Growing up, I loved watching Hogan’s Heroes on TV. There was something very comforting to me, an Orthodox Jewish child coming of age in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, to see those bumbling Nazis stumble about. But my mother, a survivor of Hitler’s blitz in London, would have none of it.
“The Nazis were not stupid fools,” she said once, standing in front of our now-darkened TV. “This is trash.” I protested. “But it’s just a TV show,” I said, “and, besides, Klink and Schultz and Lebeau were all Jews. They are making fun of the Nazis.” My mother wasn’t moved. War, she told me sternly, was no joke. It wasn’t something with which to makh freylach, to have fun.
My mother’s words came back to haunt me this week as I watched Fauda, the critically acclaimed Israeli drama whose second season just debuted on Netflix. The show is every bit as good as its hype. In fact, it’s better: As I watched Fauda, my blood pressure spiked, and my heart beat as fast as a racecar. But even as I enjoyed every minute of it, a sense of guilt started to grow in me.
Here were these tough men with sleek bodies, untouched by the burdens of exile. They were hardened fighters, Israeli soldiers going undercover to arrest Palestinians they suspected of terrorism. They were nothing like the gentle, learned scholars my mother told me to revere as a child. They carried guns and they took actions that, often, cut through mercy like a string.
At first, I dismissed my disquiet. Fauda, I reminded myself, was a fantasy, one of those bubbles where we can comfortably watch murder and mayhem unfold for our entertainment. But my disquiet refused to go away. The Israeli soldiers on the screen, entertaining as they were, didn’t seem particularly Jewish to me. Instead, I thought, they were Zionists, practicing combat to jettison their excess of Jewish baggage. And the more I watched them do it, the harder it became.
As I worked through my own misgivings, I finally realized what was it that bothered me so much. It wasn’t that Fauda was casting off the traditions of Jewish entertainment for a new and steely brand of action flick; it was that the show, machismo and all, fit in all too comfortably with the old molds of Yiddish communal theater.
Few of us remember much about the once burgeoning Yiddish theater of the 19th and 20th centuries, but one of its key attractions was the ability to give us protagonists who delivered vulgarized takes on our history, amusing scenes that celebrated the accomplishments of the Jewish community while recognizing its deepest-set anxieties. It’s why even the greatest heroes of the Yiddish theater were often shmendricks: Yiddish theater wasn’t there to give us a sense of the tragic or deliver pure distraction, but rather to acknowledge that we Jews were, as we’ve always been, a people torn between fear and pride, hope and trepidation.
I see something both similar and familiar in Doron, the show’s protagonist. It’s not obvious by looking at him—all bravado and military might—but Doron is a descendant of the shmendrick of Yiddish theater. He is a walking disaster of a man who wears the face of determination, but determination to do what is unclear, even to him. His wife cheats on him, his son pulls a gun on his wife’s lover, and he himself begins an improbable affair with a beautiful Palestinian doctor. Everything he touches turns to Fauda, or chaos, and ends badly.
Doron, then, isn’t a new Zionist hero negating the old nebbishy Jewish stereotypes. He’s merely a curious new form of the Jew as schlemiel, only this time with the powerful fisticuffs and a high-powered rifle.
He is, in short, the kind of character my mother warned me against when I watched Hogan’s Heroes, a buffoon who turns a painful and serious and all-too-real conflict into a bit of entertainment. I obeyed my mother back then, all those years ago, and turned the TV off on Hogan. Now, too, as much as I find it difficult to take my eyes off of Doron, I will heed my mother’s request from beyond the grave: I won’t watch Fauda.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.