Each day this week, the Scroll is featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.
Kosher Soul, Lifetime’s new “reality show,” follows O’neal McKnight, a black comedian from South Carolina, and Miriam Sternoff, a Jewish woman from Seattle, as they consummate their near decade-long relationship with a wedding. It documents the shenanigans that inevitably happen when two cultures collide. It’s the kind of window dressing that Bravo or E! put on many of their shows: unique experiences transmuted into the network’s three-act template, funny incidents punctuated by off-the-wall interviews with absurd characters.
But not everyone’s life can be Kardashian-ed.
My brother, an aspiring stand-up comedian, was once told that he hit the comedic jackpot: He was black and Jewish. I guess there really is a deep well of jokes just waiting to be tapped. But growing up, I don’t know if we really saw it that way.
There were no basketball-themed bar mitzvahs or hip-hop Hanukkahs. We did not do our best to find the most creative way of comparing and contrasting the separate strains of our existence. We simply lived it, in the best way we knew how. We were American, New York, suburban.
I was a grown adult before I met anyone who had had anything even close to my experience, and even then it was still quite different. I was on an island of my own growing up. I was a light-skinned kid with course, curly hair and slightly larger-than-average lips. I was different; the only person who looked like my was my younger brother.
In the savage world of teenage social development, difference is not celebrated. It is exploited. The wolves of adolescence seek out aberration and try to destroy it. It’s an evolutionary imperative. We root out difference to ensure the survival of our species. If that uncommon trait has the audacity to survive, then it will flourish, but you can be sure that the forces of adversity will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.
This was my life: teasing, fights. There was no YouTube campaign back then to assure me that it would get better. Although I’m pretty sure I dodged a bullet by graduating high school just ahead of the advent of cyber bullying.
Naturally, a show called Kosher Soul piqued my interest.
I can only discus the merits of this show as a cultural representation. Its merits as a TV show are subjective, and my opinion is somewhat devalued by the fact that I don’t own a television and find unscripted television morally repugnant (though I have a hard time believing that this show isn’t scripted).
But since we’re at the table already, I might as well play cards. The premise of the show is ‘see what happens when a Jewish woman marries a black man,’ but a more accurate description would be ‘see what happens when an American woman marries a caricatured fool.’ This seems like a missed opportunity, since it’s the basic premise of nearly every successful sitcom.
I am not so arrogant that I would question the ethnic legitimacy of any person. As someone who has often had a tenuous grasp on his own identity, I know how galling it can be to have that identity thrown into question. However, I do question the value of a show centered around two representatives of seemingly disparate cultures, when one of those representatives doesn’t seem to take his very seriously. McKnight is a stand-up comedian who carries his trite, unfunny routine throughout his whole life. I grimaced throughout the first five minutes of the very first episode, in which this nearly 40-year-old man tries to argue that golden teeth grills are the element of his culture that should be most prominently featured at his wedding.
Expecting authenticity from any television show that features ethnicity as one of its central themes is a fool’s errand. I’m 31 years old, and not stupid. I know not to seek reality between commercial breaks, but there’s something particularly galling about a TV show that seeks to portray two distinctly separate parts of your identity and deliberately distills both into their most overused stereotypes.
I object to the notion propagated by Kosher Soul that these two cultures are so unbelievably, entertainingly different. I think the Jewish/Black divergence is a misconception perpetuated throughout our culture, mostly because of laziness: our laziness to try and find their binding attributes. But this is a struggle I will fight another day. In the meantime, I would settle for the black representative in cultural collisions to not be such an uncouth, unlikeable caricature.
I wish that my life followed the plot of an absurdist farce: the meeting of two disparate cultures that leads to juxtaposition-based humor and hilarious misunderstandings. But the fish-out-of-water tale isn’t as amusing when you’re the one gasping for air. So, for me, this tandem caricature filmed for Nielsen points is not only inaccurate, it’s dishonest.
Ben Faulding is a photographer and writer living in Crown Heights. He received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Queens College.