If you want to understand why we have a black president while a Jewish commander in chief is still very much a distant dream, watch Black-ish.
I know: It’s a heavy weight to put on any show, especially a newcomer sitcom with no grand aspirations to be anything but a solid strip of entertainment. But spend five minutes looking at Anthony Anderson strutting his stuff, and you will realize that Black-ish is the greatest American Jewish sitcom ever, and that no Jew could ever make it. And comparing Black-ish to just about every one of the scores of shows that feature a Jewish protagonist cast in more or less the same storyline—marginalized ethnic schlub transcends his parents’ parochialism, ascends the socioeconomic ladder only to find that the climb is thorny—tells you a lot about the emotional and cultural barrenness of American Jewry.
Sharply written and wonderfully acted, Black-ish follows Anderson as Dre, an advertising executive propelled by his talent and charm to a choice seat at his firm’s boardroom table. The view from up high, however, gives him vertigo: His children—creatures of comfort who, unlike their dad, had experienced no adversity, growing up in a tony neighborhood of Los Angeles—are so unaware of the dictates, real and invented, of their heritage that they play field hockey in an all-white high-school team, build miniature replicas of Lord of the Rings sets, and inquire about quick conversions to Judaism in order to reap the benefits of having bar mitzvahs. With all the gusto of a great comic lead, Anderson huffs and whines and schemes and cringes and shines, all in an attempt to give his children a strong sense of being black.
The set-up makes for a string of uproarious moments, like the one in which Dre, eager to provide his son with an authentic-seeming rite of passage that might match the magic of the bar mitzvah, concocts his own fakakteh ritual, dressing in traditional African garb and hopping around in the back yard to the amusement of his family. But Dre’s desire for identity also makes Black-ish one of the very first shows that deals with race openly and comfortably. According to Robin R. Means Coleman, a University of Michigan professor who has researched the history of the black sitcom, representation of African Americans on TV comedy shows has gone through several distinct phases, from ridicule and invisibility in the 1950s and 1960s to the Norman Lear era of the 1970s in which race was addressed directly but the black characters occupied their own segregated worlds, to the Cosby era, which presented black characters as having equal status to white ones but avoided any mention of racial or economic struggle. Black-ish breaks this mold: Its characters move in a world of white privilege, but unlike Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable, they fret about the meaning of their “privilege” nearly all the time.
As the show opens, for example, Dre is devastated when he learns that the big promotion he had just received at work will put him in charge of his firm’s “urban” division; miffed that he was ghettoized by being put in charge of “the black stuff,” he nearly sinks his career by pitching a large new account with a video featuring the Rodney King riots and O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase.
It’s an uncomfortable moment, but also a very funny one, and the notion that both emotions can coexist without alienating white viewers is a major achievement in its own right. When Dre, responding to his wife’s suggestion that he take up gardening as a hobby, darkly quips that his people have a history of hundreds of years of mandatory gardening, we laugh—but not only because the joke is funny. We laugh because, like Dre, the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly, and, above all, because we understand Dre’s foibles as being driven by the universal urge every young parent feels to give his or her children a strong sense of self, of place, of community, of traditions, and of history.
Dre and his wife, then, are just like any young couple that rushes to join a synagogue as their first child is born. But don’t expect Jewish characters to play out the same dilemmas for laughs anytime soon: In sitcoms, the Jewish condition remains, as it has been pretty much without exception since Molly Goldberg first hollered her Yoo-hoos, one of white-bread assimilation narratives and their discontents. From Richard Lewis and Paul Reiser to Jerry Seinfeld and Fran Dresher, it’s always the same story, one in which a nebbish is rescued from the depths of overblown ethnicity by a goyishe redeemer whose love is the ticket admitting the poor hand-wringing Jewish loser into polite American society.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much: For decades, Jewish humor on TV betrayed a discomfort not only with the notion of being embraced by American society at large—could the posh Maxwell Sheffield ever love the nanny Fran Fine, the poor Jewish daughter of Sylvia from Queens?—but also with the very idea of being Jewish itself. Seinfeld, for example, was roused to feel his affiliation only when he suspected his dentist had converted to Judaism only to get away with telling vaguely offensive jokes about Jews. Paul and Jaime, the intermarried protagonists of Mad About You, were strict about nothing save for never mentioning religion in any way, shape, or form.
Compare these deracinated schnooks to Dre, and you’ve a lesson in the emotionally stultifying and artistically debilitating ravages of cultural neurosis. Unlike the Jews of prime time, the star of Black-ish is deeply and thoroughly proud of his own heritage as a black American man. Rather than marrying into blond, mainstream white America—a must for every Jewish male on TV—he pokes fun at his wife for being only half-black. And rather than making his ethnicity the butt of his barbs by inflating its most laughable stereotypical qualities—what am I, chopped liver?—he draws warmth and humor from his struggle to balance a genuine passion for black culture with an equally genuine desire to succeed in the largely white world outside his home.
Black-ish, in other words, offers an emotional experience far more faithful to life as it is lived by so many Americans—Jews, blacks, Latinos, Koreans, any and all minorities great and small. It never discounts prejudice or makes light of the very real vestiges of racism that still deform most quarters of society. Nor does it pretend that an ethnic identity, any ethnic identity, is all noble traditions and lofty sentiments; to remain vibrant and relevant, identity must make room for the ridiculous as well as for the sublime. But it understands what so many of us instinctively do as well: namely, that reveling in our traditions while noting our differences isn’t a barrier to entering mainstream American society but rather a requirement. Jews, on TV and in real life, should take notice.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.