For TV dads, 2014 was a grim year: From the accusations against Bill Cosby to the child molestation confessions of 7th Heaven’s Stephen Collins, the besweatered benevolences of our childhood are proving to be predatory, leaving more than a few of us in the mood for self-reflection. Were we so taken with Cosby and Collins’ paterfamilial fantasies that we were inclined to turn a blind eye even as, in the case of Jell-O’s famous endorser, damning testimonies were mounting? And why are we still so reverential about fathers, anyway?
Mothers, after all, have undergone a scrubbing on the small screen, their glamour washed off and replaced with a more workaday sensibility. The short-tempered Lois on Malcolm in the Middle; the insecure Claire on Modern Family; the barbed Marie on Everybody Loves Raymond; the homicidal Cersei on Game of Thrones; the combustible Betty on Mad Men: For every Carol Brady we’ve a phalanx of female characters that are fundamentally flawed, and thoroughly interesting, because of how not-too-dissimilar they are from real-life people with real-life depths. But look on the other side of the marital bed, and father, it seems, still knows best. He can be a big-hearted Everyman (Roseanne’s Dan Conner), a lovable oaf (Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy), or even the head of a crime family or a crystal meth operation, but his credentials as the defender of his family are rarely in question. It’s hardly a coincidence that Walter White’s transformation from beleaguered teacher to bald menace begins when he stands up to bullies who torment his cerebral palsy-stricken son. When it comes to dads, we ask for nothing less than perfection.
Since ’tis still the season, just look at Father Christmas: As one inspired theologian recently told Rich Cohen, Santa himself is a sort of training-wheels Jesus, a simple and animated lesson in faith. If you believe that a jolly and rotund man in a red suit rides his reindeer to deliver presents to the good and the deserving, you’ll have little difficulty transitioning to the notion that another father, this one celestial, gave you another gift, an eternal one in the form of his only son. Our father problem, then, is deeply rooted and inherent; how, after all, can we reconcile such divine expectations with the thorniness of earthly reality?
By looking at Jewish fathers.
It’s funny how absent the concept is from popular imagination, given the stereotypical splendor awarded Jewish mothers for decades. When we meet Jewish dads in popular culture, they’re likely to be the petty providers made hunched over by failure we’d see in Philip Roth novels, say, there mainly as a backdrop against which their more luminous—less Jewish, more American—sons could shine. But we’ve better books and better fathers, none better than those who occupy the pages of the Bible.
Consider these marvelous men: One is forced by his heavenly boss to abandon everything and move to a distant land, history’s first inconvenient corporate relocation; later, the same supervisor returns with yet more erratic demands, nearly costing the man his son. That son, Isaac, spends most of his life plagued by childlessness, and when he finally fathers progeny of his own, they engage in an epic bit of sibling rivalry and tear the family apart. On the run from his brother’s wrath, Jacob aspires to marry one woman, is fooled, and toils for another decade before he can unite with his love; his children, too, engage in a spot of attempted fratricide, selling their youngest brother, Joseph, to a caravan of nomads.
By modern standards—not to mention the expectations of modern television—these men, plainly put, are terrible dads. You can imagine each one of the Patriarchs, head lowered, sitting on Oprah’s couch and submitting to a blistering lecture about family values. But the Patriarchs were far more modern than we may realize. They were, to a man, anti-Santas: not bearers of good cheer but jugglers of disappointments and discontent who knew how to persevere, procreate, and proceed even as the circumstances of their lives took turns to the cosmically macabre. They’re a sobering alternative for those of us who, for reasons theological or psychological or both, feel uncomfortable with the graceful idea of an almighty redeemer; instead, they offer us a vision of fatherhood in all its shattered glory. Go ahead, they dare us, screw up your family worse than we did, and we were the men who sired a nation.
Should another luminous TV dad turn dark in 2015, let us praise Jewish fathers, those master negotiators of deeply imperfect situations. In a world as wholly broken as ours, we can ask for no better ancestors.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.