, "Pharisaic," and thrown in an old canard], but all you're doing is mixing that child up." She concludes, "I want Morgan to live with you in this life…but I got to think about our next life. I don't want my pretty little grandbaby waving to me from the other side of the Pearly Gates."
Todd tells Toni that he wants people to see something of him in Morgan. "She's got black hair," Toni replies. "You're getting greedy." When Toni asks if Todd's mother brought up his concern about Morgan's being raised Jewish, he fesses up, "She brought it up, but it got me thinking. It's important to me. We should have talked about it before, but here we are."
Toni's quip about Todd being "greedy" proves prophetic. He offers to drop his petition for full custody if Toni will agree to raise Morgan as a Jew. At first, Toni jumps at the offer, chirping to her friends that she's going to take Morgan to "some religious hot tub and dunk her and convert her." Her friends are opposed to the decision. The friend concerned about what church she and her husband will attend reminds Toni that Jews "denied the word when it was fresh and new."
Other friends chide her that she must teach Morgan that "the church is our rock and strength," and that it is better to "stand up for Jesus" or at least expose their daughter to both faiths.
Things come to a head at the conversion ceremony, at the mikvah (ritual bath) in the presence of a religious court consisting of a rabbi and two other men and Todd's mother who, for some reason, is wearing a large tallis (prayer shawl). (Is she supposed to represent Jewish women who happen to be overbearing and who have rediscovered their faith?)
In a scene that comes across as highly discriminatory, Todd is in the mikvah with Morgan. Far off to the side (and back) are Toni and her family, who want to know why they have to be in the "back of the mikvah" and threaten a "Rosa Parks moment" (a good phrase). This, of course, could only have transpired in a non-Orthodox conversion, as the religious ceremony in traditional Judaism would have avoided hurt feelings precisely because it is generally not open to non-co-religionists.
In the end Toni cannot permit the conversion to take place. Toni asserts that her change of heart represents a resolve to move beyond the "knee jerk decisions" she has made in the past. The religious court has no choice but to accept that. Traditional Judaism would not expect a non-Jewish mother to agree to convert her child. While that would be most welcome, the bottom line is that with or without some previous agreement, no non-Jewish mother is required by Jewish Law and tradition to raise her daughter as Jewish. Even a child who has been converted does have the option, at maturity, of rejecting that conversion.
This episode of Girlfriends presents a lot of harsh truths, but manages to maintain dignity and humor. That is no mean achievement, especially on the theme of interfaith marriage.
True, the Jewish father here uses a rather underhanded ploy to get his wife to agree to the conversion, but the episode begins with her using a rather underhanded ploy to succeed in the custody case. Such things happen in divorce.
In general, there is parity in this episode, though, as I said, Jewish Law would definitely side with the non-Jewish mother. Even so, I was troubled by the treatment of Jewish men. The Jewish father is absent not dead, not cut off, just absent. It seems that someone was awfully anxious to do unto Jewish fathers what has become the common depiction of Black men. Also, a lot is made of Todd's "insecurity." Neither he nor the writers protest when his mother calls him "a short, insecure boy just like your father who chased after the unattainable exotic beauty." Mother is good-looking enough to get away with that, but is this the only reason that the writers let her get away with it, besides complimenting one of the girlfriends, of course?
This episode of Girlfriends is, so far, one of TV's best arguments against interfaith marriage. The dialogue leads me to give credit to writers Brown and Leduke for achieving that intentionally. They obviously wanted the episode to be thought provoking and illustrate that love doesn't always conquer all that in interfaith marriages there can, and indeed almost always are, problems. Serious ones.
I'll leave it to viewers to decide whether or not the writers regard those as across-the-board problems or as issues exacerbated by the dysfunctionality and affluence of the Jewish family.
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Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel, JWR's resident media maven, is
a Conservative rabbi based in Chicago. His latest book is "Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and
Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and
Observances in Film and Television". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2005, Elliot B. Gertel