In one of the final scenes of the hit Australian series A Place to Call Home, Sarah Nordmann lights the Sabbath candles. She blesses the wine and the bread and passes them around the table. The moment is extraordinary, not only because Sarah, born Bridgette Adams, is a convert to Judaism, but because all her guests are gentiles. Some of them were formerly anti-Semites. Sarah embraces them and wishes them an ardent “Shabbat shalom.”
Sarah ranks as one of the most complex characters to appear in contemporary television—principled, passionate, long-suffering, and intrepid. Her decision to convert, made after falling in love with a Jewish doctor during the Spanish Civil War, leads to her excommunication from the Catholic Church and subsequent estrangement from her mother. It results in her internment in the Ravensbrück concentration camp and her torture by the Nazis. Yet the most insidious challenge to Sarah’s identity comes after the Holocaust, when a wealthy Australian widower invites her to work as a nurse in his quiet country town. There she must wrestle with almost daily displays of anti-Semitism.
It comes in various stripes, from the “Hitler should have gotten you all” variety to the aristocratic “to be born a Jew is misfortune enough, but to become one is a tragedy.” Jew-hatred is shown to permeate every stratum of Australian society, along with prejudice against gay people, women, and Blacks. Sarah stands up for them all. Though not formally observant, she is fiercely attached to her adopted faith and what she regards as its liberal ideals. She confronts the bigots and, for the most part, defeats them. When chancing on a former Ravensbrück guard, she seeks not closure but vengeance, and after giving birth to a son, insists on having him circumcised. Along the way, Sarah befriends other Jews, many of them Orthodox, all of them noble.
If glowing in its portrayal of Jews and Judaism, A Place to Call Home, which is streaming on Acorn TV, is no less admiring in its treatment of Israel. Sarah is unreservedly proud of the Jewish state, defending it from detractors and yearning to visit at the earliest opportunity. Zionism serves as an inspiration to other liberation movements, she believes, as do several of the series’ protagonists. “Israel … it gives a man hope,” an aboriginal worker observes to her. “Two thousand years for your mob and only 200 years for ours … so maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Such a positive portrayal of Jewishness and Israel might be understandable if the makers of A Place to Call Home were themselves committed Jews or evangelical Christians. But writer Bevan Lee, a renowned gay-rights activist, wrote the series not as a tribute to Jews but to the veterans of World War II. Marta Dusseldorp, who plays Sarah, is also a non-Jew. She prepared for the role by watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah film, visiting Sydney’s Holocaust Museum and speaking with a convert. “Sarah doesn’t walk around as a victim,” she explained. “Her life is about … being positive and enriching the world.” A search of the producers’ backgrounds reveals no Jewish connections whatsoever.
By contrast, one would be hard-pressed to find an American series in which Jews did not play a significant if not dominant role. And Jewish characters have long been a staple of American television—from the presumed-to-be Jewish stars of Rhoda and Seinfeld to the over-the-top Jews of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The progression from subtle to flagrant portrayals no doubt reflects the increasing success and security of Jews in the entertainment field, but it also mirrors their own sense of identity. For them, it seems, Judaism is less a source of pride and values than of ethnic quirks, psychological fragility, and angst—less a religion than a syndrome. And it is funny, easily caricatured: an ongoing Jewish joke. Donny’s Bar Mitzvah, a new Amazon Prime comedy, seeks to be “the raunchiest Jewish movie ever made.”
But other series, most graphically Our Boys and Unorthodox, dispense with humor altogether to show a Judaism that is racist, anti-feminist, cruel, and ultimately violent. Israel is painted as heartless at best, and at worst, evil. These themes converge in Messiah, a Netflix production that touches on almost every anti-Semitic trope, from the hideous IDF soldiers who torment a Christ-like figure and his unarmed Palestinian followers to the Israeli security personnel determined to kill him.
Our Boys and Unorthodox were created by Jews, but not Messiah, which was written by an Australian Catholic. This is unusual, for Australia may be one of the few countries in the world capable of producing a program like A Place to Call Home. Free of Europe’s anti-Semitic baggage and without the American Jews who poke fun or take aim at their heritage, Australian producers have no problem in presenting Jews who are steeped in their tradition and committed to their faith. They can still see Israel as a blessing.
That sympathy applies not only to Judaism but to religion in general. An upper crust family saga similar to Dynasty, Downton Abbey, and Dallas, A Place to Call Home is uniquely focused on faith. The Catholics are staunch in their religious convictions as are the members of the Church of England—the “C of E” as they lovingly call it. “What would we do without prayer, whoever our God?” Doris, a Protestant, asks Sarah after the funeral of a common friend. Sarah responds by reciting Psalm 23, in Hebrew, “v’yeshavti bavait Adonai le’orech yamim,” and Doris concludes, “with your son and the Holy Spirit forever and ever.”
Perhaps this is a nod to the period in which the drama takes place, in the early 1950s, when Australians were presumably more observant. But Downton Abbey, set in 1920s England, is effectively desacralized, with its historical adviser having been instructed to “keep religion out of it.” At a time when television priests are more likely to be pedophiles than role models and born-again Christians are invariably fanatics, A Place to Call Home is a paean to piety.
And audiences loved it. Discontinued after a mere two seasons, the series was brought back by popular demand for an additional five. It won every Australian television award—including most outstanding drama series—four times.
“Shabbat shalom,” the guests in that final scene reply to Sarah. She has triumphed over ignorance, hatred, and genocide. But religion, too, has won, and especially Judaism. A Place to Call Home proves that Jews, God, and Israel needn’t be lambasted or lampooned to achieve high ratings. On the contrary, portraying them favorably, even heroically, just may be the secret to a hit.
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, a Member of the Knesset, and Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).