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Why ‘Downton Abbey’ Was the Frummest Show on Television

The show’s universe is a world where rules matter, just like my Orthodox upbringing

Shira Telushkin
July 16, 2018
Courtesy PBS
The cast of 'Downton Abbey'Courtesy PBS
Courtesy PBS
The cast of 'Downton Abbey'Courtesy PBS

Downton Abbey, the hit PBS series that followed the aristocratic Crawley family through the changes of early 20th-century life, has just announced it will revive its original cast in a movie production of the series. As someone who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I couldn’t be more pleased. Downton remains the frummest show of the past decade, and I’m prepared to fight my case.

I first watched all six seasons of Downton Abbey while living in Egypt one semester, entranced by Lady Mary’s killer outfits (those gloves! the hairpieces! the beaded drop-waist dresses!) and enamored by the understated dialogue, withering looks, and dramatic plot points that, somehow, never rang as silly in action as they might have on paper. I was invested in each new character and each burgeoning relationship, even as most of them ended in traumatic death or terrible scandal. (And how did every important conversation manage to be conveniently overheard by someone passing the doorway?). But I was also fueled by nostalgia. Living in Egypt, far from home and far from my Orthodox Jewish family, the well-regulated life of high British society felt soothing and oddly familiar.

Downton is a world where rules matter. How you dress for the evening meal, which spoon you use to eat your morning grapefruit, the right time to visit a new neighbor—there is a correct answer to each of these quandaries, and Lady Mary Crawley knows them all. The life of Downton’s inhabitants is a choreographed dance, punctuated by seasonal celebrations, daily rituals, and the inhabiting of a lifestyle that has been regulated by the same chain of tradition, rules, and expectations for centuries.

Tell me about it. Serving a formal dinner with the wrong silverware would be as traumatic a mistake at Downton as would serving someone yogurt with a meat-designated spoon be in my mother’s kitchen. When Tom Branson, the former chauffer at Downton who runs off with the family’s youngest daughter, shows up to a white-tie dinner in his tweed three-piece suit, it seems as jarringly uncomfortable as if someone had walked into my hometown synagogue for Friday night services in shorts and T-shirt. Each greeting and introduction comes with its own mandated response, not unlike, perhaps, the moadim l’simcha and chag kasher v’samach partings that pop up throughout the Jewish calendar. To say “let’s go through” signals the end of the meal as surely as the introduction of shir ha’malot. The Crawley daughters all know how to sit, stand, and shake hands in ways that signal them as well-bred daughters of a noble house. The bas torah, surely, demonstrates her upbringing by knowing to bend at the knees, in homage to the modesty of Ruth. I certainly still think of Ruth each time I reach for a pen that I’ve dropped.

But even more than observing the similarities between worlds operating under an extensive code of conduct, the show adeptly depicts the nuances of living within such a system. About three seconds into the Downton Abbey traveling exhibition now up at New York’s Columbus Circle, we encounter a quote from season three by Mrs. Hughes, head housekeeper of the estate: “There are rules to this way of life. And if you’re not prepared to live by them, then it’s not the right life for you.” The exhibit proceeds to take visitors through the specific requirements of the under-butler’s uniform, the regulations by which a hostess would seat her guests for a dinner party, and notes on what thickness of wool was appropriate for a luncheon outfit, versus a walk in the park.

It’s quite fun. But what is most striking about the exhibit, when compared to the show, is to realize how little Downton Abbey itself fetishized the elaborate etiquette that guided its characters lives. Instead, what the show did best was present how lightly high society moved within the seemingly stifling requirements of etiquette. Nobody ever fights over the proper use of a salad fork, or freaks out when a newcomer messes up the correct order of introductions. We have no frenzied scenes about the thickness of woolen walking costumes. Instead, Lady Mary simply eats her dinner and competently introduces her guests in formulas as familiar and natural to her as breathing. There might be an occasional cutaway to a footman measuring the distance between chair and plate while setting a formal dining table, but these silly rules, even when followed to a T, are never the focus of the characters. And this makes the show my favorite analogy for Modern Orthodox Jewish life.

For people who didn’t grow up Orthodox, the endless rules of Orthodox Jewish life can seem both ridiculous and insufferable. The number of friends who have asked me about pre-ripping toilet paper on Shabbat might suggest they imagine this to be a central feature of the Shabbat experience. The rigidness of keeping a kosher kitchen, the blessings recited before and after eating anything (yes, anything!), and the intricate rules around holiday observances that come up each autumn often remain a point of fascination for friends outside the system. But not all Orthodox Jews wander the streets heavy with the burden of the Law at every moment, even if the Law is guiding much of their daily behavior. Like Lord and Lady Grantham, it is a way of life that is so second nature as to be natural. As Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette put it to me over the phone, children “wouldn’t even know something was proper, because [they] would have just learned its laws—it would have been totally strange to them to see it any other way” because proper eating was, for them, the only way they knew to hold a fork.

Of course, as Mrs. Hughes puts it, the way of life is not for everybody. Some characters, like Lady Mary, Lord Grantham, and the Dowager Countess, revel in their roles. Mary endeavors to preserve her way of life for future generations, with all its rules and pageantry, with love and fervor, because “people like us should lead the fight to keep tradition going.” When Mr. Blake in season four complains that the nobility these days “think God will be upset if the Old Order is overturned” Mary simply replies: “And you don’t think he will be?” Yes, she fights the system when she takes over the estate (which she was barred from inheriting under the archaic gender rules governing inheritance) but she does not chaff under the requirements of daily etiquette norms. She excels at them. Likewise, the Orthodox Jewish world is full of women and men who love the daily blessings, the way each action can be sanctified for God, the meaning the system of law gives their lives. They might fight for change within the system, but they do not fight the system they love. And yet, unlike Mary, Downton is also full of characters whose lives burst at the seams from the pressure and expectations of this way of life—Lady Edith, Lady Sybil, and Lady Rose all flee, at various points, from the demands of a lifestyle that seems determined to condemn their very happiness. The Orthodox world has no shortage of such people as well, choking under the mantle of religious law and communal expectations.

This way of life, governed by rules, is not for everybody—but nor is it toxic for everybody either.

As a whole, Downton Abbey is without a doubt on the side of tradition. The draw is the lavish and highly ritualized way of the Crawleys; we’re here for the tiaras and the presentations at court and the lady’s maids. Viewers might laud the Crawleys’ their open-mindedness when they accept their new heir, Matthew Crawley, despite his middle-class ways. But we cheer not as Matthew maintains his cynicism and dismissal of high society, but when he finally gets with the program and allows his designated valet to choose his cuff links, no longer rudely insisting he can dress himself. When Branson, the Irish chauffeur-turned-son-in-law, arrives on the scene, he at first scoffs at the rituals of Downton life, insisting on his socialism and touting class equality. In season three, he flees Ireland after being implicated in the torching of a grand estate, explaining that, “Those places are different for me. I don’t look at them and see charm and gracious living. I see something horrible.” And yet, bit by bit, he is transformed from a skeptic into a respectable member of high society, who dons black tie for dinner and insists the servants sit in the front of the carriage. Like Matthew, this transformation is depicted as character growth. By the end of the season, Matthew is teaching Branson how to play cricket, when he protests, “you won’t make a gentleman of me, you know! I’ll still be an Irish mick in my heart,” to which Matthew replies, “So I should hope.” But it’s a feeble protest. Both men have been made into gentlemen, and we love them for it. Lady Edith might scandalously write for a newspaper, Lady Sybil might escape with Branson, and Lord Grantham might protest the hiring of a former prostitute as a kitchen maid only to be overruled by his wife, but such plots are side points; the main attraction remains the beauty of this traditional way of life. The only true pushback on this narrative comes from Lady Grantham’s American mother, who occasionally arrives to herald the dawning modern age, and movingly embraces her age and wrinkles as a symbol of not fearing the future. But, mostly, tradition wins.

This does not mean all traditions are exalted without comment. In season six, the family comes to a racing match to cheer on Henry Talbot, who is courting Lady Mary. The match ends in the horrific combustion of a car and the death of Henry’s closest friend, witnessed by all; nonetheless, the family refuses to cancel their formal dinner. It feels gross. When the luckless Lady Edith finally meets a man she loves, he is both a commoner and, more importantly, married to a woman who has been institutionalized for mental illness, making her ineligible to consent to a divorce, and thus making him, “tied for the rest of my life to a mad woman, who doesn’t even know me.” (This same law remains in halachic force today, incidentally). Formal etiquette can sometimes help in emotionally demanding situations (just as we can all tout the value of shiva) and sometimes seem barbaric (consider the Jewish wife who has just miscarried and is forbidden from the comforting hug of her husband). But its subtle execution in Downton Abbey remains a useful way to explain to the uninitiated how halacha can act as a nuanced force in Orthodox life.

I’m pumped for the Downton Abbey movie, not only because I’m a superfan, and not only because it means more people can appreciate my Downton analogy to Orthodox Judaism. In the end, the show’s greatest accomplishment is the authenticity of its characters, despite their often ridiculous circumstances. There are quips like, “heavens, that sounds serious!” and “oh, my dearest boy” on the regular, and the head butler Carson never fails to live up to a stereotype. And yet, by the end, these characters always seemed real. Despite being buttoned into a traditional way of life, their lives were not all secrecy and broken guilt and anxiety over its demands. They are fully drawn people, with problems and issues and family love and mistakes. I sometimes think that for those to whom Orthodox Judaism seems foreign, Orthodox Jews stop being real people; they are the sum total of their religious observance. That has never been true to my experience, and it’s a transformation that Downton encourages for outsiders who arrive and must learn to see the family as not just nobles but individuals.

The very last line of the last episode of the sixth season ends on New Year’s Eve, where one character remarks, “what else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not back into the past.” To which the Dowager Countess responds, “If we only had the choice.” And so it ends. Begrudgingly accepting the new world. Ultimately, Downton Abbey traffics in nostalgia for a world where ritual governed every human act, with a right way and a wrong way, and class meant elegance. Like others, I loved watching that world. Even more so, I loved how its underlying principles matched up with my own childhood.

Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.